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The prospect of alcohol withdrawal can be scary, but with support and guidance, the path to recovery isn’t as daunting as it seems. There are many paths to treating alcohol use disorder and reducing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Recent research has found the keto diet significantly reduces symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder, making it easier to stick to your recovery and lessening the side effects of withdrawal.
What is the Keto Diet?
The keto diet features a low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet that has become widely acclaim over the past few years for speedy fat loss in addition to a variety of other health benefits. The keto diet’s name comes from the metabolic state it aims to achieve in the body: ketosis.
What is Ketosis?
In ketosis, your body stops using glucose (sugar) as its energy source and shifts to using ketones. Ketones are produced in our livers from stored fat and produce three main ketone groups: acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and acetone.
However, while it is trendy, the keto diet is a far cry from our standard American Diet:
The percentages for the standard ketogenic diet include: 8% Carbs, 75% Fat, 17% Protein
The percentages for the standard American diet include: 50% Carbs, 35% Fat, 15% Protein
It is because of this extreme divergence from carbohydrates that our bodies can switch from our usual fuel source – glucose – to ketones.
To see the positive impact of the keto diet, it is critical to keep blood sugar low. Add in more carbs, and your liver receives a signal that carbs are back in business and will switch your body’s fuel source from ketones back to the glucose-insulin pathway.
What are the Benefits of Eating Keto Diet Foods?
There are many well-documented benefits to eating primarily keto foods aside from weight loss.
Researchers originally developed the keto diet in the 1920s as a treatment for childhood epilepsy. They noted that when children ate keto diet foods high in fat and minimized carbs, children went deeper into ketosis and experienced fewer severe seizures.1
The low intake of carbs in keto diets additionally strengthens insulin responses, and research shows that after a year of supervised keto dieting, 60% of Type 2 Diabetes patients reversed their diabetes.4
Different Types of Keto Diets
Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
8% Carbs : 75% Fat : 17% Protein
The Standard Keto Diet features a high fat intake with limited carbs mainly from healthy low-carb fruits like berries and melon, and leafy, non-starchy vegetables. Keto foods like fatty fish and meats, olives and olive oil, ghee, butter, and avocados are packed with healthy fats to help hit your daily fat target of 150g. In this diet, you’ll consume a moderate amount of protein at 90g per day or about 4.5 oz of meat, fish, or poultry three times a day.
Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
10-15% Carbs : 65-70% Fat : 20% Protein
The Targeted Keto Diet is popular among athletes and individuals with active lifestyles who need more carbs in their diet. The TKD shifts the number of carbs so you can consume an added 20-30g before and after workouts. Timing carbohydrate consumption around workouts enhances recovery and can help increase your intensity during training sessions.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
5 days on keto diet: 8% Carbs : 75% Fat : 17% Protein
2 days off keto diet: 50% Carbs : 35% Fat : 15% Protein
The Cyclical Keto Diet is a great option for people who want to enjoy more flexibility in their lifestyle but still want to experience the positive health benefits of keto diet foods. Keto cycling allows you to cycle in and out of ketosis with a “5 Days On” and “2 Days Off” approach. To maintain results, try to stay away from carbs with added or highly processed sugars on off days. Instead, stick to wholesome and healthy carbs like fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.
High Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD)
5-10% Carbs : 60-65% Fat : 30% Protein
Many find they prefer the High Protein Keto Diet because it allows for greater protein consumption instead of targeting your calories through healthy fats. However, our bodies are highly adaptive and often convert high amounts of protein to glucose, meaning you might not see the positive effects of ketosis with HPKD.
What Defines Alcoholism?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcoholism – now called alcohol use disorder (AUD) – as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”6
The line between heavy drinking and alcoholism is thin, but generally, the maximum amount of alcohol a person can drink each day is about two drinks for men and one drink for women.
