What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?
Author: Thomas Roth
Last Updated: 4/12/2022
More than 6% of adults in the United States have a drinking disorder, which is about 1 in 12 men and 1 in 25 women. Alcoholism is a dangerous condition that causes changes to the mind and body. Because of these changes, the brain and body go through several changes. That said, these are typically good changes because when people stop abusing alcohol the body begins to heal and health risks decline.
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1. Decreased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Abusing alcohol leads to cardiovascular disease and increases the risk of heart attacks. Alcohol consumption can also increase the risk of stroke and other chronic conditions related to the heart. Because alcohol causes changes in blood pressure and leads to the accumulation of triglycerides (a type of fat), when drinking stops the body begins to heal. While one standard drink per day is not bad for you, consuming more standard drinks each day can lead to many problems.
That said, the risk of cardiovascular disease never returns to what it was before abusing alcohol. The risk of experiencing a heart attack and stroke decreases but some of the damage is permanent. After quitting drinking changes in blood pressure can occur within a few weeks. Over longer periods (months and years) the heart begins to heal. A healthy diet and lifestyle that incorporates exercise can also improve heart health after quitting drinking and speed up these effects.
2. Weight Loss
Alcohol has a lot of calories; even light beers and alcoholic seltzers have about 100 calories. A single glass of red wine also has over 100 calories and shots of liquor can have upwards of 120 calories. For example, a shot of vodka has 100 calories and a single shot of whiskey has about 110 calories per shot. Drinks with a higher percentage of alcohol per volume are also more calorie-dense. While alcohol consumption is enough to put someone in a caloric surplus, it also impairs judgment. Therefore, when someone is under the influence they’re more likely to binge eat unhealthy foods like fast food, sweets, and potato chips.
When someone stops drinking, thousands of excess calories are removed from their diet, which leads to weight loss. Weight loss doesn’t happen overnight but people begin to notice results in about 3 months. With a healthy diet and exercise, weight loss can occur more rapidly. Plus, reducing alcohol consumption can lead to better judgment and healthier food choices.
3. Reducing the Risk of Cancer
According to the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services, several reports suggest that alcohol is a carcinogen. There is conclusive evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of alcohol-related cancers. These cancers include head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, and colorectal cancer. Furthermore, women who abuse alcohol have an elevated risk of developing breast cancer. Some studies also point to alcohol increases the risk of kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
When people quit drinking, the risk of these cancers decreases. While some damage to the body and internal organs is permanent, the chances of developing alcohol-related cancer diminish over time. If someone who abuses alcohol quits drinking, cancer risk steadily declines over several months and years. It’s also important to note that some genetic predispositions can increase the risk of developing alcohol-related cancers.
4. Dodging Accidents
Accidents happen but they’re more likely to happen when alcohol is involved. Alcohol leads to half of all drownings, burns, and homicides. Furthermore, alcohol plays a role in 4 out of 10 traffic incidents, suicides, and deadly falls. Alcohol causes accidents because intoxicated people have less coordination and control over their movements. When blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches high enough levels in the blood, people can also lose consciousness.
Removing alcohol from the equation can reduce the chances of an accident occurring. In fact, just drinking less often reduces the chances of injury from falling. Therefore, quitting drinking can reduce your chances of sustaining an injury in as little as a few hours after drinking stops.
5. More Healthy Liver
The liver is responsible for removing alcohol from the blood. When alcohol is abused the liver becomes damaged because alcohol is a toxin. Alcohol can cause liver diseases, increase the risk of liver failure, and increase the risk of rare but fatal liver cancers.
Not every type of liver disease is reversible but quitting alcohol can prevent liver failure and reduce the impact of fatty liver disease, which is the buildup of fat on the liver. Moreover, a healthy diet and exercise can also reduce fatty liver disease alongside less alcohol consumption. The peak benefits that occur with the liver happen between 1 and 5 years after quitting drinking.
6. Improving Your Relationships
Alcohol abuse can put a strain on relationships. Having someone in a household that’s an alcoholic increases stress for everyone and can lead to fighting. Furthermore, alcohol can lead to changes in brain chemistry and serotonin. Depending on the person, these changes can lead to more aggressive behavior that results in fighting and violence. People who abuse alcohol can also become distant with family and friends. Plus, people lose their spouses over alcohol-related problems. Additionally, medical bills related to the treatment of alcohol-related diseases can put a financial strain on households.
