Tapering/Weaning Off Alcohol: What You Need To Know

several different size alcoholic drinks on table

If you drink alcohol and are thinking about quitting, it is important to make sure you do so safely. One of the safest ways to quit drinking is through tapering, which involves slowly reducing your alcohol intake over time.

It is important to only attempt a taper while under a doctor’s care. However, understanding how an alcohol taper works and what the process is like can help you prepare yourself and find the support you need.

What Does It Mean to Taper or Wean off Alcohol?

Tapering is the practice of slowly reducing regular consumption of a substance like alcohol. Tapering can help a person avoid uncomfortable and sometimes deadly symptoms of withdrawal.

Tapering off alcohol is a reasonable strategy for anyone who desires to stop drinking. A taper can be especially helpful for those who find they cannot stop drinking without experiencing negative symptoms.

Benefits of Alcohol Tapering

Slowly decreasing the amount you drink over time can spare your body from withdrawal symptoms. This is because drinking heavily over a long period can cause your body to become physically dependent on alcohol. With physical dependence, your body becomes used to the presence of alcohol in your system and begins to adapt accordingly.

 

If you suddenly quit drinking, your body can struggle to catch up. Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, quitting drinking can cause your body to have too much of an excitatory substance called glutamate as it tries to rebalance. This can trigger alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can be dangerous in some cases.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Minor symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can start as soon as six hours after the last drink of alcohol. Once they appear, acute symptoms may continue for around a week.

Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Unclear thinking

Physical withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Fast heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Low appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale, unhealthy appearance
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating or clammy skin
  • Tremors

People with a severe addiction to alcohol may experience delirium tremens, which is a potentially deadly complication from alcohol withdrawal. DT symptoms begin as early as 48 hours after the last drink of alcohol and may include:

  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Severe agitation
  • Severe confusion
  • Tremors

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms consistent with DT, call 911. DT can be fatal, and a person going through them should have medical support in a hospital or rehab facility.

Alcohol Tapering Methods

A couple of different strategies for tapering alcohol exist. These include direct tapers, where you regularly decrease the amount of alcohol you consume, and substitution tapers, where you replace alcohol with another substance. These strategies work in different ways to help you quit drinking, and one or the other may be appropriate for you based on your needs.

Direct Taper

A direct taper means drinking the regular substance of choice but lowering the amount that’s consumed every day. A direct taper might not work well for some people. Someone should only direct taper if their drink of choice is beer with a low alcohol percentage.

If the drink of choice is liquor, it is difficult to measure amounts and easy to binge drink. If the drink is a mixed drink, it can contain sugar or other additives that should not be included in the taper and may worsen the effects of withdrawal symptoms.

Substitution Taper

A substitution taper can involve substituting a prescription drug for alcohol. It can also involve substituting the drink of choice with another drink; for example, a person may taper off hard alcohol with beer.

Substituting a prescription drug for alcohol should only happen with the help of a medical professional. No one should ever attempt a substitution taper with prescription medication unless their doctor specifically prescribed it for that purpose in a medical detox program.

The second situation involves counting the drinks you consume daily and switching them for a beverage with lower alcohol content, such as beer. Switching to beer from hard liquor is safer because it is easier to control the amount of beer that is consumed and is harder to binge drink. Consuming a lighter alcoholic drink like beer also makes it easier for someone to stay hydrated throughout the taper.

How To Wean Yourself off Alcohol Safely

While the safest way to taper is with professional help in a detox facility, this may not be an option for everyone. A person may need to detox at home for many reasons, including cost or time.

However, it is important to be aware of the risks of attempting a taper on your own. Sometimes, people think that if their symptoms are mild, they don’t need medical help. Unfortunately, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can worsen quickly, and they can include agitation and hallucinations that make it more difficult to seek help. For this reason, it is best to seek medical advice on whether you should taper at home or under medical observation.

Tips for Tapering Yourself off Alcohol

Some tips for those considering an alcohol taper include:

  • Use beer or another option with low alcohol content first, regardless of the normal drink of choice. This process can allow your body to adapt to receiving smaller amounts of alcohol.
  • Know how many drinks you consume per day before you start the taper (for example, 12 oz of 5% beer is one drink). Knowing allows you to better track progress.
  • Maintain a healthy diet with lots of B vitamins (especially thiamine/B1), as alcohol makes it hard for the body to absorb vitamins.
  • Stay hydrated with water or a sports drink.
  • Reduce the amount of alcohol consumed every day. Don’t stay at the same amount for multiple days.

Alcohol Taper Schedule

A sample taper schedule involves calculating the number of drinks consumed per day. After this is calculated, make a schedule where you consume your normal amount on the first day and make regular reductions each day after. An example schedule may resemble:

  • Day one: 12 drinks
  • Day two: 10 drinks
  • Day three: Eight drinks
  • Day four: Six drinks
  • Day five: Four drinks
  • Day six: Two drinks
  • Day seven: No drinks

Each day should have fewer drinks than the day before it. However, it should not cause someone to become stuck on a step, which would defeat the purpose of a taper. A person is free to increase the taper speed (e.g., lower by three drinks instead of two) as they see fit. Withdrawal symptoms are a sign that the taper is going too fast.

When To Seek Medical Attention

People with moderate to severe alcohol addiction may find an alcohol taper difficult to accomplish. If you have trouble controlling how much you drink or experience significant alcohol cravings, you may need professional help instead of trying to taper your alcohol use at home.

When you quit drinking, you should also seek medical advice about any alcohol withdrawal symptoms you experience. This includes early symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as mild tremors and anxiety. The reason for this is that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can quickly snowball and worsen. Mild anxiety, for example, can turn into overwhelming agitation or even hallucinations. When symptoms become that serious, it can be difficult to seek help. Seeking help as early as possible during the withdrawal process is the best way to stay safe as you cleanse your body of alcohol.

Medical Detox for Tapering off Alcohol

For people with moderate to severe alcohol addiction, utilizing an alcohol detox center is always the safest option. Alcohol detox centers have professionals trained to recognize and treat complications caused by alcohol withdrawal. Because alcohol withdrawal symptoms can sometimes be unpredictable and may escalate quickly, having an on-site medical team that can quickly intervene is the safest way to quit heavy drinking.

Alcohol detox medications can make the process safer and more comfortable. They can also ensure your alcohol detox is successful by making it nigh impossible to relapse if symptoms get difficult. Additionally, the post-detox treatment resources available at a professional treatment center can ease the transition to sober living and give you the tools you need to stay sober long-term.

About Our Medical Detox Facility in Washington

The Recovery Village Ridgefield medical detox center in Vancouver, WA, is a fully staffed rehab facility designed to help you wean off alcohol in comfort. We offer 16 detox beds and around-the-clock medical care provided by a multidisciplinary team of addiction experts. We personalize every aspect of your detox and offer counseling, treatment plans, nutrition services and options for continuing rehab treatment at The Recovery Village Ridgefield.

If you or someone you know needs help detoxing from alcohol, The Recovery Village Ridgefield is here for you. Contact us today to speak with a representative and begin on the road to lasting addiction recovery.

PsychDB. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” Accessed June 21, 2022. Brousse, G., Arnaud, B., Vorspan, F. “Alteration of glutamate/GABA balance during acute alcohol withdrawal in emergency department: a prospective analysis.” Alcohol and Alcoholism, October 2012. Accessed June 21, 2022. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What Is A Standard Drink?” Accessed June 21, 2022. The HAMS Harm Reduction Network, Inc. “How To Taper Off Alcohol.” Accessed June 21, 2022.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.