What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

There are plenty of good reasons to stop drinking alcohol. It’s expensive, it makes you do stupid things, it leaves you feeling bad the next day, and it takes a terrible toll on your physical and emotional wellbeing.

When you think about it, it’s pretty remarkable that a such a destructive substance is so easy to get hold of, and so socially acceptable.

If you’ve decided to jump on the wagon, you may be wondering what changes your body will go through, especially if you been a regular drinker for sometime, or if you’ve been drinking heavily.

It’s a good idea to know what to expect. When you know what’s coming, you won’t be caught off guard and you’re less likely to turn to alcohol to make the unpleasant feelings go away.

Alcohol is a drug, and like any drug it changes your body chemistry. When you stop taking drugs your body has to adjust, and depending on your level of alcohol use this can be a fairly quick and painless process, or a more drawn out and difficult affair.

Let’s take a look at what you can expect to happen once you stop drinking alcohol – the good and the bad!

Are You A Heavy Drinker Or A Moderate Drinker?

Knowing where you fall on the scale will help you to determine which problems you may encounter when you stop drinking alcohol.

According to the CDC, a moderate drinker is a man who consumes up to 2 drinks per day, or a woman who consumes up to 1 drink a day

A heavy drinker is a man consuming 15 drinks or more per week, or a woman consuming 8 or more drinks per week.

A drink is classed as 14 grams or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This translates to:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (strong lager or ale with 7% alcohol content).
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).
  • A 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey).

Detox Can be Hard

If you’re a light to moderate drinker, you will most likely find that you can stop drinking without any ill effects. You make the decision to stop and that’s that. You may find that you’ve got an emotional pull toward having a drink, or that when 6pm or 7pm rolls around, you’re fighting the urge to pour a drink to help you unwind, but with a little willpower you’ll get through those feelings in a couple of days, especially if you schedule some new activities to keep yourself busy.

For those who have been drinking more heavily, the initial period after you stop drinking can be quite difficult.

During the first 24 – 72 hours after you stop, you may feel like you have a seriously bad hangover with a pounding head and nausea, and you might even experience some other physical withdrawal effects. These can include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Brain fog and confusion
  • Clammy skin
  • Enlarged (dilated) pupils
  • Insomnia (sleeping difficulty)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Sweating
  • Tremors or shakiness of the hands or other body parts

These effects will usually begin to develop around 8 hours after your last drink. Heavy drinkers should seek advice from their doctor so that they can withdraw from alcohol safely. In some cases inpatient monitoring is necessary. It really isn’t wise to just try to tough it out if you’ve been drinking heavily for some time, severe withdrawals after going cold turkey without medical help can lead to death.

You’ll Crave A Drink

For moderate to heavy drinkers, there is no getting around this one. You will crave alcohol. Your body and your brain has become accustomed to alcohol and has developed an equilibrium based on that alcohol. When you deny your body a substance that it has become used to, your body will crave the substance that is missing.

Until your body has established a new equilibrium, the cravings will persist. For some, the cravings can last for weeks, for other the cravings can continue for years.

Beyond the first week, the craving are unlikely to be physical, your body will have made adjustments, but psychological cravings will still be present, as will the underlying reasons why you ended up drinking so heavily.

Some people find that they feel irrationally angry and aggressive, others report feelings of general anxiety and depression, nightmares and other sleeping difficulties, and even decreased libido

Some of this can be due to the resurfacing of emotional problems that your alcohol use submerged, while some can be down to altered brain chemistry which will return to normal in time.

Having a support network in place results in a greater likelihood that you’ll stick with your resolution to stop drinking.

While everyone has heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, that support program isn’t a good fit for everyone and there are alternatives which you can read about here. Or you might choose to undergo one-on-one counselling with a therapist in person or online. There are also plenty of online communities and facebook groups that offer support, friendship and inspiration for those attempting to stay sober.

You’ll Enjoy Better Sleep

Alcohol disrupts sleep. Even if you don’t have trouble drifting off to sleep or staying asleep, when you drink alcohol, you don’t sleep as deeply as you need to to feel properly refreshed in the morning.

During normal deep sleep, the brain produces delta waves, but consuming alcohol causes those to shift to alpha waves. Alpha waves are usually only seen in brain activity when we’re awake, but resting.

