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Can I Naturally Detox from Drugs?

The term detox, short for detoxification, is still used by many individuals in recovery and even by many treatment organizations to describe an intentionally derived process to cope with withdrawal that is associated with the development of physical dependence on some drug. Terms like medical detox and naturaldetox may be used by a number of organizations and individuals to describe different approaches to dealing with withdrawal syndromes that either include or do not include the use of medications and consultation with a physician. In actuality, the human body has a built-in mechanism to detoxify itself.

The simplest explanation is that the body “naturally detoxifies” itself via the functions of the liver; most of the detoxification process occurs via the liver. The liver cleans toxins and other impurities from the system and helps eliminate them. Regardless of whether or not an individual is actively taking drugs, the liver continues this function. Even if a person is actively still using their drug of choice, the liver is constantly working on detoxifying their system. If the liver did not perform this function, and drugs and other toxins were not removed from the system, everyone would eventually overdose.

The Body Is Always Detoxifying

The human body is continually detoxifying itself in a natural manner. However, individuals who continue to use drugs will experience complications regarding this natural function. So again, even when you are actively still taking drugs or alcohol, your body continues to engage in the natural process of detoxification. This is why levels of specific drugs in an individual’s system drop, and withdrawal symptoms occur.

The misuse of the terms detox and detoxification became an issue for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). Both of these organizations have formally stated that detoxmedical detox, and medical detoxification are not accurate terms to describe an intentional application of interventions to help an individual negotiate the withdrawal process. Instead, these organizations now use the term withdrawal management to describe this process, and when the process is done under the supervision of a physician, the term is aptly described as physician-assisted withdrawal management or a medically assisted withdrawal management program. The majority of large professional organizations that research or deal in the treatment of addictive behaviors as well as the majority of empirical research journals have long since adopted these terms.

Tolerance and Withdrawal

The majority of references to the use of withdrawal management or detox are referring to negotiating the withdrawal syndrome that occurs as a result of the development of physical dependence. Physical dependence is a complicated syndrome that occurs as a result of the development of two other conditions.

Initially, individuals will develop tolerance to specific drugs they habitually use. Tolerance results from an individual’s system becoming used to or habituating to the effects of the drug. Individuals find they need a higher dose of the drug to get the same effects that were once achieved at lower doses.

When medications are used medicinally under the supervision of a physician, tolerance is typically not a major concern and can be dealt with by the physician. When individuals are abusing drugs or alcohol for their psychoactive effects, tolerance becomes a major concern because these individuals begin to use very large amounts of the substances that would normally be dangerous or even fatal. In the case of abuse, the development of severe tolerance has significantly dangerous implications.

In addition, tolerance levels begin to dissipate rather rapidly once an individual discontinues abusing drugs. This means that if an individual has remained abstinent from a drug for even a short period of time and then relapses using amounts they had formerly used, they are setting themselves up for a significant overdose. Drug overdoses have serious and often fatal complications.

After significant tolerance has been developed, an individual’s system begins to adjust itself for the presence of the drug in the tissues. The system will naturally alter its operations, including the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, regulatory processes, etc., in order to account for the presence of the drug in the system. As a system attempts to naturally maintain a state of balance (homeostasis), these are actually adjustments that if left to operate on their own would produce the opposite effects that the drug produces. For example, drugs that produce feelings of wellbeing and euphoria are often counterbalanced by the system by altering the regulation of substances and regulatory processes that might produce anxiety, depression, and dysphoria (negative emotional states). Almost all withdrawal syndromes include symptoms of nausea, appetite loss, and other negative physical symptoms as a result of the tendency for an individual’s system to counterbalance the effects of the drugs.

When the person’s system metabolizes the drug and levels of the drug decline through the normal detoxification process, the system again becomes imbalanced, and the person experiences the withdrawal syndrome. Individuals can often quickly reverse withdrawal symptoms by taking their drug of choice.

Because individuals who use drugs medicinally under the supervision of a physician can be slowly weaned off the drug when it is time to stop using it, the minor withdrawal symptoms that typically occur as a result of medicinal use do not often cause serious issues. However, individuals who abuse drugs most often use them far more frequently and in greater amounts than even the highest medicinal users take, and these individuals are not being supervised by a physician. In some cases, as in withdrawal from alcohol or benzodiazepines, the withdrawal syndrome can produce serious seizures that can be potentially fatal.

