Home Remedies for Opiate Withdrawal
The United States is currently suffering from an opioid epidemic. Opioids, a class of drug that is derived from the opium poppy, are recognized as essential medications for the treatment of pain. However, they are also often used recreationally for the feelings of euphoria and sedation that they offer. Opioids have been used for medical and recreational purposes for thousands of years, but today’s opioid crisis is reaching unprecedented proportions. It began in the 1990s when prescription painkillers began to be prescribed at higher rates, soared further when affordable black tar heroin spread throughout the United States, and became even more severe in 2013 when synthetic opioids like fentanyl began to be produced illicitly. Today, 128 people die in the United States each day as a result of an opioid overdose. People who use opioids are highly likely to develop a substance use disorder that is not only life-threatening but destroys families, devastates communities, and makes it all but impossible for a person to function. Most people with opioid use disorders have recognized the consequences of opioid abuse in their own lives but have discovered that they are powerless to control their substance abuse on their own. This is because addiction actually causes permanent changes on the neurological level that affect an individual’s motivation and ability to make decisions. However, the first and most imposing roadblock people face when they try to quit using opioids is withdrawal. Fortunately, opioid withdrawal is rarely life-threatening. While the symptoms of opioid withdrawal are often excruciatingly painful, the effects of withdrawal can be managed via home remedies.
Signs of Opioid Withdrawal
Opioid withdrawal generally begins within hours after a person consumes their last dose of opioids. At first, their initial symptoms may be limited to strong cravings. Over a few days, it is normal for symptoms to gradually intensify and reach a peak. The early symptoms of opioid withdrawal may include:
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Increased tearing
- Increased yawning
- Increased sweating
The initial symptoms are often followed up by a second phase of more extreme opioid withdrawal symptoms. Common experiences during late stage opioid withdrawal include:
- Dilated pupils
- Abdominal cramping
- Goose bumps
Opioid withdrawal can also cause severe mood changes. Many people develop symptoms of severe mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorder and major depression. This can be attributed directly to opioid withdrawal itself, but it is often helpful to recognize that for many people opioid abuse is a way for them to self-manage these conditions. When people stop abusing drugs, they are often left vulnerable and open to painful moods and mental illnesses that they were previously avoiding through self-medication. As such, it is important to get outside help and use the resources of a support system while withdrawing from opioids. Doing so will not only make the process of withdrawal smoother, but it decreases the likelihood that an individual will relapse to escape their emotional distress.
Withdrawing from Opioids at Home
Opioid withdrawal is difficult, but it is rarely dangerous in and of itself. It is possible for a person to withdraw safely and effectively from opioids in the comfort of their own home using natural and over-the-counter remedies. However, it is important to recognize that achieving long term sobriety involves far more than simply getting through opioid withdrawal. It is crucial to have a social support system and an aftercare plan in place to prevent a relapse from undoing all the hard work of withdrawal.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications
Preparing for inevitable opioid withdrawal symptoms is essential. Over-the-counter medications can be used to address distressing symptoms as they occur. These medications can be purchased without a prescription in most pharmacies and even grocery stores. Because opioid withdrawal often lasts several weeks, it is generally a good idea to purchase high quantities of these medications so that you won’t have to head to the pharmacy more than once after the opioid detox process begins.
- Loperamide (Imodium) – Treats diarrhea
- Meclizine (Antivert or Bonine) – Treats nausea
- Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) – Treats nausea
- Antihistamines like Benadryl – Treats nausea, vomiting, and dizziness
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) – Treats aches and pains
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen – Treats aches and pains
It is important to recognize that over-the-counter medications can alleviate many of the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, but they are rarely sufficient to stop symptoms entirely. While it may be tempting to take higher doses of these medications to eliminate symptoms further, taking them in higher doses or at higher frequencies than recommended can be dangerous. If the regular dose isn’t helping, it is possible your withdrawal may require additional support.
While alternative medicine is not necessarily supported by the same rigorous body of scientific evidence as prescription drugs are, many people find that complementary treatments are enormously beneficial during the opioid detox process. Complementary treatments, which are often derived from traditional healing practices, emphasize the connection between a person’s body and mind. These treatments can help people feel more tranquil and at peace during the withdrawal process. While they may not alleviate symptoms entirely, they can help people better cope with their distress.
A growing body of research is beginning to show that acupuncture can mitigate the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Acupuncture, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, involves inserting needles into the body. It is most commonly prescribed to treat chronic pain, but recent research shows that it affects the production of dopamine in the brain, a key neurotransmitter implicated in opioid addiction. By reducing the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, acupuncture treatment can also somewhat reduce the likelihood of relapse during the detox process.