When we sleep, we alternate between two phases. REM sleep (rapid eye movement) and NREM sleep (non rapid eye movement).

During NREM sleep the body moves, the pulse rate and blood pressure remain steady, but brain activity is slowed.

During REM sleep our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed and we enter a much deeper phase of sleep. REM sleep produces dreams.

NREM is a light sleep, and when you drink alcohol, you stay in this phase of sleep for longer, depriving your body of the deep REM sleep that it needs.

Another issue with alcohol and sleep disruption is snoring. People who drink alcohol are more likely to snore. The sedative action of alcohol causes the back of the throat to fold and obstruct the airway. This blocked airway causes snoring.

If you’re a snorer, you may think that it’s only your bed mate that gets a disturbed night’s sleep, but that isn’t the case. Your sleep cycle is constantly interrupted as your body gasps for air.

Alcohol also cause your body to increase urine production, so you might need to wake in the night to use the bathroom.

When you stop drinking, you may find it initially more difficult to drop off to sleep, especially if you have been relying on alcohol’s sedative effects to help you unwind and shut off the chatter in your mind.

But once you’ve adjusted to the lack of alcohol, you should find that you have much more energy and better moods because you’ve been able to benefit from a functional sleep cycle.

You’ll Lose Weight

If you drink alcohol, then you’re consuming lots of extra calories. Calories that don’t come with any nutrion. Sure, polyphenols in wine are considered to be a good source of antioxidants, but there are other sources of antioxidants that don’t come with the all of the downsides of alcohol.

The more calories that you consume over and above those needed by your body, the more weight that you’ll gain.

If you usually enjoy a couple of glasses of wine or a few beers each evening, then you’ll be consuming several hundred extra empty calories each day.

Once you stop drinking (assuming that you don’t replace those alcohol calories with any others) then you’ll begin to lose weight.

Plus without alcohol messing with your impulse control, you are less likely to reach for snack foods in the evening, or order a late night pizza.

It Can Help to Regulate the Heart Rate

You’ll Stop Damaging Your Heart

A healthy liver can process about half ounce of pure alcohol per hour. One that has been abused with alcohol for some time will not be able to process even that much. When you drink more alcohol than your liver can safely deal with, the remaining substance flows onto your heart.

When this happens your heart muscle will contract less forcefully, resulting in less blood being pumped around your body. Your blood vessels will relax and your blood pressure will drop.

This unnatural state can persist for as long as half an hour before returning to normal.

If you drink over the safe limit regularly or find yourself binge drinking often, you can damage your heart, cause irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias)  and bring on diseases of the heart muscle.

By quitting alcohol, you allow your heart to function as it should, and you can avoid any heart diseases associated with alcohol.

Your Skin Will Look Much Better

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes your body to produce more urine. You’ve probably noticed that you need to visit the bathroom more often when you’re drinking alcohol, than if you were sipping the same amount of water.

When you drink alcohol, your body decreases the production of a hormone that helps the body absorb and hold water. This loss of water is one of the reasons that a hangover feels bad. In addition to dealing with the toxic byproducts of alcohol, your body is dehydrated, and being dehydrated feels terrible.

A raging thirst on waking is a sign that your body has been massively depleted of water.

Over time, drinking can result in a state of chronic low-grade dehydration, especially if you choose to try to rehydrate your body with caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, sodas or energy drinks which are themselves diuretics.

When your body experiences dehydration, it sends water to support vital functions which leaves less to go around elsewhere. And one place that will suffer from this rationing is your skin, which can end up looking parched, red and doughy, developing lines and wrinkles much earlier than a non drinker, and you could even suffer from scalp conditions like dandruff or dry scalp.

Once you give up alcohol, you should notice fast improvements in the appearance of your skin.

You Will Have Better Blood Sugar Control

While your body is busy processing alcohol, it becomes less effective at maintaining proper blood sugar levels.

This affects your body’s access to the energy that it needs to fuel its cells, as well as decreasing the effectiveness of insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar.

When insulin doesn’t work effectively, blood sugar levels increase and eventually this can lead type 2 diabetes.

