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Tapering off Alcohol: Is It Safe?

Last Updated: November 16, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Although an alcohol taper has benefits, it can be challenging for some to quit drinking alone, and harm their health in the long term.

Stopping alcohol use can be a big step and, once alcohol dependence develops, a difficult one. When considering reducing or stopping alcohol, it’s important to consider the implications and methods involved. Tapering off may seem appealing to some, but understanding the pros and cons is vital before deciding how to proceed. 

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Alcohol Taper vs. Quitting Cold Turkey

There are two potential methods people try when stopping alcohol. One is tapering, gradually reducing the amount of alcohol they use each day. The other is quitting cold turkey, suddenly stopping, never to resume drinking again. 

Taper Method

When you choose the taper method, you gradually reduce your alcohol intake over time, drinking a bit less each day. This approach can help minimize withdrawal symptoms and be less shocking to your system than abruptly quitting. It is, however, typically unsuccessful because it prolongs the entire process of stopping alcohol and requires strict discipline not to give in to the temptation of overusing alcohol.

Cold Turkey Method

Choosing to quit cold turkey means you stop consuming alcohol abruptly and completely. This method can be highly effective, but only when you have medical help and support. If you have been a heavy drinker, stopping cold turkey can result in dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can be fatal. While this method is typically considered more effective, it requires medical help to complete safely.

What Happens to the Body When You Stop Drinking?

When you use alcohol regularly and heavily for a prolonged period, your brain becomes more hyperactive to offset the suppressing effects of alcohol. When you stop drinking, the suppressing effects of alcohol are suddenly gone; however, the hyperactivity remains until your brain can readjust.

This can create temporary withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, anxiety, nausea and even seizures, as your body adjusts to the absence of alcohol. However, once withdrawal is over, you will feel better, sleep more soundly and have overall better health.

Benefits of Tapering off Alcohol

If done correctly, tapering off alcohol can reduce the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms by allowing your body to adjust gradually. This approach can also seem more manageable and less intimidating for those who find the idea of immediate cessation overwhelming.

Cons of Tapering off Alcohol

While there may be some perceived benefits to tapering off alcohol, it has drawbacks. It requires a high level of self-control and discipline, which can be challenging to maintain, especially if addiction is present. You might find it tempting to increase your intake, especially during stressful situations. During tapering, you will still have access to alcohol, making it even harder to resist. Additionally, this method might prolong alcohol exposure, which can be detrimental to your health in the long run.

Alcohol Tapering Strategies

There are multiple ways to taper off alcohol. However, before attempting any of these methods, meeting with your doctor and discussing if a taper is best for you, given your specific situation, is important. Your doctor can help you make a plan to stop using alcohol and support you as you stop.

Direct Taper

A direct taper involves gradually reducing your alcohol intake over a set period. This strategy requires careful planning and monitoring to decrease consumption consistently. It’s crucial for you to stay committed to the schedule to avoid setbacks.

Substitution Taper

In substitution taper, you gradually replace alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic alternatives. This method can help in managing cravings and reducing overall alcohol intake. You must be mindful of the substitutes chosen to ensure they are healthy and non-addictive. Substituting can help you maintain the ritualistic aspects of drinking alcohol while reducing your alcohol intake to zero.

Alcohol Tapering Schedule

Creating a tapering schedule before starting is vital to managing and monitoring your progress effectively. Start by determining your current intake and establish a gradual reduction plan. Reviewing and adjusting the schedule helps address challenges and ensure sustained reduction.

Because the medical recommendation for people stopping alcohol is not to taper but to get professional addiction treatment that supports you as you quit cold turkey, there is no medically recommended taper schedule. If you are set on tapering, you should meet with your doctor first and develop a schedule that will give you the best chance of successfully becoming sober.

Challenges of Quitting Drinking

Quitting drinking is often not easy. Stopping alcohol and getting through withdrawal is only part of quitting drinking. It is also vital to overcome and address the factors in your life that made you turn to alcohol in the first place. Often, these factors are a way of subconsciously coping and require help and support to address.

What Is the Kindling Effect?

The kindling effect refers to the effect where each withdrawal episode can lead to more severe withdrawal symptoms in the future. It’s crucial to be aware of this as it emphasizes the importance of a well-managed plan to stop drinking and keep from relapsing in the future.

How to Taper off Alcohol Safely and Effectively

Ideally, those wishing to stop alcohol should seek professional medical detox to help them quit cold turkey with medical support throughout the process. Tapers are not considered a safe and effective method of stopping alcohol by the medical community. 
If you are set on tapering off alcohol, you should always meet with your doctor first and discuss how to approach this best.

If you are open to taking a more supported approach, we invite you to contact us to learn how we can help you stop using alcohol as safely and comfortably as possible.

Sources

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed September 27, 2023.

Kattimani, Shivanand & Bharadwaj, Balaji. “Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal, December, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2023.

Hoffman, Robert S. & Weinhouse, Gerald L. “Management of moderate and severe alcohol withdrawal syndromes.” September 15, 2023. Accessed September 27, 2023.

Sachdeva, Ankur; Choudhary, Mona; & Chandra, Mina. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, September, 2015. Accessed September 27, 2023.

Becker, Howard C. “Kindling in Alcohol Withdrawal.” Alcohol Health and Research World, 1998. Accessed September 27, 2023.