Mitragyna speciosa, often marketed and sold as kratom, is an herbal extract that has opioid-like properties and stimulant effects. It is frequently represented as an energy booster, appetite suppressant, mood enhancer, and pain reliever. It is also often sold as a tool for reducing the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Kratom may indeed ease some withdrawal symptoms. It can increase people’s perceived energy levels, reduce pain, raise mood, and it can even provide sedating effects. However, this substance can also pose a number of dangers to people who suffer from opioid use disorder. Kratom has opioid-like properties, which means that opioid users are replacing their substance of choice with a similar substance. This unregulated supplement is addictive as well, and its other possible negative side effects are relatively unknown. Most medical practitioners recommend that people do not rely on kratom while withdrawing from opioids.
Individuals withdrawing from opioids at home can also make use of a number of techniques that work to make symptoms more manageable. In many ways, the symptoms of opioid withdrawal resemble the symptoms of a very severe cold or flu. Avoiding certain behaviors and situations can prevent these symptoms from becoming unnecessarily painful, and certain healthy lifestyle changes can help a person get through them.
- Healthy eating. While abusing opioids, many people fail to prioritize healthy eating. It is common, in fact, for addicted individuals to lose significant weight and suffer from malnutrition. Even during withdrawal, individuals with opioid use disorder frequently suffer from nutritional deficiencies. In particular, they often lack calcium and magnesium, the absence of which can worsen the muscle aches and pains that occur during withdrawal. It is important for everyone to eat a balanced diet, but it is all the more important for someone detoxing off heroin or oxycodone.
- Proper sleep. Getting sufficient rest not only improves an individual’s peace of mind, it also helps the body repair itself faster. Sleep is also an opportunity for individuals to take a break from being conscious, which is likely a welcome kind of relief during the painful withdrawal process. Unfortunately, many people suffer from insomnia during opioid withdrawal. Listening to soothing music, taking melatonin, and having a consistent bedtime routine can help.
- Hydration. Heavy sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea are common symptoms during opioid withdrawal. All of these deplete the body’s water supply. It is crucial to drink plenty of fluids during the day to prevent medical complications.
- Hot baths. A hot bath, especially one that included Epsom salts, can relieve many of the aches and cramps that occur during withdrawal.
- Healthy distractions. It’s generally a good idea not to dwell on the pain. Time can often seem to pass slowly during the detox process. It is helpful to have healthy distractions to take one’s mind off the pain. TV shows, books, movies, and even video games can all provide welcome distractions. If a person feels up for it, spending time with friends is probably the most helpful distraction. Not only can they provide essential support, but you may also even find yourself laughing. Laughter has been shown to increase endorphins in the brain — a naturally-occurring “feel-good” chemical that the brain lacks during withdrawal.
- Exercise. Exercise, like laughter, increases endorphin levels. It has also been shown to improve mood, decrease depression and anxiety, and reduce pain. Some people report that the famous “runner’s high” is similar to the effects of recreational opioids.
Dangers of Withdrawing from Opioids Alone
While home remedies can alleviate some of the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, it is generally safer to withdraw from opioids under the care and supervision of addiction professionals. Withdrawing alone, even with the aid of home remedies, is often known as the “cold turkey” approach. The painful physical and emotional symptoms of opioid withdrawal are impossible to avoid entirely, but withdrawing from painkillers or other recreational opiates cold turkey can make these symptoms more difficult to tolerate. Within hours after stopping use, most people begin to experience cravings that require tremendous willpower to successfully ignore. As the physical and psychological symptoms intensify over the following days, a person’s ability to avoid opiates tends to diminish. Not only do cravings further increase, but most individuals are well aware that they can put an end to their excruciating suffering by simply taking one painkiller pill. While many people start out feeling committed to quitting, most end up having doubts once they begin the process.
Even people who do manage to get through the most extreme phases of opioid withdrawal without relapsing remain at a high risk. Ultimately, a person’s long term sobriety depends on their ability to avoid relapse over the years. Getting through the first week or the first month may feel like a huge achievement, and it certainly is one, but it is sadly all too common for people to return to opioids after finishing the withdrawal process. It only takes one slip to undo the achievement of getting through withdrawal and return people to square one. Individuals who have withdrawn from opioids multiple times, only to relapse over and over, are often left hopeless and despondent. They may come to see quitting opioids as a hopeless endeavor. After failing repeatedly, they may simply stop trying.
