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The Kindling Effect: When an Alcoholic Relapses

The Kindling Effect: When an Alcoholic Relapses

The Kindling Effect: When an Alcoholic Relapses

Alcoholic kindling is a neural phenomenon that makes withdrawal symptoms seem more severe every time the person relapses and tries to quit drinking again. Those with alcohol use disorders who have attempted to quit drinking multiple times are more likely to experience the kindling effect. This can lead to painful and even dangerous symptoms during withdrawal. Today we’re going to explore what kindling in alcohol withdrawal means, how it feels, and how recovering alcoholics can get help. 

What Is the Kindling Effect?

In many people with alcoholism or alcohol use disorders, the severity of withdrawal symptoms increases after every repeated episode of withdrawal. Known as alcoholic kindling or the kindling effect, this is a phenomenon in which chemical imbalance or weakened neural communications caused by alcohol withdrawal worsens every time the person relapses and withdrawals.

Alcohol withdrawal occurs in people who are physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol can either stimulate neural activity in small doses or activate the release of neurotransmitters like GABA to produce sedation and relaxation in large doses. 

The longer and heavier someone drinks, the more accustomed to this shift in chemical levels the brain becomes. Eventually, when a person becomes physically dependent on alcohol, they’d have to continue drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms and to function “normally.” 

Withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures and headaches, occur when a person who’s dependent on alcohol suddenly reduces or ceases their alcohol use. The brain is constantly attempting to remain awake through the sedative effects of alcohol, when this drug leaves the person’s system, the brain remains alert and active, leading to uncomfortable and sometimes painful withdrawals. 

The alcohol kindling effect could lead to more severe withdrawal symptoms every time the person relapses and tries to quit drinking. This phenomenon is one of the main reasons why it’s crucial for people with alcoholism to seek out professional alcohol treatment before they attempt to stop drinking on their own. 

Side Effects of Kindling & Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

In addition to instances where the person is addicted to alcohol, the kindling effect can also occur with depressive substances like sedative drugs, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers. The kindling metaphor can be compared to the process of building a fire. 

While a log is an important source for a fire, it usually takes more than one to build a long-lasting fire. Instead, you might surround it with smaller pieces of wood, allowing it to catch fire more quickly. After the kindling is lit, the log will light up, as well. 

Each withdrawal episode is like another piece of kindling that’s being added to the fire of alcoholism. As the series of relapses pile up in the brain (brain kindling), it makes the fire of symptoms worse. 

Regular and heavy drinking alters the central nervous system over time, causing the brain to work harder to remain awake and active. Eventually, the brain comes to rely on alcohol to function normally. 

As a result, when alcohol is removed from the equation, all of these functions that were sedated spike suddenly, causing withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms worsen with each subsequent withdrawal episode as a result of the kindling effect.

Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms or symptoms of the kindling effect include:
  • Paranoia
  • Bursts of energy
  • Extreme sensitivity
  • Delirium 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Body tremors
  • Impaired mental function
  • Fatigue
  • Mood changes
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Fever and chills
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures

As you can imagine, these symptoms are highly uncomfortable and sometimes painful, so much so that they’re among the most common reasons why alcoholics relapse when attempting to stop drinking. Because of the discomfort and distress they can cause, experiencing withdrawal symptoms increases the likelihood that the person will consume alcohol again to make these symptoms stop, which will only make them more severe if it happens again. 

Treatment for the Kindling Effect & Alcoholism

Alcoholism can impact the brain and body in various ways. From physical risks like liver disease to relationship problems, chronic alcohol abuse can deteriorate a person’s life. 

Those who attempt to quit drinking after chronic use often experience difficult withdrawals, which can grow worse as a result of the kindling effect. Fortunately, our Chicago drug and alcohol rehab offers treatment that can aid in this recovery process. 

In addition, to medically monitored detox in Illinois, Banyan also offers a partial hospitalization program and outpatient services in Chicago to help people addicted to drugs like alcohol, opioids, cocaine, and more develop relapse prevention skills and learn how to sustain sober lifestyles. 

By utilizing a variety of evidence-based therapy programs and offering alumni services, we ensure that our clients are getting the care and support they need during and after rehab to set them up for success. Recovery is possible for everyone. 

For more information about the addictions services offered at our substance abuse rehab in Chicago, contact Banyan Treatment Centers today at 888-280-4763. 

Related Reading:
Impact of Alcohol on Mental Health Why Do I Shake When I Drink Alcohol?
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.
The Kindling Effect: When an Alcoholic Relapses
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