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How to Taper Off Alcohol Safely

Last Updated: December 7, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Deciding to reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption is a big step and will open up a whole new world of improved health and well-being. It’s a journey that can be rewarding but also challenging. Whether you’re thinking about tapering off or going cold turkey, it’s crucial to understand the implications of both approaches and which strategy is likely the safest and most effective.

Alcohol Taper vs. Quitting Cold Turkey

When it comes to reducing alcohol, there are typically two main options people consider: tapering off or quitting cold turkey. Both have their merits and downsides, with quitting cold turkey under medical supervision being the preferred option by healthcare professionals. Ultimately, you must choose the method that aligns with your goals and personal circumstances while providing you with the best approach.

Taper Method

Tapering involves gradually and progressively reducing your alcohol consumption over time. This method can lessen withdrawal symptoms, allowing your body to adjust to decreased alcohol levels slowly. It does, however, result in any withdrawal symptoms that do occur being prolonged over the entire period of the taper. Tapering might be a more comfortable transition for some. Still, it has a decreased level of success when compared to the alternative and requires discipline that can be difficult for those with an addiction.

Cold Turkey Method

Quitting cold turkey means suddenly stopping all alcohol consumption. This method can lead to withdrawal symptoms, especially if you’ve been a heavy drinker. Making a clean break, however, provides a sense of finality and commitment. 

Stopping all at once can make withdrawal symptoms more severe, but it also shortens the duration of withdrawal symptoms and gives you less time to change your mind and go back to using alcohol. Quitting cold turkey under medical supervision provides the best of both worlds, allowing increased control and comfort of withdrawal symptoms while also getting you through withdrawal quickly.

What Happens to the Body When You Stop Drinking?

When you drink heavily and frequently, your brain compensates for the suppressive effects of alcohol by becoming more hyperactive. This balances out the effects of alcohol and makes your brain function more as it should while you have alcohol in your bloodstream.

Once alcohol is stopped, your brain continues to be hyperactive until it readjusts to the absence of alcohol. This process is often referred to as detox and often causes withdrawal symptoms. This can include symptoms like sweating, tremors, or nausea. As days pass, cognitive functions start improving. Over the long term, many health benefits occur throughout your body. Your risk of certain diseases decreases, you will begin sleeping better, and your overall health can significantly benefit.

Benefits of Tapering off Alcohol

Tapering slowly off of alcohol has benefits and downsides. It is essential to consider each when evaluating the possibility of tapering. Potential advantages can include:

  • Reduced withdrawal symptoms – A more gradual approach can ease the body’s adjustment.
  • Less immediate physical stress – Your body isn’t abruptly deprived, potentially leading to a smoother transition.
  • Ability to monitor and adjust – Tapering gives you the flexibility to modify your plan based on how you feel.

Cons of Tapering off Alcohol

While there may be some positives connected with tapering off of alcohol, there are some potential downsides. These potential downsides are the reason that most medical professionals recommend against a taper and include:

  • Extended exposure – You’re still consuming alcohol, which can have health implications.
  • Requires discipline – Without a clear plan, it’s easy to revert to old habits.
  • Potential for complacency – You might feel you’re making progress and delay complete cessation.
  • Can prolong the process – The longer the process takes, the more likely you are to revert back to old habits.

Alcohol Tapering Strategies

Ultimately, you shouldn’t taper off of alcohol unless you’ve checked with your doctor first. Because of the risk of a lower success rate and prolonged alcohol exposure, most healthcare professionals will recommend a professional detox over tapering.

If you and your doctor decide that a taper is proper for you, it is crucial to remember there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. The key is to find a method that aligns with your goals and ensures safety during the transition.

Direct Taper

This involves directly reducing the amount of alcohol you consume regularly. For example, if you typically drink five beers a night, you might cut down to four, then three, and so on. This method is straightforward but requires discipline.

Substitution Taper

Substitution involves replacing alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic ones. This can help address the habitual aspect of drinking, like having a beverage in hand at social events without the alcohol content. Over time, you can decrease the alcoholic drinks while increasing the non-alcoholic ones while still following the same behaviors you were used to.

Alcohol Tapering Schedule

Because tapering is not the recommended way to stop using alcohol, there is no recommended tapering schedule. If you plan to taper, you must create a schedule that is right for you.

Creating a schedule means setting clear goals. Decide how much you’ll reduce each week and stick to it. Track your progress, note how you feel, and adjust if necessary. Always consult a medical professional before starting any tapering schedule.

Challenges of Quitting Drinking

Stopping alcohol can be rewarding, but it’s not without challenges. You may face social pressure, ingrained habits, and emotional reliance on alcohol. Moreover, physical withdrawal can be challenging, and there’s also a phenomenon called the kindling effect to consider.

What Is the Kindling Effect?

The kindling effect refers to the increasing severity of withdrawal symptoms each time you go through alcohol detox. If you’ve tried to quit multiple times, each subsequent withdrawal can become more severe. This means that an unsuccessful tapering attempt isn’t just a failed attempt; it can actually be harder to try again in the future. The kindling effect is an important reason to approach quitting and seek professional guidance seriously.

How To Taper off Alcohol Safely and Effectively

Safety should always be your priority. Start by consulting a medical professional about your plans. They can provide guidance tailored to your situation. Educate yourself on potential withdrawal symptoms and have a support system in place. Evaluate the pros and cons of tapering and consider quitting with medical help instead of trying to do it yourself.

If you are open to taking the safer, more supported approach of quitting with medical help, we invite you to contact us to learn more about how we can help you stop using alcohol as safely and comfortably as possible.

Sources

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed October 3, 2023.

Kattimani, Shivanand & Bharadwaj, Balaji. “Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal. December, 2013. Accessed October 3, 2023.

Hoffman, Robert S. & Weinhouse, Gerald L. “Management of moderate and severe alcohol withdrawal syndromes.” September 15, 2023. Accessed October 3, 2023.

Sachdeva, Ankur; Choudhary, Mona; & Chandra, Mina. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research. September, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2023.

Becker, Howard C. “Kindling in Alcohol Withdrawal.” Alcohol Health and Research World. 1998. Accessed October 3, 2023.