Kindling, which is often referred to as sedative-hypnotic withdrawal, is a neurological condition that stems from prolonged abuse of sedative-hypnotic drugs like alcohol or benzodiazepines. It’s extremely common for adults in the United States to drink. In fact, there is an entire community that revolves around a social hour and cocktails. For some, they can survive on these weekly outings and not take another sip of alcohol until the next meeting, but for others, it can lead to a full-blown addiction to alcohol. 

On average, 30 percent of American adults do not consume alcohol at all, another 30 percent drink less than one alcoholic beverage per week, but another 10 percent of American adults drink 10 servings of alcohol per day – this equates to 74 drinks per week. Twenty-four million American’s drink too much in the form of binge drinking because of an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

Alcohol affects our brain chemistry by altering the levels of neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that creates sedative and relaxing feelings. When there is too much GABA present, it will cause you to feel slow, sluggish, and stumble. These are classic signs of alcohol intoxication. When someone does not produce enough GABA, it will cause anxiety attacks, panic, or seizures. It is for those reasons why medications like Xanax are taken to help balance out the levels of the natural chemicals in the brain.

Those who struggle with addiction, specifically alcohol abuse, often will attempt to abstain from alcohol on their own if they feel an alcohol use disorder is developing. This is commonly referred to as quitting “cold turkey” which involves abrupt cessation from alcohol use without medical intervention or treatment. The sudden alteration of how neurotransmitters are managed can cause a condition known as kindling.

What is Kindling?

A person that has been struggling with alcohol addiction for an extended period which has received treatment, but has relapsed several times is prone to developing kindling. It is a condition that makes withdrawal symptoms more severe each time the person attempts to abstain from alcohol. Over time, the body becomes increasingly sensitive to changes in the neurotransmitters when GABA floods the brain when you drink. 

When you repeat this process of flooding the mind and abstaining over long periods, you are at risk of much more intense symptoms. Over a few cycles of this, there is a risk of developing delirium tremens, seizures, and other health risks that stem from unsupervised alcohol withdrawal.

Kindling was first discovered in 1967 by a scientist named Graham Goddard who resided in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a neuroscientist who conducted a series of experiments in neurobiology. He would electrically stimulate various regions in rat brains to observe their ability to learn tasks. Repeated stimulation led to an unintended consequence, and it allowed him to discover something unexpected. The rats he tested were experiencing seizures in response to stimuli that were typically too low to provoke a seizure. Eventually, many of these rodents began having unprovoked seizures which led to epileptic rats. The phenomenon was later labeled as kindling.

The concept of this disorder has been applied to many conditions where symptoms are initially mild. Over time, however, experiencing the symptoms over and over again will lead to heightened sensitivity. Heavy alcohol consumption changes our central nervous system (CNS), and when the changes do not occur, our brain is not able to balance its chemistry. The sudden drop in GABA will trigger panic, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, convulsions, and possibly seizures. 

Not all who abstain from drinking only to pick up the habit again will experience kindling. The problem, however, is not knowing if this will occur. The challenges illustrate the need for medical intervention and attending medical detoxification starts the continuum of care toward a better life.

Effects of Kindling

Kindling has a few immediate effects by increasing the sensitivity to alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but it also increases the discomfort from withdrawal exponentially and increases the chance of relapsing. The first sign that kindling may occur is after the first or second relapse from a cold-turkey detox. Some of the psychological changes include:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Depression
  • Negative emotional response

The mental discomfort will continue to increase each time you attempt to stop. What this will do is push someone into taking a drink to take the edge off and be an easy path toward relapse. By continuing to do this, it can eventually lead to a condition called delirium tremens that can be fatal.

What is Delirium Tremens?

Those who continue to go back and forth between abstinence and using are playing a deadly game similar to Russian roulette. As the symptoms begin to increase during alcohol withdrawal, severe side effects can occur. One of these side effects can be delirium tremens which usually begin 48 to 96 hours after the last drink.

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens Include:

  • Severe confusion
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Suppressed mental functioning
  • Tremors throughout the body
  • Fear
  • Sleeping for a day or longer
  • Agitation
  • Bursts of energy followed by low energy
  • Rapid mood change
  • Hallucinations
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain
  • Fever

Seizures can occur in as little as 12 to 48 hours after the last drink. Past attempts to quit followed by relapse and kindling will increase the risk of seizures. The individual will experience grand mal seizures. These are extreme seizures that include symptoms of:

  • Clenched teeth or jaw
  • Incontinence
  • Physical convulsions
  • Weakness after the muscle convulsions

What to Do for Kindling

As we have highlighted, kindling is not only an uncomfortable process that will see a spike in the severity of withdrawal symptoms, but it can also cause complications that result in a fatality. If you or someone you love is serious about stopping alcohol use, seeking, treatment will be the most sustainable option.

If you have chosen to take the steps toward a better life, medical intervention is necessary. There is no shame in admitting that you need a little extra help. Checking into medical detoxification and moving through the continuum of care can be the difference between life and death.

During the stay in detox, the client will have access to around the clock intensive care that will have them supervised for up to seven days. The process is designed to safely transition the client into a sober state while providing medicine to mitigate the dangers often associated with withdrawal. After the process is complete, the clinicians will determine the next course of action. 

To ensure the client deals with their addiction as a whole, they could be placed into a residential treatment center to further work on building new habits. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction and may fear that you can develop kindling, it is time that you reach out to the caring staff of Maryland House Detox.

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