Actor's death spotlights risk in detoxing alone

Actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his role as Lafayette Reynold's on HBO's hit series "True Blood," died suddenly this week at the age of 39. The fan-favorite struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for many years. The exact circumstances of Ellis' death were shared by his manager, Emily Gerson Saines, who confirmed that his death was a result of heart failure following an attempt to quit drinking on his own.

The ease and low expense of managing detox and abstinence at home can be tempting to individuals who struggle with addiction, but the process, if done quickly and without professional supervision, can be dangerous, even fatal.

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Actor Nelsan Ellis attends the premiere of 'Get on Up' in New York July 21, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)
NEW YORK - JULY 25: 'Folie a Deux' -- When a serial bomber becomes active again after being dormant for six years, Watson seeks help from Shinwell Johnson (Nelsan Ellis), a former patient whose life she saved when she was a surgeon. Also, Holmes senses Watson is unhappy and questions whether she is still fulfilled by her detective career, on the fifth season premiere of ELEMENTARY, Sunday, Oct. 2 (10:00-11:00, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured Nelsan Ellis as Shinwell Johnson (Photo by Michael Parmelee/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 14: Actor Nelsan Ellis attends the 'Little Boxes' New York Screening at Village East Cinema on April 14, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 26: Actor Nelsan Ellis attends HBO's 'True Blood' panel during Comic-Con International 2014 at the San Diego Convention Center on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15:( EDITORS NOTE; image has been converted to black and white) Nelsan Ellis attends 'Little Boxes' Premiere during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival at Chelsea Bow Tie Cinemas on April 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 26: in this handout photo provided by Warner Bros, Nelsan Ellis of 'True Blood' attends Comic-Con International 2014 on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Chris Frawley/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15: Nelsan Ellis and Armani Jackson attend 'Little Boxes' Premiere during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival at Chelsea Bow Tie Cinemas on April 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 26: (L-R) Kristan Bauer van Straten, Anna Camp, Carrie Preston, Jess Cagle, Nathan Parsons and Nelsan Ellis pose with radio host Tim Stack after being interviewed on SiriusXM's Entertainment Weekly Radio channel from Comic-Con 2014 at The Hard Rock Hotel on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images for Sirius XM)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Actor Nelsan Ellis attends the 'Get On Up' premiere at The Apollo Theater on July 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 26: Actors Deborah Ann Woll (L) and Nelsan Ellis attend HBO's 'True Blood' panel during Comic-Con International 2014 at San Diego Convention Center on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Nelsan Ellis at the 'Get On Up' Press Conference at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on July 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 22: (L-R) Actor Nelsan Ellis, actress Tika Sumpter, director Tate Taylor and actor Chadwick Boseman pose for a portrait at the 2014 American Black Film Festival at the Metropolitan Pavillion on June 22, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 17: (L-R) Actress Octavia Spencer, producer Brian Grazer, singer/producer Mick Jagger, director Tate Taylor, NY Program Director for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Patrick Harrison, actor Chadwick Boseman, producer Victoria Pearman, actor Nelsan Ellis, and actor Dan Aykroyd attend a special screening of 'Get On Up' hosted by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences at The Academy Theatre at Lighthouse International on July 17, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: In this handout photo provided by WBTV, 'True Blood' star Nelsan Ellis and 'Edge Of Tomorrow' star Emily Blunt and director Doug Liman attend the Warner Bros. booth during Comic-Con on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California.(Photo by Wil Corpus/WBTV via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 05: Actor Nelsan Ellis attends Lee Daniels' 'The Butler' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on August 5, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 11: Actor Nelsan Ellis (L) and guest arrive at HBO's 'True Blood' season 6 premiere at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on June 11, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)
CULVER CITY, CA - DECEMBER 05: (L-R) Nelsan Ellis and Michelle Forbes attend the Raising The Bar To End Parkinson's on December 5, 2012 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 30: Actor Nelsan Ellis attends HBO's 'True Blood' Season 5 Los Angeles premiere at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on May 30, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 22: (L-R) Kristin Bauer and Nelsan Ellis attend HBO's 'True Blood' Autograph Signing At Comic-Con 2011 on July 22, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)
Nelsan Ellis presents at the 22nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards at San Francisco Marriott Marquis on May 14, 2011 in San Francisco, California.
Actor Nelsan Ellis attends the Access Hollywood 'Stuff You Must...' Lounge produced by On 3 Productions at the Sofitel Hotel on January 15, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage)
SAN DIEGO - JULY 23: Nelsan Ellis, Sam Trammell and Rutina Wesley at San Diego Convention Center on July 23, 2010 in San Diego, California. (Photo by FilmMagic Inc/FilmMagic)
(L-R) Sam Trammell and Nelsan Ellis attend the 'True Blood' Crew Appreciation Party Hosted By Nelsan Ellis at The Carlyle Residences on July 3, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/FilmMagic)
HOLLYWOOD - JUNE 08: Actor Nelsan Ellis arrives at the premiere of HBO's 'True Blood' Season 3 at The Cinerama Dome on June 8, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
METAIRIE, LA - MARCH 20: New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley actor Nelsan Ellis pose at the Vampire Baseball game at Zephyr Field on March 20, 2010 in Metairie, Louisiana. (Photo by Skip Bolen/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 24: Nelsan Ellis at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California on July 24, 2009. (Photo by Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images) Reproduction by American tabloids is absolutely forbidden.
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: Actors Nelsan Ellis (L) and Lee Pace pose during the HBO Luxury Lounge in honor of the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards featuring the In Style diamond suite, held at the Four Seasons Hotel on September 20, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for mediaplacement)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 11: (L-R) Actors Rutina Wesley, Stephen Moyer, Anna Paquin, Sam Trammell and Nelsan Ellis arrive at the official HBO after party for the 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at Circa 55 Restaurant, Poolside at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 11, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
HBO's Richard Plepler, executive producer Alan Ball, HBO's Sue Naegle, actress Rutina Wesley, actor Stephen Moyer, actress Anna Paquin, actor Ryan Kwanten, actor Nelsan Ellis, HBO's Michael Lombardo, and actor Sam Trammell attend the HBO Premiere of 'True Blood' at Paramount Studios on June 9, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.
Andrew Davoli, Cynthia Nixon, Nelsan Ellis, Felicia Day and Marshall Hamilton (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
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Between 5 and 25 percent of people who go through extreme alcohol withdrawal die, according to a report in Alcohol Health & Research World. It's believed that singer Amy Winehouse died as a result of an unsuccessful alcohol self-detox.

