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Kindling Effect How Dangerous Is It?

We tend to improve performance with practice. But there is an exception to this rule.

The longer we drink, the worse we get at detox. That’s due to the kindling effect, and it’s not a process you can skip if you drink for a long time.

The term kindling effect refers to brain cell damage caused by repeated bouts of alcohol abuse and sobriety. Those cell changes make seizures during detox not only possible but also likely. And those episodes can be deadly.

Once you’ve experienced the kindling effect, you’ll live with it forever. It doesn’t tend to go away with time.

But treatment can help to prevent the next episode of binge drinking, and that could lead to long-term recovery.


Alcohol Changes Your Brain

Kindling doesn’t happen quickly. It’s a process that unfolds slowly, aided by each drink you take. Subtle changes occur with each sip, and when they do, your risk of serious detoxification harm goes up.

The process works like this:

  1. Pleasure: When alcohol enters your body, it releases chemicals that bind to receptors in your brain. You’ll feel flushed, warm, and happy.
  2. Suppression: At the same time, alcohol depresses electrical activity in your brain. It’s a bit like slipping in earplugs during a concert. You’re still aware of the music, but it’s muted.
  3. Amplification: Brain cells don’t like to be muted, and they will adjust their sensitivity to any electrical response. To head back to our analogy, they’re pushing the earplugs out and slipping a hearing aid in, so they can hear the concert a bit better.
  4. Intensification: As this process continues, your cells will effectively push those plugs completely out of your ears and turn up the volume on your hearing aids. Meanwhile, the concert is still as loud as it ever was. The result: an overwhelming experience.

In terms of alcohol withdrawal, that overwhelming experience involves seizures.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

You may not realize it, but you’re probably moving through several small withdrawal periods as your relationship with alcohol intensifies. Each one adds to your kindling potential, and that means your symptoms increase over time.

Consider this: You endured a tough breakup with a partner, and to blunt your pain, you drank heavily for two months. You stopped drinking for about a month, and you started a new relationship. When that broke up, you went back to heavy drinking. This cycle continues throughout the year.

Each time you sensitize your brain to alcohol and pull it away again, you’re making it more sensitive to electrical signals. In essence, you’re priming your cells to overreact to the smallest blip of electricity.

As the damage continues, you’ll develop alcohol withdrawal symptoms that are hard to ignore. They typically begin 6 to 24 hours after your last sip. They can include:

  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Fast, uneven heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

Symptom severity intensifies with each withdrawal period due to the kindling effect. In time, you can develop seizures when you attempt to quit drinking.

Up to a third of people who experience difficult alcohol withdrawal develop seizures. Each seizure comes with an increase in body temperature, and it can limit oxygen flowing to the brain. If they’re strong enough and they last for too long, they can be life-threatening.

drug user in despair

Why Does Kindling Matter?

Alcohol is clearly the trigger for terrible relapse symptoms. But kindling plays a major role, and once it sets in, it can change your relationship with alcohol for the rest of your life.

Research published in 1996 found a strong connection between detoxification admissions and seizures. In other words, the more times people got help to get sober, the more likely they were to have seizures. Studies like this prove a clear connection between many detoxifications and serious health problems. The longer your struggle lasts, the higher your risk.

While the brain is remarkably resilient, and many brain health issues can be resolved with time, kindling seems to persist.

In a study published in 1995, researchers found that seizure risk in rats didn’t disappear throughout 24 weeks. The rats that had trouble at the beginning of the study retained it over time.

Studies like this show just how dangerous kindling can be. Once it’s started, it just doesn’t go away.

Treatment Helps to Stop the Cycle

Doctors are aware of the kindling effect, and they can use treatments during medical detoxification to keep seizures away. But alcohol’s changes can make relapse possible, and each time you relapse, you’re again at risk for health issues.

When you enroll in a medical detoxification program, doctors use a variety of questionnaires to assess your history of substance use and abuse. Your answers can help them understand your seizure risk, and if it appears, they can use medications like benzodiazepines to help calm your brain.

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Benzodiazepines also suppress brain electrical activity, but unlike alcohol, they can be given in very precise doses. Your doctor might give a large amount at the beginning of your treatment program, and that dose will taper each day until you’re taking none at all.

This allows your brain to acclimate to a normal amount of electrical activity slowly. It’s like turning down the hearing aids and slowly weaning away from the earplugs. In time, you’ll function just as you did before you started drinking.

But, the damage lingers in your brain cells, and that can lead to relapse.

Researchers say that drinking relapse triggers tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Availability: You’re placed in a situation where alcohol is present, and it’s easy for you to take a sip.
  2. Exposure: You’re shown something that reminds you of drinking. Commercials on television, seeing other people drinking, or walking past a liquor cabinet could all be triggers for you.
  3. Stress: An overwhelming issue happens, and alcohol seems like a good coping solution.

Once your brain has been exposed to kindling, a relapse is dangerous. Your next bout of detoxification could come with incredible seizure risk. Your goal involves persistent sobriety. Treatment makes that possible.

Structured treatment programs give you the opportunity to build up your sobriety skills. You can practice approaches to help you deal with availability and exposure triggers. You can learn how to practice yoga or meditation to deal with stress. You can find out how others have handled the same situations you find so perplexing.

Your treatment program helps you learn how to stay sober, so you won’t put your already damaged brain cells through yet more trauma.

If you’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms from alcohol even once, know that kindling is dangerous and it’s happening to you. Get the help you need now, so you can have a healthier future.

This is Your Brain on Alcohol. (July 2017). Harvard Health Publishing.

Kindling in Alcohol Withdrawal. (1998). Alcohol Health and Research World.

Outpatient Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. (November 2013). American Family Physician.

Update on the Neurobiology of Alcohol Withdrawal Seizures. (November 2005). Epilepsy Currents.

Alcohol-Related Seizures. (2011). European Handbook of Neurological Management, Volume 1, Second Edition.

Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, and Relapse. (2008). Alcohol Research and Health.

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