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How Does Drug Detox Work
How Does Drug Detox Work

If you aren’t familiar with the biological processes that occur during detox, it can be a little confusing. It just seems like you stop taking drugs, and you get really sick. Most people want to avoid feeling sick, and people with drug use disorders are no exception. Even if they want to quit, fear, and a lack of understanding about the detox process can dampen their desire to seek the help they truly need. 

Knowledge always makes things less scary. When you understand what to expect, what is happening to your body, and what the changes mean, you might find it easier to commit yourself to making a full recovery.

The Way Addiction Changes The Brain

Drugs create a “high” by changing the balance of chemicals in your brain. They impact the way certain neurotransmitters and receptors work. Sometimes, this is medically necessary. People with panic disorders or anxiety disorders may want their brain to slow down the fight or flight response, and drugs can make those changes. Pain medications work to reduce the perception of pain from inside the brain. Those are the desired outcomes when doctors prescribe certain drugs. 

Most people who have drug use disorders are exploiting the effects of drugs for the way they make them feel. When the brain is properly calibrated, every part should transmit information or communicate. Drugs stifle that communication. Your brain has to work harder to balance itself out when drugs are impairing it, causing it to produce an excess of certain chemicals to help maintain normal function. Some drugs will dampen receptors, causing them to underperform. 

When the body begins detoxing from the drug, its effects begin to wane. The brain has to adapt to this change. If it was previously overproducing chemicals or overworking neurotransmitters to keep your body functioning while you were under the influence of drugs, that activity would continue until the brain returns to its ideal state. If some parts of your brain were forced to underperform, it would take them a while to begin to work properly. 

This rebalancing process is what contributes to drug withdrawal symptoms. A racing heart, insomnia, nausea, hallucinations, and even seizures can be common side effects of withdrawal from certain drugs. It all depends on the kind of drug, the dosage regularly taken, and the duration the drug was used for.

Detoxing From Opioids

Opioids (oxycodone, heroin, Dilaudid, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl) are among the most addictive drugs. They work by binding to the brain’s opioid receptors, and after a while, people only feel like themselves when they use opioids. Their brains and bodies simply cannot function as normal without the presence of the drug. This is true whether the drug is prescribed or purchased illegally. 

The duration of withdrawal and severity of the symptoms can last anywhere from seven to ten days, depending on the gravity of the addiction. Symptoms include increased sensitivity to pain, chills, anxiety, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Some patients choose to safely taper off opioids in a medically supervised way rather than to quit them cold turkey. Opioid drugs like methadone or buprenorphine can be administered in bare minimum doses that can be reduced with time. Eventually, the opioids in the system reach such low levels that withdrawal symptoms are more likely to be mild.

Detoxing From Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepine drugs (Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Halcion, Valium) were originally believed to be less likely to spark addiction, but time told a different story. Like opioids, benzodiazepine drugs also change the way the brain works

They’re designed to combat distress, like anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and muscle tension. They do so by changing the receptors in the brain that contribute to uneasy feelings, dampening them, and giving users of the drugs the relief they seek.

After a while, the brain gets used to their effect. You might feel you need to use benzodiazepines just to feel normal, and you aren’t wrong. Without them, your brain isn’t able to regulate the receptors and neurotransmitters responsible for keeping anxious or restless feelings at a manageable level. 

When withdrawing from benzodiazepines, it’s not unusual to feel anxiety, confusion, heart palpitations, jitters, depression, restlessness, and general weakness. These feelings will persist for several days while the brain works on establishing normal activity for the impacted receptors. 

Detoxing From Amphetamines

Amphetamines (methamphetamine, cocaine, Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta) are stimulant drugs that impact the central nervous system. They make users feel more energized or focused. Amphetamines are very similar to dopamine, and they essentially replace or enhance the dopamine the brain naturally produces. Dopamine gives people a rush of euphoria, and when amphetamines substitute the brain’s natural ability to produce and use dopamine, the brain stops producing dopamine as expected.

When amphetamines leave the system, most people report feeling very sleepy and extremely hungry. They are agitated, anxious, and prone to mood swings. In rare cases, withdrawal from amphetamines can lead to psychosis. Some of these effects can persist for as long as three weeks while the brain is repairing itself. 

Detoxing From Other Drugs

Other classes of drugs, like hallucinogens, cannabinoids, and inhalants, will also come with withdrawal effects when users stop taking them. These effects can vary significantly from person to person. They often impact mood, appetite, and sleep patterns.

How Are Detox Patients Treated?

Some detox patients will require closer monitoring than others. This is because withdrawing from certain substances, especially when they were used heavily for a long period of time, can lead to life-threatening side effects like seizures or coma. These side effects are very rare, and most people who seek drug detox treatment won’t experience these highly dangerous events. 

Detox is always safest in an inpatient setting because of the round the clock care that can be provided. In some cases, drug detox patients can be supplied with medications to help make symptoms more bearable. Anti-nausea or anti-diarrhea medications can help to resolve gastric symptoms of detox. Sedatives can be used to help patients experiencing insomnia or high levels of alertness to sleep. 

An imbalance of chemicals in the brain can often leave people feeling depressed during and after detox. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to detoxing patients. A short term antidepressant can be prescribed to help improve mood and restore the right balance of mood balancing chemicals. 

Buprenorphine and methadone are often administered to patients detoxing from opioids to reduce the impact of withdrawal symptoms by weaning them off of the medication, rather than forcing them to stop cold turkey. 

Outside of medication and monitoring, detox assistance meets the needs of the patient. You’ll need to be kept hydrated and well-nourished. Your blood pressure and heart rate should be kept at safe levels. You may also want to speak with a professional about the feelings that emerge during this difficult process. 

Detox Alone Is Not Enough

Detoxifying the body and mind from drugs is highly necessary. It can mean the difference between life and death for people with drug use disorders, especially if they are polydrug users. After you have successfully detoxed from drugs, you still have a lot of work to do.

Detox without treatment is like building a house without a roof. One storm and the whole thing is flooded. Everything you’ve worked for is gone. Detox has provided the right foundation for recovery, but it hasn’t actually resolved the concerns for your health and safety that addiction can present. 

Drug use disorders can only be resolved with addiction treatment. You may no longer be physically addicted to the drugs you were taking, but the mental and emotional desire to relapse is not resolved simply by quitting drugs. You’ll need to work with a therapist to explore and understand the patterns of behavior that lead you to use drugs. 

Some people use drugs to self medicate. If you’ve lived through some traumatic experiences and you feel that drugs allow you to forget or escape, you’re not getting the help you deserve. The circumstances that cause you mental and emotional pain need to be addressed so that you can properly heal from them, rather than covering them up. You deserve to feel better all the time—not just when you’re under the influence. 

Some patients become addicted to the drugs that their doctor prescribes, and they have an important reason for taking those drugs. Insomnia, panic disorder, and chronic pain all require some type of medical or therapeutic intervention to treat. An important part of your recovery process may be exploring alternative methods of treatment, like massage therapy and talk therapy, to treat these problems without the use of drugs you never wanted to become addicted to. 


No matter what drug you’re detoxing from, your body and brain will go through a process of recalibration. How long this process lasts and what it entails can depend on a variety of factors. Detox is only the first step to making a full recovery from drug use disorders. In order to stay sober, addiction treatment is a necessary step. 



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