The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as roughly 4+ drinks per day or 14 drinks over a week for men, and 3+ drinks per day or 7 drinks over a week for women.7
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
Indications of alcohol use disorder include:8
- An inability to limit the amount you drink
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Being unable to stop thinking about drinking
- Feeling strong urges or cravings to drink
- Feeling irritable when regular drinking times roll by
- Wanting to cut back on alcohol but being unable to do so
- Falling through on work, social life, or family commitments
- Losing interest or giving up activities you used to enjoy
- Needing high amounts of alcohol to compensate for your increased tolerance levels
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, and shaking when you stop drinking or drinking to prevent these problems
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range depending on your regular alcohol intake and length of consumption. Even if you consider yourself a heavy drinker and not an alcoholic, suddenly stopping your usual drinking habits will likely lead to some withdrawal symptoms.
It’s important to note that most symptoms do not occur right after you stop drinking and can start up to two days later and can last about a week.
Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:9
- Feeling irritable, nervous, anxious, and/or depressed
- Feelings of exhaustion
- Irregular mood swings
- Mental fog and inability to think clearly
- Experiencing vivid nightmares
- Shakes and tremors
- Dilated pupils
- Pale skin
- Appetite loss
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Faster heart rate
Most individuals experience some or all the above symptoms while going through alcohol withdrawal. However, 3-5% of people going through withdrawal from heavy drinking experience severe withdrawal symptoms called “delirium tremens,” or “The DTs.”
Delirium tremens is a very severe condition that can become fatal if unsupervised by a doctor, so if you begin noticing symptoms, it’s best to head to a doctor before symptoms get worse.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:9
- High blood pressure
- Extreme agitation
- Extreme confusion
With a doctor present, delirium tremens are rarely fatal. Treatment for delirium tremens and alcohol withdrawal typically involves the prescription of benzodiazepine sedatives like Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), or Klonopin (clonazepam.)
Can the Keto Diet Reduce Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Research suggests that the keto diet may be beneficial in aiding alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Our bodies and brains normally fuel themselves off glucose. However, heavy alcohol use shifts our brain’s energy source from glucose to acetate. When withdrawing from alcohol use, our brains experience a decrease in their typical fuel source (acetate), creating the familiar symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
The keto diet helps by providing more fuel that the body can use as an alternative to acetate or glucose. Not only does the keto diet reduce symptoms of alcohol withdrawal – it actively reduces alcohol cravings, lessening the likelihood of relapse.
Research on the Keto Diet’s Effects for AUD
Many studies have found that a keto diet significantly impacts alcohol withdrawal symptoms in several ways, from reducing the impact of withdrawal symptoms to reducing the need for medication.
One study of rats found that rats on the keto diet were less likely to self-administer alcohol than non-keto rats while experiencing withdrawal from chronic, intermittent alcohol vapor exposure. This study suggests that a history of keto diet predisposes rats to reduced cravings for alcohol and less alcohol consumption while undergoing withdrawal symptoms.10
Another study focusing on humans with AUD similarly found that patients who followed a keto diet asked for fewer benzodiazepines during the first week of detox than those who ate the standard American diet. Over the following three weeks of supervised treatment, keto diet patients showed lower ‘wanting’ or craving signals.10
Other Treatments for Alcoholism
Alcoholism treatment is not a one-size-fits-all process, and there are many options to fit your needs and circumstances. What works best for someone may not be what works best for you, so it’s always good to talk with a care provider to determine the best fit for you.
Alternative alcoholism treatments can include medications, a wide array of therapies, and detox options.
The first step to a successful recovery relies on moving through alcohol withdrawal symptoms as efficiently and effectively as possible. Detox with professional medical supervision ensures you’re getting all the fluids and nutrients you need while simultaneously managing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal to reduce the likelihood of relapse.
Doctors will often prescribe one of three medications currently approved by the U.S. FDA to help people avoid relapse. These three medications are: acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone (long-acting injectable or oral.)
Therapy can take many forms, from individualized “talk therapy” to cognitive-behavioral therapies to group support sessions. Some therapies work to uncover and heal the roots of substance abuse disorder. Other therapies recognize it’s counterproductive to revisit painful events and instead work around old traumas by exploring current triggering events and developing more helpful habits.
Ultimately, the most successful treatments usually include a mixture of therapy, medication, and detox to set patients on the sure-footed path to long-term recovery.