When someone quits drinking, relationships almost always improve. That said, this depends on the individual. People who quit drinking can become closer to those around them and more involved with family and friends. The time it takes to improve relationships depends on the person but noticeable improvements begin to occur in a few months. In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can cause mood swings. These rapid mood changes can make it more challenging to build relationships, so it can take about 6 months to a year for severe alcoholics.
7. Sleeping Better
Alcoholism causes changes in a person’s sleep. Going to sleep drunk reduces the quality of sleep and frequent drinking can lead to conditions like insomnia. While alcohol can make someone drowsy and function as a sleep aid in the short-term, abusing alcohol can make someone dependent on the substance to fall asleep. Unfortunately, this can persist through alcohol withdrawal and lead to further problems with sleep.
When someone quits drinking, sleeping improves. While it takes time, people can begin to experience better sleep in a few weeks. In most cases, sleep quality returns to what it was before consuming alcohol. Quitting drinking can also reduce co-occurring disorders like anxiety and depression, which can also make it easier to sleep.
8. Low Blood Pressure
Alcohol interacts with blood pressure in a few ways. While one standard drink, specifically wine, can lower blood pressure, consuming more alcohol can have the opposite effect. When someone quits drinking blood pressure can change in a few ways depending on the severity of alcoholism. For someone who abused alcohol for many years, blood pressure can change suddenly during alcohol withdrawal. On the other hand, someone who only consumes moderate amounts of alcohol can have their blood pressure return to normal in 24 to 48 hours after their last drink.
Low blood pressure can also occur in people who have pre-existing conditions. In these cases, alcohol can have drastic and lasting effects on blood pressure. That said, in most cases, blood pressure improves when someone quits drinking. Plus, blood pressure levels out quickly and people can see improvements in as little as a few months. A healthy diet and exercise can also speed up blood pressure recovery.
9. More Clear Brain
Alcohol abuse leads to brain fog, brain damage, and even some types of dementia. The longer someone abuses alcohol, the higher the risk of brain problems and decreased brain function. Furthermore, a few bouts of binge drinking and blacking out can lead to damage. That said, alcohol-related brain damage like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be reversed in the early stages. When someone quits alcohol and makes it through withdrawal, mental health can also improve and this leads to a more clear brain.
People who quit drinking can expect to see the benefits of a clear brain in a few months after their last drink. Some conditions can take longer to improve but brain damage isn’t always permanent. On the other hand, alcohol-related dementia and late-stage Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are irreversible. People with second-stage Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can experience improvements but brain damage is permanent. Keeping this in mind, having a clear brain after quitting alcohol depends on several factors and the extent of the damage.
10. Getting Sick Less
Alcohol interacts with the immune system. Because alcohol is a toxic substance, the immune system responds with inflammation. Inflammation caused by alcohol makes it harder for the immune system to fight infections. Alcohol abuse also leads to a reduced white blood cell count, which causes a weakened immune system. For these reasons, alcoholics are more likely to get sick and suffer from severe illness. In people with a weakened immune system, even conditions like the flu can be deadly.
Quitting drinking can restore the immune system and reduce inflammation. Inflammation also impacts the heart and other organs in the body because it’s a constant form of irritation. After quitting drinking, the immune system begins to heal in a few months. In most cases, the immune system makes a full recovery and people return to their normal status prior to becoming an alcoholic. Severe cases lengthen the time it takes for the immune system to recover. Quitting alcohol can also help people reduce inflammation.
11. Improving Digestion
Alcohol is a toxic substance and the stomach and intestines have trouble digesting it. When alcohol is abused it can damage the stomach lining, cause ulcers, and lead to problems with digestion. Reducing alcohol intake can improve digestion and quitting alcohol can return digestion to pre-alcoholic levels. Because alcohol causes inflammation in the stomach and intestines, the degree of digestive problems depends on the person.
After someone’s last alcohol drink, digestion begins to improve. For someone who’s not an alcoholic, digestion returns to normal in about 24 to 48 hours. On the other hand, recovering alcoholics face different digestive problems. Some people will experience stomach discomfort during alcohol withdrawal, which can last for a few weeks. From there, digestion begins to improve after a few weeks. If there’s inflammation or damage to the stomach and intestines, digestion can take longer to improve and might not fully recover.
