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Alcohol Withdrawal: The Seesaw Effect of Glutamate and GABA

Alcohol Withdrawal: The Seesaw Effect of Glutamate and GABA

Quick Summary

  • Chronic alcohol abuse creates what I like to call “The Seesaw Effect” of Glutamate and GABA, and the more alcohol is abused, the larger the sway.
  • This is the reason why people use alcohol to “de-stress”, because it’s able to create it through the release of GABA.
  • When we wake up the next day, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed (which in my case, was a lot) we see the opposite happen.

When we attempt to quit booze, one of the biggest things that are almost unavoidable is the various symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

These often range from shakiness, sweating and loss of appetite to increased heart rate, shakes, insomnia and even seizures.

All of which are caused by an imbalance of two specific neurotransmitters known as Glutamate and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). 

Chronic alcohol abuse creates what I like to call “The Seesaw Effect” of Glutamate and GABA, and the more alcohol is abused, the larger the sway.

But first.

Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal is a challenging phase that marks the beginning of the journey towards sobriety. It’s crucial to understand the range of symptoms that individuals may experience during this period.

These symptoms can vary widely in intensity and duration, depending on several factors including the duration of alcohol use, the amount consumed, and individual health conditions.

These symptoms can be mild, moderate or more severe, and will vary from individual to individual depending on various factors. These factors include duration and intensity of alcohol use, physical health, genetic factors and family history.

Mild to Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Anxiety and Nervousness: Often can manifest hours after the last drink.
  • Insomnia: Difficulty falling and staying asleep is a frequent symptom of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Sweating and Tremors: A common physical reaction to withdrawing from alcohol.

Severe Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

  • Hallucinations: Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there can occur within the first 48 hours. This is usually paired with severe dehydration.
  • Seizures: Although less uncommon, this risk is the highest within the first 24 to 48 hours of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Delirium Tremens (DTs): A rare but serious condition that includes severe confusion, rapid heartbeat, and high blood pressure, usually appearing 48 to 72 hours after the last drink.

Glutamate and GABA’s role in Alcohol Withdrawal

Glutamate and GABA are the main excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the body, think of them as yin and yang; we need both to create harmony.

Glutamate is the excitatory neurotransmitter, and often when we’re irritable, hyperactive or plagued with unexpected anxiety, high glutamate is the culprit. We also need adequate levels of glutamate for cognitive function, learning, and for overall motor function (which is pretty important).

GABA is our inhibitory neurotransmitter that does the opposite of glutamate, it creates calm, slows us down and helps us stop. Without GABA, we can experience insomnia, have tense muscles, and our ability to think clearly can become severely hindered.

Generally, when our Glutamate is high (and GABA low), we experience more of these symptoms previously mentioned. When our Glutamate is low (and GABA high), we get less of them and feel more in control.

Both of these neurotransmitters are important, and balance is key towards reaping the benefits of both.

Want to learn more about the various neurotransmitters, including these two? Read my more comprehensive article on Substance Abuse and Neurotransmitters.

How Does Alcohol Impact These Levels?

When we drink alcohol, we tend to see a steep rise in GABA, which is commonly followed by relaxation and feel-good sensations. This is the reason why people use alcohol to “de-stress”, because it’s able to create it through the release of GABA..

When we wake up the next day, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed (which in my case, was a lot) we see the opposite happen. We tend to have already seen GABA dramatically drop in our bodies.

As blood alcohol levels drop, Glutamate starts to spike, and this is where withdrawal symptoms, as previously mentioned, start to manifest. We commonly see restlessness, anxiety or tremors (shakes) as a pretty common manifestation.

When this process repeats from days of chronic drinking, we see greater seesaw effects in these levels. The greater the seesaw has to swing to restore balance, the more severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms that present.

Restoring Balance in Alcohol Withdrawal

The first real step towards restoring the balance of Glutamate and GABA is getting sober. If you’re still swinging that seesaw side to side, balance will be near impossible.

I write a great article here on some new resolutions in starting this journey.

If we can first stop the seesaw effect, we can allow our body to have a more natural swing when it comes to balancing both these neurotransmitters.

Let’s look at some dietary supplements that could help accelerate the process if you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms from high glutamate.

If you’re wondering how these supplements help, visit and read this article over here – Alcohol Cravings: 3 Supplements That May Help You Stop Drinking For Good

Frequently Asked Questions in Alcohol Withdrawal

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

This can vary. Typically, symptoms begin within 8 hours after the last drink, and peak at around 24 to 72 hours. In the chronic drinker though, it can last for weeks, and the severity of symptoms can depend on the individual’s alcohol usage history.

Can Alcohol Withdrawal be Fatal?

Yes, it can. Complications like seizures, hallucinations and delirium tremens (DTs) require immediate medical attention. If you are looking to withdraw from a long period of alcohol intake, seek medical assistance.

Are There Long-term Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Yes, there are. Most symptoms resolve with time, but some individuals may experience prolonged effects such as sleep disturbances and emotional changes. This is why continuous support and treatment is crucial for long-term recovery.

Is Relapse Common After Alcohol Withdrawal?

Relapse can occur, but this isn’t an indication of failure. Recovery is a continuous process, and relapse is often a step in learning and growing in your sober journey.

The Takeaway

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are never pleasant, but if we continue to drink, they’re almost unavoidable.

The more we drink booze, the greater its effects on our Glutamate and GABA levels which results in symptoms that are more severe.

Luckily, we do have a choice to stop this swing and have supplements available to make this process and journey easier.

Clarity is here to help, so please use the resources we offer, and if you have any questions, do reach out.

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