‘Natural Detox’

As stated above, the detoxification process is always a natural process in individuals who use any type of drug or medication. “Natural detox” approaches that are often endorsed online are really just attempts for individuals to engage in a type of self-managed withdrawal management program without the use of medications. The problem with most of these approaches is that there is not a body of empirically based evidence to support their safety, and there is a lack of research support to suggest that they are more effective than the use of a medically assisted withdrawal management program. The majority of the evidence to support these approaches comes from anecdotal reports that cannot be confirmed, are not reliable, and are not the type of data that can be objectively subjected to scrutiny.

Certain techniques touted as “natural detox” methods, such as hydrating oneself and the use of diet or vitamins may assist an individual going through withdrawal management, but they offer only adjunctive support for individuals who are suffering physical dependence and may be facing some serious withdrawal symptoms.
Some of the types of “natural” approaches to deal with withdrawal symptoms include

  • Cold turkey approaches: This involves just attempting to deal with withdrawal symptoms as they come. No medications or therapies are used.
  • Juices or smoothies: In some cases, these may be helpful, but they will not significantly reduce withdrawal symptoms or speed up the withdrawal process. Getting plenty of fluids can help with hydration and to facilitate the natural process of detoxification, but it will not accelerate the process beyond helping it to function at its maximum capability.
  • Lemons: This may help with hydration.
  • Exercise and meditation: Mild exercise and meditation exercises can be useful during withdrawal. They are best used as part of a medically assisted withdrawal management program.
  • Special diets, mega vitamins, or fasting: Paying attention to one’s diet during withdrawal can probably help reduce the severity of some symptoms. The use of megavitamins is not recommended unless it is done under the supervision of a physician, and in some cases, this practice can actually be dangerous. Fasting can potentially be dangerous for individuals who are experiencing severe issues with nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, and it can result in dehydration. When an individual becomes dehydrated, they hinder the natural detoxification process in their body and can suffer serious physical and mental effects.
  • Epsom salts: There is no empirical evidence to suggest that Epsom salts help with withdrawal management.

In some cases, these techniques can assist a supervised withdrawal management program; however, attempting to withdrawal from certain drugs or alcohol without medical supervision can be potentially dangerous. Again, drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines produce withdrawal symptoms that are unpredictable and can be potentially fatal.

Because individuals who abuse drugs or alcohol often have co-occurring psychological issues, attempts to withdraw without being under the supervision of a physician can lead to other potentially serious issues, such as suicidal behaviors, serious exacerbations of psychiatric symptoms, poor judgment, and significantly increased risk for an overdose during relapse. Because it is impossible to predict how any particular individual will react during the withdrawal process, it is far safer for an individual to seek advice from a mental health professional before discontinuing the use of drugs or alcohol.

While it is true that many individuals do go through minor withdrawal syndromes without significant complications, it is equally true that many individuals have severe complications that result in significant health issues, relapse, and even death as a result of attempting to discontinue use of drugs or alcohol without professional supervision. While the use of diet, meditation, herbs, juices, etc., might be helpful for some individuals in some cases, they are no substitute for a medically assisted withdrawal management program.

Medically Assisted Detox Programs

The safest approach to quitting use of drugs or alcohol is to consult with a mental health professional. Medically assisted withdrawal management programs may or may not involve the use of medications, tapering schedules, diet, exercise programs, therapy, etc. These programs are tailored to suit the needs of the individual and adjusted based on the type of drug the individual has abused, the length of their abuse, how much of the drug they typically used, and other co-occurring factors that will contribute to an individual’s overall recovery.

There is no one-size-fits-all program that works despite what individuals read on the Internet or hear from their friends. A simple consultation with a licensed mental health professional can help one make an informed choice regarding detox.

No matter what option an individual chooses, it is important to understand that simply going through detox is not sufficient to ensure that one has recovered from a substance use disorder (substance abuse or addiction). Individuals in recovery need to ascertain what drove their substance abuse, learn coping skills, and get support from others in order to increase their chances of a successful recovery. This involves getting involved in substance use disorder therapy and in social support groups, such as 12-Step groups. Simply detoxing and not changing one’s behavior or learning about the reasons for the behavior will simply result in an individual eventually returning to their old habits.