Why Detox? The Importance of Medical Detox in Recovery

Last Updated on October 25, 2023

Why Detox? The Importance of Medical Detox in Recovery

When you make the choice to stop using drugs or alcohol, a complete detox is the first step toward recovery. The extensive physical and mental effects of addiction require time and care to overcome, and without an initial detox, you won’t be able to move beyond your drug or alcohol use.

What Is Detox?

Detox involves enduring the physical and mental effects of the body going through withdrawal and adjusting to a lack of drugs or alcohol in your system. Every time you use drugs or alcohol, your body grows more accustomed to the presence of that substance. The chemistry of your brain adapts to the repeated influx of chemicals, creating an addiction. Many addictive substances interact with the brain in different ways by altering brain chemistry or causing the machinery of the brain to misfire.

Heroin is structurally similar to neurotransmitters, the chemical signals sent by the brain, and repeated use allows the drug to interfere with the neurotransmitters’ job of sending messages throughout the body. Cocaine and methamphetamine increase the production and release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, creating a euphoric sensation often associated with a drug high.1 Similarly, alcohol can affect the exchange of neurotransmitters in your brain.

In order to stop using drugs or alcohol and begin recovery, you need to purge the drug from your system and deal with the physical symptoms resulting from that sudden absence. When the body is deprived of those substances for more than a few hours, a variety of withdrawal symptoms begin.

Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Because drug and alcohol withdrawal can be painful, there are options that may help ease your symptoms.

Why Detox is Important for Recovery

Your body requires a delicate balance of chemicals to function properly. Repeated drug or alcohol abuse interferes with that balance, physically changing the structure of the brain and the way the brain regulates important hormones.

Many substances affect the neurotransmitters in your brain, sending faulty signals that impact the reward and pleasure centers of your brain.2 Continued use can lead to addiction as your body craves those substances and begins to function more normally in the presence of the drug than without it.

When you try to go without drugs or alcohol, you begin to feel sick and irritable. This is your body telling you it needs more in order to operate properly. Detox forces your body to go without drugs and alcohol, allowing your brain chemistry to return to healthy levels. Feelings of sickness, anger, panic and other emotions are common during withdrawal, but they are temporary sensations that will pass once your body’s chemistry is restored.

Because of the way addictive substances affect your body, detox is a necessary part of recovery. Accepting your addiction and choosing to complete drug detox for recovery is an important start. A complete detox program is part of that decision and is the first step of the journey to sobriety. Once you have completed your detox, you can begin learning to live without drugs or alcohol.

What to Expect from Detox Facilities

Breaking the hold drugs and alcohol have over you can be a difficult and painful process and trying to do so alone is rarely successful. Detox facilities help you manage the symptoms and successfully complete your detox.

Once you’ve made the decision to detox, there are two options available to you: inpatient or outpatient treatment. There are pros and cons to both types of treatment, so it is important for you to weigh the options.

Outpatient DetoxInpatient Detox
  • Clients visit a hospital or other facility on a regular schedule to receive treatment.
  • Treatment sessions may be as short as 15 to 30 minutes and may be required for 3 to 14 days.3
  • Fewer restrictions are placed on the client and access to drugs and alcohol is not strictly monitored or restricted.
  • Clients have opportunities to receive personal support from your friends, family or even a support group.
  • Clients receive medically supervised detoxification services at a detox center.
  • People with severe addiction(s) may benefit from the highly structured environment with close personal monitoring.
  • Treatment staff often aid clients in transitioning into a rehab program after detox is complete.
  • Inpatient detox may be more costly than outpatient treatment, but insurance may cover the increased cost.

Many detox centers also offer executive detox programs that cater to the needs of working professionals with enhanced privacy, discreet treatment, deluxe amenities, and access to a personal cell phone and computer.

What Happens in Detox?

Detox centers are designed to house and treat those suffering from addiction while their bodies purge the drugs and alcohol from their systems. Often these facilities are independent of addiction treatment centers, though they may work together to provide care.

Although each detox center may operate differently, there are a few basic things that generally occur during detox treatment:

  1. Orientation and comprehensive assessment – Your time at a detox facility begins with an orientation and assessment as the center’s staff determines the physical and mental severity of your addiction. Therapists work with you to form a plan for detox and recovery. During this orientation period, you’ll also be examined by doctors to determine the physical toll addiction has taken on your body.
  2. Physical detoxification and medical monitoring – Once this assessment is complete, you will begin your detox. For those with intense withdrawal symptoms, doctors may prescribe medications such as Lexapro (among others) to counteract some of the effects. These medications interact with your brain chemistry, sometimes satisfying the same need the drugs do without the negative side effects. During these first few days, you might not be permitted to speak with family or friends, allowing you to remain focused on your recovery. Once the initial detox is completed, those restrictions should relax.
  3. Individual and/or group therapy – During that time of focused healing, you may wish to participate in therapy or other treatment as a means of occupying your mind and body. These activities will help you while you begin long-term treatment.