When you stop drinking alcohol, your blood sugar levels can return to normal (assuming you aren’t compromising insulin because of an unhealthy diet).

Studies have shown that when alcohol is no longer a factor, blood sugar levels can drop by as much as 16 percent.

Your Risk Of Developing Certain Types Of Cancer Will Decrease

Certain types of cancer have been lined to heavy drinking. The National Cancer Institute warns that drinking increases the risk of developing mouth, liver, breast, colon, and rectal cancer.

Your Liver Will Shed Fat

It’s well established that alcohol consumption can lead to fatty deposits in the liver and fatty liver disease. While a  small amount of fat in the liver is normal, when the level of fat reaches 5 – 10% this is considered to be fatty liver disease.

When the liver contains too much fat, it doesn’t function properly. Alcoholic fatty liver can lead to a more serious condition called cirrhosis. When you regularly drink more alcohol (half an ounce per hour) than you liver can process, your liver produces a toxic enzyme called acetaldehyde. This enzyme damages liver cells and can cause permanent scarring.

The good news is that when you stop you drinking, your liver will shed the fat and your liver can function normally again.

The results of a study conducted by the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School, showed that after a month without alcohol there was an average decrease in liver fat of 15 percent.

You’ll Have A Stronger Immune System

Heavy drinking has been linked to having a less robust immune system, and of having a higher risk of developing certain conditions. These include some types of cancer, pneumonia and other respiratory disorders, poor wound healing, sepsis and a higher instance of postoperative complications.

Research has found that alcohol overexerts the immune system, and some studies have found that just one episode of binge drinking leads to stresses on the immune system and inflammation.

When you stop drinking, these pressures on your immune system will be removed and your immune system can return to full strength, keeping you healthy and strong.

You’ll Have A Better Chance Of Conceiving

You’ll Have A Better Chance Of Conceiving

If you’re trying for a baby, your chances of conceiving will increase once you stop drinking, because alcohol affects fertility.

In one study published in the British medical Journal, otherwise healthy women who consumed 10 or more drinks a week lowered their odds of conceiving to just 34 percent.

Women who consumed less alcohol – between one and five drinks per week – saw their chance of conception fall to 61 percent.

Brain Damage May Reverse

While everyone knows that drinking too much alcohol has negative impacts on the health of the liver, fewer are aware that alcohol can also significantly affect the brain.

Alcohol’s sedative effects on the brain show up fairly quickly when someone has had too much to drink. When it reaches the brain, alcohol slows the transmission of impulses between neurons that control your ability to think and coordinate your movements.

These immediate effects are why drunk people have slurred speech, have blurred or double vision, and experience impaired judgment. These negative changes to brain function make it critical that people don’t drink and drive.

You brain can recover from occasional bouts of intoxication, but long term alcohol abuse has long lasting consequences.

Long term alcohol use has negative effects on the areas of the brain that control learning and impulse control. In those that have been long term heavy drinkers some of these changes to the brain can be permanent, but in other cases the brain can recover.

According to the National Institutes of Health, becoming alcohol free for several months to a year can result in a partial recovery of some alcohol induced structural brain changes and may also reverse negative effects on problem-solving, memory, and attention.

A small study carried out by New Scientist found that concentration levels can increase by around 18% and work performance can improve by an additional 17% by abstaining from alcohol for one month.

Life Without Alcohol

Quitting alcohol isn’t easy, especially if you’ve used it as a crutch for any great length of time. Physical withdrawal may be very unpleasant, and psychological withdrawal can be drawn out and at times overwhelming.

You may need to make some adjustments to your life to help keep you on track. If your friends are all drinkers, and your socializing involved hitting the bar after work you’ll need to have a rethink.

Anytime that you’re around alcohol or people having a good time drinking it, you run the risk of succumbing to temptation.

You might think that one drink won’t matter, but if you’ve had a dependant relationship with alcohol in the past, then it’s unlikely that you’ll stop at one drink. And one evening on the sauce can cause you to pick up your old habits again.

Finally, try to minimize triggers that would have caused you to turn to alcohol in the past. You might need to do some work with a therapist, you might need to learn some relaxation techniques, you might need to eject difficult people from your life. Make whatever positive changes that you can to help secure your success.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.