12. Being Less Anxious
When alcohol is consumed it interacts with receptors in the brain that produce serotonin and dopamine. While the brain produces these chemicals naturally, someone who’s dependent on alcohol can struggle to achieve mental stability without it. Ultimately, this can cause anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. The best way to manage these co-occurring disorders is to quit drinking and attend therapy. With a good therapy routine and less alcohol consumption, mental health can make a full recovery if there’s no permanent brain damage.
When dealing with anxiety, it’s a mental disorder that causes the mind to think rapidly. It can also increase heart rate and induce panic attacks. Depending on the person, alcohol consumption can also lead to anxiety during intoxication and when BAC decreases. When someone quits drinking, symptoms of anxiety can take weeks, months, or even years to improve. That said, a good therapy routine can reduce anxiety in as little as 5 weeks.
13. Being more Hydrated
Alcohol leads to dehydration. When someone consumes alcohol the amount of water retained by the body decreases. This leads to issues with hydration and causes the body to become dehydrated. In fact, dehydration is one of the factors that contribute to a hangover. If someone abuses alcohol for many years they may experience elevated levels of dehydration. Being dehydrated for extended periods can lead to many health problems. This occurs because a body that lacks water performs less efficiently.
When alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped, hydration is easier to maintain. Consuming more water can also lead to improved hydration and help the body return to healthy levels of water and water retention faster. Hydration can improve within days after drinking alcohol but it’s essential to consume a lot of water each day to maintain hydration.
14. Better Skin
While the skin is outside of the body, it’s also impacted by alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse. When someone consumes alcohol it causes inflammation, which leads to a histamine response. If someone has been abusing alcohol for many years there can be persistent skin conditions and flushing. Alcohol also leads to dehydration, which can reduce the health of the skin and accelerate aging. Furthermore, alcohol places a lot of strain on the body. This strain and inflammation can make aging more noticeable and reduce the elasticity of the skin.
When someone stops abusing alcohol, the skin begins to heal. For people that don’t abuse alcohol, flushing and redness return to normal a few hours after drinking. On the other hand, it takes longer for an alcoholic’s skin to recover after drinking. Unfortunately, some damage to the skin is also permanent. Still, skin can improve in a few weeks after quitting alcohol. Skin improvements are also correlated with age. Someone younger has a better chance of having healthy skin than someone older.
How Long Does It Take to Feel Better After Quitting Alcohol?
When quitting alcohol people typically begin to feel better after a few weeks. Typically, improvements begin once withdrawal symptoms improve. Changes in sleep patterns and mental health happen the fastest, with many people feeling better in 2-3 weeks. That said, mood swings and some mental health conditions caused by alcoholism can remain for months. Organs within the body take a longer time to heal, which can help make people feel better many years after they quit drinking. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at around 5-7 alcoholism recovery peaks.
Can the Health Impacts of Heavy Drinking be Reversed After Quitting?
Yes, the health impacts of heavy drinking can be reversed after quitting. While not every health effect is reversible, people can improve once alcohol consumption comes to an end. Other factors contribute to reversing health conditions after quitting drinking. One example is diet and exercise because it can improve cardiovascular health and help with fatty liver disease. That said, damage to the cardiovascular system is not fully reversible. Therefore, an elevated risk of heart disease remains after quitting drinking.
Still, many health effects can be fully reversed. The brain, for example, is a resilient organ. People who have the first stage of alcohol-related dementia (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) can make a full recovery when the vitamin deficiency is resolved. However, later stages of the condition cause permanent damage. Furthermore, many of the fertility problems associated with alcohol abuse can be reversed almost immediately.
Overall, only some alcohol-related conditions can be reversed.
Does Stopping Drinking Cause Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal does not happen to everyone. For people who don’t abuse alcohol, withdrawal does not occur when drinking ceases. On the other hand, people who have been abusing alcohol for many years will experience symptoms of withdrawal. Withdrawal also varies based on the severity of alcoholism. People who have pre-existing conditions can also experience more severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Some of the common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include sweating, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and fatigue. Serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include delirium tremens and irregular heartbeat. Depending on the severity of alcoholism, some people require medically-assisted detox (MAT). MAT should only be done by a licensed medical health professional.