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What Is the Kindling Effect, and How Does It Impact Relapse?

The kindling effect for alcohol withdrawal is a neural phenomenon that makes withdrawal symptoms more severe following each relapse. Those who have an alcohol use disorder and have attempted to quit multiple times have the highest risk of experiencing the kindling effect. It can lead to painful and even dangerous effects during initial withdrawal. These symptoms are so challenging that some people will return to substance use to find relief.

This phenomenon is one reason it’s so crucial to seek professional care and supervision before attempting to stop drinking, especially for those who have quit and relapsed in the past. Those with severe alcohol use disorders should never try to quit “cold turkey.” Learn more about the kindling effect and how it impacts the alcohol withdrawal process.

Understanding the Kindling Effect

The kindling effect describes what happens to the brain chemicals of someone with an alcohol abuse disorder. Essentially, withdrawal symptoms worsen with each attempt to quit drinking. The neural pathways involved with withdrawal symptoms engrain themselves deeper with each withdrawal. The term “kindling” applies to any weak electrical or chemical stimulus that causes no response at first but has effects after repeated appearance.

The kindling metaphor will make sense if you’ve ever built a fire. While a log is an abundant fuel source, it’s challenging to start a fire with a log alone. Instead, you must surround it with smaller pieces of wood, which catch fire quickly. After the kindling is ablaze, the log will light, too. Each withdrawal episode, then, is another piece of kindling on the fire of substance abuse.

After a series of relapses, many withdrawal episodes act like a pile of kindling in the brain, lighting the fire of worsened symptoms. The kindling effect is most likely to occur with depressive substances like alcohol, sedative drugs, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. It also happens with mood disorder episodes.

What Are the Effects of Kindling?

Regular, heavy alcohol consumption alters the central nervous system. The brain comes to rely on alcohol’s presence for a state of balance, so when alcohol is suddenly absent, the brain struggles to find equilibrium. This imbalance can have many difficult and dangerous effects, known as withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms worsen with each subsequent withdrawal due to the kindling effect.

The first signs of withdrawal include mood changes. The individual is likely to feel depressed, anxious, panicked or otherwise unhappy. A few days after the final drink, other symptoms can set in, which may include:

  • Delirium or hallucinations
  • Body tremors
  • Impaired mental function
  • Fatigue
  • Paranoia
  • Bursts of energy
  • Extreme sensitivity
  • Mood changes
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures

As you might guess, these symptoms are uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. They become more severe with each withdrawal. Experiencing these symptoms increases the likelihood that you will consume alcohol again to make them stop, which will only make them worse the next time. These risks are why it’s so crucial to seek medical supervision before attempting to quit drinking, especially if you’ve tried to stop in the past.

After some time, the rats had developed seizure disorders and would convulse without any triggers. Goddard realized he had "kindled" epilepsy in their brains with his experiment.

Does the Kindling Effect Only Apply to Alcohol?

The kindling effect can apply to any electrical or chemical stimulus. A neuroscientist named Graham Goddard first discovered this phenomenon in rats in 1969. He stimulated different areas of the rats’ brains with electrical signals to observe their learning process. He found that the rats started having seizures from minor stimuli that would not cause a reaction under normal circumstances. After some time, the rats had developed seizure disorders and would convulse without any triggers. Goddard realized he had “kindled” epilepsy in their brains with his experiment.

Kindling Effect in Bipolar Disorder

This phenomenon also applies to various mood disorders. For instance, in bipolar disorder, manic and depressive episodes first result from outside stimuli, such as life events. When this happens many times, it reinforces the neural pathways and the kindling effect occurs. In essence, each untreated bipolar episode adds kindling to the fire of the disorder. After some time, episodes will happen without any outside events, like how Goddard’s rats started having seizures without any stimuli. The same is true of other mood disorders, as well.

Kindling Effect in Depression

Some theorize the kindling effect is also present for those who suffer from depression. Early life depressive episodes tend to correspond with significant events. Over time, sufferers tend to have more episodes without any life event stimuli. However, depression is a complicated mood disorder, and episode causes are not always consistent across patients.

How to Treat the Kindling Effect

Intensive treatment is necessary for alcohol withdrawal, especially if you’ve tried to stop drinking and relapsed before. Because of the kindling effect, those who have been through withdrawal before are likely to experience worsened symptoms. It’s best to seek an inpatient rehabilitation setting where medical supervision is available. Any of the following may be necessary:

While the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal stop after a few days, the emotional and psychological symptoms can last for a long time. You should always have access to professional treatment throughout the recovery process. The best way to minimize the kindling effect is to avoid relapse — and the way to accomplish that is to engage in long-term professional care, join support groups and continue therapy. Lifelong treatment can help reduce the odds of relapse, thereby decreasing the kindling effect.

Contact Gateway Foundation for Help

Contact Gateway Foundation for Help

Alcohol use disorders impact the brain in complicated ways. An over-reliance on alcohol for chemical stability makes quitting a challenge. Those who attempt to quit often experience painful withdrawal symptoms, and, due to the kindling effect, these symptoms worsen with each relapse. The kindling effect can make alcohol recovery more challenging. If you or someone you know wants to recover from an alcohol use disorder, it’s vital to seek professional care before, during and after the withdrawal process.

If you’re looking for substance use disorder recovery services, consider Gateway Foundation. At Gateway Foundation, we offer compassionate, professional care at various intensity levels, including inpatient and outpatient services. We’ll be with you for life, thanks to our long-term outpatient approach and our alumni group. We can help you recover from a substance use disorder, while limiting the risk of relapse and the subsequent kindling effect. To learn more, feel free to contact us today.

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