According to Ellis' family, the actor had been through rehab many times, albeit unsuccessfully, which is why he was attempting to quit on his own. In a family statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Ellis' father said his kidneys failed, he had a blood infection, his blood pressure dropped and "his dear sweet heart raced out of control."

While rehab doesn't always work for everyone, a hospital or treatment program is the safest way to recover. Still, of the more than 15 million U.S. adults with an alcohol-use disorder, fewer than 10 percent get treatment at a specialized facility, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In Ellis' case, his family revealed his private struggles with alcohol to the Hollywood Reporter because he "would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others."

As many heavy drinkers try to stop on their own, here's what you need to know about the dangers of sudden alcohol withdrawal:

Alcohol changes the way the brain works

Alcohol and "benzos" — anti-anxiety medications such as Valium or Xanax — block certain brain chemicals, slowing brain function, which results in the calming effect that makes these substances so attractive. Over time deep chemical changes render the brain unable to function properly without the substance. This is called dependence, a common indicator of addiction. It may seem like going 'cold turkey' or simply discontinuing the substance is the trick, but the chemical changes made in the brain result in a real, physical need for the substance and the body reacts to this loss of the chemical by producing withdrawal symptoms.

In other words, what your brain has been leaning on suddenly crumbles.

Even 'minor' withdrawal symptoms are worrisome and may indicate that something worse might be happening

There are physical and psychological symptoms of sudden alcohol withdrawal:

  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Digestive discomfort
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Heart palpitations

These symptoms can start within hours after one's last consumed alcoholic beverage. It is important not to take these symptoms lightly, as they might be a precursor for more severe symptoms.

The five days just after quitting are the most life-threatening

In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Ellis' family said he died on July 8 after four days in a Brooklyn hospital. It's unclear when Ellis began his withdrawal, but symptoms typically begin 48-72 hours after the last drink was consumed and peak in four or five days after quitting.

Delirium tremens (DTs) is the most dangerous side effect associated with alcohol withdrawal. DTs can involve severe visual hallucination, profuse sweating, an abnormally fast heart rate, high blood pressure, fever, and agitation. If an alcoholic is trying to withdraw without medical attention, not getting help for these symptoms can lead to heart attack and death.

Repeated relapse leads to worsening withdrawal symptoms

Repeated but unsuccessful self-detox without intervention can precipitate a potential chain reaction of worsening symptoms that may result in more severe withdrawal events later on. This is called the "kindling phenomenon."

The longer you drink, the worse your detox

Many people do not experience life-threatening symptoms following alcohol withdrawal, but chronic substance users generally experience more severe symptoms.

Length of alcohol use, amount consumed per episode, and individual reactions to the substance all contribute to the severity.

The longer one uses, the greater the change to the brain and body and therefore the worse one's withdrawal symptoms.

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