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In some instances, withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly uncomfortable and even debilitating, causing all manner of physical and psychological distress. Many attempts have been made to find shortcuts, but their effectiveness and safety are questionable. Detox drinks are the latest in a long line of purported miracle cures; they are not entirely unhelpful, but drug withdrawal is a complicated (and potentially dangerous) medical process, and detox supplements remain largely untested and unverified.
Detox drinks often present themselves as ways that those looking for an extra boost can make their withdrawal symptoms more manageable. The contents of the drinks are usually presented as “natural” or “unique” (perhaps “special formulations”), with properties that help support mental, physical, or emotional recovery during the withdrawal process.
Understanding the allure of detox drinks requires understanding why they are in such demand, and that is because of what drug withdrawal does to a person. Drug use changes the brain’s chemical composition and even its physical structure. The discontinuation of the drug puts the body and brain into a situation where they are unable to properly function without the powerful substance upon which they have become so dependent. Psych Central explains this as multiple systems in the body being thrown into overstimulation and confusion by their abrupt freedom, sending frenzied signals everywhere in a desperate attempt to regain equilibrium.
The signs of this frenzy are what we recognize as withdrawal symptoms:
In cases of long-term or polydrug use, or for certain substances of abuse (e.g., benzodiazepines, alcohol, and opioids) the symptoms can require round-the-clock supervision, as the client may experience hallucinations, psychosis, seizures, and suicidal thoughts as a result of the withdrawal.
During medical detox, doctors and healthcare providers often administer medications to ease some of the more severe symptoms (such as anti-anxiety drugs for the psychological symptoms, or anti-nausea drugs to help with some of the physical symptoms). Methadone is famously used to help intravenous heroin users break their dependence on the narcotic; similarly, diazepam and chlordiazepoxide are administered for clients withdrawing from chronic alcohol abuse.
Detox drinks present themselves as more natural alternatives than, for example, the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications that may be prescribed to reduce swelling and joint pain or the anticonvulsant drugs to treat seizures that may be used in cases of chronic or severe drug use.
Examples include multivitamin drinks that claim to replenish a person’s nutritional resources (since addicts often eat poorly during their substance abuse). Multivitamin drinks are combined with mineral products to restore the nutritional balance as the person’s body rediscovers the desire to eat.
Vitamin C supplements are very popular for detox and withdrawal, since drug abuse (especially opioid abuse) often deplete the body of its vitamin C stores. Vitamin C supplements can help to boost the immune system and reduce oxidative stress, which is the disparity between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to offset their harmful effects through the use of antioxidants. Oxidative stress is a natural process that occurs as the body returns to normal following withdrawal, and vitamin C supplements have been found to reduce the resultant blood pressure.
Vitamin E supplements are consumed to restore proper functioning of blood cells, for the repair of skin damage. Opioid injections cause abscesses, and abuse of some stimulants causes addicts to compulsively pick or scratch their skin because of the anxiety, agitation, or hallucinations associated with the drugs.
Some people may be interested in taking B vitamins, since those substances have usefulness in calming nerves and staving off stress. A B-complex vitamin could help in restoring balance to the nervous system, easing stress on all the body systems that are struggling under the addiction and withdrawal itself, since fear of the infamously distressing withdrawal symptoms can be a source of stress in itself. Similarly, calcium and magnesium drinks can help people to calm their anxiety, as well as relieve muscle tension and cramping that often come with detoxification.
Detox drinks to aid the liver to full functionality are popular, such as milk thistle, N-acetylcysteine, and alpha-lipoic acid. The liver is responsible for storing toxins from the breakdown of substances, and prescription painkiller abuse can put severe stress on the liver as a result of the chemical nature of the drugs. Many medications like Vicodin, Percocet or Lortab contain acetaminophen, which can cause liver failure if they are taken excessively. Proper nutrition is vital in recovery from drug addiction, and supplements for the liver are presented as a form of accelerating the process of withdrawal.
Other detox drinks include herbal remedies of questionable scientific and medical efficacy. Glutamine drinks have been said to ease strong cravings for more drugs during withdrawal, while taurine is supposed to ease the discomfort of opioid withdrawal. Tryptophan and melatonin supplements are suggested for insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
For those who want more “natural” products, drinks that combine herbal-based remedies (like valerian, kava kava, and passionflower) are available from specialty or online pharmacies. They are not entirely without benefit. A 2008 report published in the Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology journal suggested that the liquid extract of passionflower, administered with the blood pressure medication clonidine, was successful in reducing anxiety, irritability, and insomnia in clients who were going through opioid withdrawal. However, there were side effects, like dizziness and nausea, and researchers warned that some strains of passionflower could contain chemicals that are toxic to the liver.
The biggest caveat surrounding detox drinks, and whether they will help in withdrawal, is that evidence-based research is scant on their effectiveness. The established literature on the subject strongly recommends withdrawing from drugs and alcohol with credible (licensed) medical supervision, whether in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Doctors and healthcare providers should always be consulted before any detox drinks are consumed because the body is very vulnerable following addiction and withdrawal. The contents of detox drinks could cause adverse reactions with any medications that are being administered during the withdrawal process.
For that reason, if detox supplements are taken, they should be consumed after the person has completed withdrawal. Their effects are best used in a supplementary role, helping the person regain strength and nutrition following the ordeal with withdrawal and not as a primary source of comfort during the process. Medically administered detox drugs may have interactions with supplements, which could possibly create additional problems if the substances are taken together.
Mental Health Daily suggests that detox drinks are best used “for only the people who really need” them, and even then, with the explicit supervision of a healthcare provider. The healthcare provider will be able to recommend the best dosage that may minimize withdrawal symptoms, while still ensuring that the body’s systems are allowed to heal and achieve balance, even as the withdrawal medication is at work. More often than not, the minimal dose is the most beneficial.
Sometimes, the supplements themselves can be their own worst enemy. Multiple detox drinks can have detrimental interactions, which may be hard to keep track of in the throes of withdrawal. A doctor or a medical professional can help a client determine which supplements will work best with each other. Since detox drinks are still largely untested and unverified, it is best to err on the side of caution.
In writing about using passionflower to reduce anxiety and agitation in withdrawing individuals, the researchers in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacologynote that there is insufficient data to support the assertions of various people, both online and in the medical community (which is based mostly on anecdotal accounts and pseudoscience), that supplements and detox drinks “are relatively safe because they are natural.” One additional (if questionable) selling point is that detox drinks are cheaper than medically assisted withdrawal (often coming with “free shipping” from the online pharmacies that sell them). Other research has found “severe consequences [some dangerous and lethal] from side effects from certain herbal products,” which can occur through the direct toxicity of the herbs and their interactions with other herbs or withdrawal drugs.
For most people, standard detoxification procedures will suffice. Detox drinks and supplements have their usefulness, but addiction and withdrawal both take a huge toll on the body’s systems, and introducing potentially untested chemical and natural combinations into a vulnerable, rebuilding body can destabilize (or, at least, lengthen) the withdrawal process. Once withdrawal is complete, supplements are much safer to take (again, with medical supervision).