Part of the reason that people frequently return to opioid abuse after getting through the detox process is that opioid use disorder is not the same as physical dependence. Individuals suffering from opioid addiction also suffer from physical dependence, but the addiction is likely to remain even after physical dependence has diminished. Opioid use disorder is a recognized mental health condition, causing people to return again and again to opioid abuse even when they recognize doing so is not in their best interests. After people have withdrawn from opioids, the cravings and obsession with opioids will likely remain. It is common for addicted people to convince themselves after withdrawal that they are no longer addicted and can safely return to using opioids. For many addicted people, withdrawal and relapse is a vicious cycle that is endlessly repeated.
Dangers of Opioid Relapse
The single greatest danger people face from withdrawing alone at home is the danger of overdose. Opioid withdrawal is rarely life-threatening on its own, but relapsing after a period of abstinence can be extremely risky. Most regular opioid users can handle high doses of their drug of choice because they have developed a tolerance to the effects. After only a short period of abstinence, these tolerance levels go down. It is common for people to return to their habitual opioid dose when they relapse. A dose that may have previously been easy to handle becomes, after days or weeks without the drug, a dangerously high dose that can lead to overdose. Even individuals who are aware of this risk often struggle to determine what constitutes a safe dose.
Opioid overdoses, which are often fatal, can be recognized by the following symptoms:
- Lack of responsiveness to outside stimulus
- Slow, shallow, or erratic breathing
- Breathing stops entirely
- Loss of consciousness
- Unable to talk despite being awake
- Choking sounds or a snore-like gurgling nose, often referred to as a “death rattle”
- Limp body
- Changes in skin tone (turning bluish purple, grayish, or ashen)
- Pulse becomes slow, erratic, or stops entirely
- Face becomes pale or clammy
Individuals who withdraw without outside help are also likely to relapse alone. Getting immediate assistance during an opioid overdose is essential. Drugs like naloxone can immediately reverse an overdose if they are administered in time.
Opioid Withdrawal and Mental Health Disorders
It is common for people to abuse opioids or other recreational drugs in order to treat the symptoms of undiagnosed mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Opioids do indeed provide short term relief, temporarily relieving emotional distress. Unfortunately, opioid use always ends up exacerbating the symptoms of underlying mental health conditions. Part of the reason that addiction is so insidious is that people are more likely to turn to opioids for relief after opioids have worsened their mental illness. The result is a vicious cycle that is common for individuals with comorbid mental health conditions.
When people remove opioids from their systems, they are often left facing mental health conditions that are overwhelming. Because they have consistently self-medicated and treated these conditions with recreational drugs, they lack the tools to handle their emotional distress. For individuals who withdraw from opiates alone, abstinence can represent a return to feelings of depression, anxiety, and misery. It is crucial to recognize that opiates function, for many, as an important tool that addresses real issues. The key is to find other tools to treat these issues. Withdrawing alone prevents people from accessing or developing these alternative coping tools, and as a result people often relapse so they can feel normal again.
No matter where or how a person withdraws from opioids, their long term sobriety depends on their willingness to seek outside help. Unfortunately, only 11% of people drug substance use disorders ever seek help or resources. People with opioid use disorder are often reluctant to seek help for a number of reasons. The most powerful reason is the stigma that surrounds drug addiction, especially illegal or infamous drugs like opioids. People may feel ashamed of their inability to control their substance use. Our culture tells people that if they can’t control their behavior, it means they’re simply not trying hard enough. Young men in particular may fear that if they open up about their substance use disorder they will be perceived as “weak.”
It is crucial to understand that substance use disorders do not stem from weakness or personal failings. They are very legitimate mental health disorders that require outside help and a strong support system. Trying to manage an addiction on one’s own is like avoiding going to the doctor for a broken leg. Few people worry that having a broken leg means they’re “weak” or lack “will power.” Over time, untreated addictions, like broken legs, only get worse. For many, failing to get help can lead to a life-threatening overdose.
A sober living home is a house where people who are trying to recover from drug and alcohol addictions live together. They are designed to be safe environments that separate people from the triggers they may normally encounter. While residing in a sober living home, people work to develop the skills and coping tools they need to avoid relapse and stay sober over the long term. Trained sober living staff help them address underlying issues, including behavioral issues. Perhaps most importantly, residents develop a strong sober social support system. One study on sober living homes shows that strong social support systems dramatically decrease the chances of relapse.
Design for Recovery, a structured sober living home in West Los Angeles, offers young men an opportunity to recover and support each other. For most addicts, addiction is deeply isolating. While it is possible to withdraw from opioids alone, getting help and developing a support system is crucial to long term sobriety. At Design for Recovery, young men have the opportunity to recover from their addictions, rebuild their lives, and discover the joy and freedom of sober life. If you’re ready to make a change, reach out today.