A Drug Detox Center vs. Drug Detox Kits

If your intention is to get sober quickly, it may be tempting to try a drug detox kit instead of enrolling in a program at a drug detox center. However, there are several risks and limitations involved with drug detox kits.

Drug detox kits are over-the-counter cleansing products that claim to clear toxins from the body and ultimately, help people pass drug tests even if they’ve been using drugs. Unfortunately, these drug detox kits may not always be effective or safe. Here are some of the most common risks of drug detox kits.

  • They may contain harmful ingredients. Drug detox kits often contain natural ingredients like herbs, vitamins, and minerals that are supposed to cleanse the body. Even though many of these ingredients are plant-based, varying ingredient combinations may be harmful to your health.
  • You won’t have any medical monitoring. If you choose to detox at home with a drug detox kit, you’ll miss out on the benefits of professional medical monitoring. It could also put you at risk for medical emergencies, especially with more severe withdrawal symptoms.
  • Your risk of relapse is higher. Without professional support, you are much more likely to return to your drug use when the withdrawal symptoms become uncomfortable. Additionally, a detox kit won’t address addictive behaviors and harmful mindsets that contribute to your substance abuse.
  • They may not work. At-home drug detox kits are designed to dilute urine to fool drug tests and make it seem like the substance isn’t there. They then add substances to the urine to make it seem more concentrated than it really is. The resulting urine is not guaranteed to pass a drug test and many drug tests are sophisticated enough to detect the drug use anyway.

Although home drug detox may seem like the easier and faster way to detox from drugs and alcohol, it is risky and isn’t guaranteed to work. An inpatient or outpatient drug detox center will provide treatment that is much more reputable, safe, and effective. With that in mind, the best drug detox protocol for each individual will vary depending on the severity of their addiction, their drug abuse history, and their physical and psychological needs.

Treatment After Detox: What to Expect

So, what happens after you complete detox? Is detox all you need to reach sobriety, or is there more for you to do?

Detox is an important beginning for recovery, but it isn’t the complete process. Detox only lasts a short time, typically five to seven days. Once you have completed the detox program, you may leave the detox facility and transfer rehab center to continue your recovery. Though your stay may be short, a detox facility can help you begin your recovery and set you on a path to sobriety.

Cravings can and most likely will return after you complete detox. Cravings can be triggered by situations and emotions, or even smells and sounds. Anything that your brain associates with drug or alcohol use can potentially be a trigger.4

Because these triggers can manifest long after the initial detox, further treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy are important to prevent a relapse. Your body may no longer show the immediate symptoms of drug or alcohol addiction, but the physical, mental and emotional effects are still present. Those need to be dealt with for you to complete your recovery and lead a sober lifestyle.

How to Achieve Successful Detox and Recovery

Remaining in treatment for longer periods of time can reduce your chance for relapse. You can learn how to manage cravings and build a support system to help you avoid your triggers. No single treatment is effective for everyone,5 but some common approaches include:

  • Maintenance medication to help suppress cravings – For opioid or alcohol addiction, medications exist that can help restore your brain chemistry and manage cravings, helping you stave off relapse. If you struggle with another mental health issue, your doctor might prescribe a medication to treat both simultaneously.
  • Behavioral therapy to identify and eliminate negative behavior patterns – Behavioral therapy is also important to relapse prevention by helping you learn to recognize and cope with emotional triggers. By learning to deal with your cravings and the emotional triggers that can initiate them, you are better equipped to deal with those temptations when they arise.
  • Treatment for other mental health issues – Addressing and treating co-occurring disorders like anxiety, depression, or PTSD alongside the addiction can help prevent relapse and provide a more holistic treatment experience that encourages lasting sobriety.
  • Participation in a support group – Support groups are another effective post-detox treatment option. Support groups can help reduce the stigma associated with drug or alcohol addiction and recovery, and they can provide you with encouragement if you feel the urge to relapse.

It’s important to recognize the importance of medical detox in recovery if you’re ready to get sober. Detox is vital to your recovery, but it’s not the only stop on your journey. Seeking further treatment after detox will help you continue your recovery and maintain your sobriety.

Call Nova Recovery Center today to speak with an admissions representative and get personalized recommendations for addiction treatment.


  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
  2. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/44-46.pdf
  3. https://archives.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2005/08/cognitive-behavioral-therapies-curb-substance-abuse-symptoms-ptsd
  4. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
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