What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking?
In theory, knowing the immense dangers and risks associated with alcohol abuse should have an impact on whether a person stops drinking or not. However, there is very little information readily available on the actual processes that occur with the cessation of drinking. The fear of the unknown can keep drinkers from quitting, so having a clear vision of the immediate and positive benefits of quitting alcohol, as well as the expected recovery timeline can be a valuable tool in beginning a lasting recovery.
Wrangling Withdrawal: Six Hours to Two Weeks After Quitting
What happens to your body when you stop drinking? When someone makes the decision to stop drinking, the first 72 hours are critical, as they’re in the most painful part of the treatment and recovery process. As your body flushes all the alcohol from your system, you’ll experience the unpleasant pangs of acute withdrawal — but the benefits of quitting drinking will soon make themselves known.
Aside from a heaping dose of apprehension, quitting drinking has the immediate benefit of self-empowerment. The simple act of consciously choosing to eschew alcohol is the single most significant catalyst of the recovery process. Electing to participate in a detox program greatly increases the likelihood of a successful recovery.
Even though it may not feel like it, the acute withdrawal stage of the recovery timeline can be the beginning of something great. The onset of the first symptoms is evidence that your body is beginning to shift into healing gear. If alcohol is used over the long term, it can actually affect the brain’s electrical potential.
A healthy brain conducts enough electricity to power a 20-watt lightbulb, but alcohol’s sedative effects actually dampen its electrical power. Many withdrawal symptoms are caused by the brain experiencing a sudden surge in electrical activity, causing the nervous system to jump into overdrive.
The onset of withdrawal symptoms can begin as soon as six hours after your last drink. You may experience:
- Elevated temperature
- Increased blood pressure, breathing rate and pulse
- Excessive sweating
In extreme cases, people may even have seizures leading to loss of consciousness. The body is working overtime to cleanse itself of alcohol, and the symptoms it creates can be so uncomfortable that people immediately relapse. This is why it is so important for someone attempting to overcome alcoholism to go through the withdrawal process under medical supervision
If done correctly, detox is the first meaningful step in the recovery process. At the same time, it’s also the stumbling block that can completely derail any attempts at long-term sobriety. This is why it’s important to enlist the professional services of a detox program that can ensure you’re receiving the nutrients, medication and support you need to make it through the first stages after quitting drinking.
Post-Acute Withdrawal: Two Weeks+ After Quitting
While the most infamous phase of recovery is the initial withdrawal stage, full detoxification can take up to two weeks in some cases. As your body is getting rid of the last remnants of alcohol, psychological symptoms can advance quickly — but so can the positive effects.
With the worst of the physical symptoms behind you in primary detox, your outlook is likely to improve significantly. The first one to two weeks without alcohol are a revolutionary time for many – a chance to redefine relationships, coping mechanisms and healthy habits.
Many individuals with alcohol abuse disorders know in theory how good it feels to take back power through quitting drinking and sustaining an extended period of sobriety, but this time is vital for actually cementing positive reinforcement for abstinence.
As most would expect, mixed in with the highs are periods of emotional lows. These effects aren’t as physically urgent as the ones experienced in the first stages of withdrawal, but they can take a big toll on your newly sober psyche:
- Anxiety & depression
- Decreased energy & metabolism
- Feelings of aggression or hostility
- Declined sexual interest or function
- Sleep disruption & nightmares
These symptoms develop after the acute withdrawal period, and can last for a couple of weeks all the way up to a year depending on the severity of prior alcoholism. The name for this phenomenon is “protracted/post-acute withdrawal symptoms,” or PAWS.
The worst part of these symptoms is the formidable cravings for alcohol. Even after removing all traces of alcohol from your system, the brain will still want it to help return to the balance of chemicals it has gotten used to — but knowing the source of these symptoms is key to dealing with cravings appropriately.
In this time period, it’s crucial for people in recovery to develop and enforce new and healthy coping habits without turning back to the bottle. In effective treatment programs, you can learn how to augment the positive effects of quitting drinking with therapy, group work and one-on-one attention from medical and clinical professionals. Building effective coping skills and getting to the root of addiction is paramount at this juncture in the quitting alcohol recovery timeline.
Your Body Back on Track: One Month+ After Quitting
Even as sufferers of alcoholism are still kicking the negative symptoms of withdrawal and the unpleasantness of detox, their bodies are already getting back into gear. Though the long-term effects of alcohol can be devastating, people who forego alcohol for as little as one month can already see the immediate benefits of quitting drinking.
To measure the impact of alcohol — and its absence — on people’s health, a team at New Scientist decided to work with the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School to find out just what happens to your body when you stop drinking alcohol for one month. They expected to see some immediate benefits of quitting drinking, but their findings were even more groundbreaking than expected:
- Liver fat decreased an average of 15%, with some participants losing up to 20%.
Accumulation of fat in the liver is a precursor to liver damage — creating inflammation that can lead to liver disease. A reduction this large means that an almost immediate benefit of quitting drinking can help your liver slim down, dramatically reducing your chances of developing cirrhosis or other chronic liver conditions.
- Blood glucose levels dropped an average of 16%.
This is incredibly significant among the benefits of the quitting alcohol timeline, since high levels of glucose circulating in the bloodstream are a sign of heightened blood sugar and can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Once those levels get under control, the risk is reduced.
- Total blood cholesterol decreased by nearly 5%.
Heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., can be predicted in part by examining patients’ cholesterol levels. While an average decrease of 5% in blood cholesterol might not seem like much, it’s quite significant when achieved as a result of cutting out alcohol.
Not only did the experiment show healthier physiology after alcohol cessation, but the patients also experienced boosted performance in psychological areas as well:
- Reported sleep quality improved by 10% after the study.
- Participants benefitted from a whopping 18% increase in ability to concentrate.
While researchers and spectators alike guessed that quitting alcohol would have several health benefits, all were surprised at the sheer number and quality of positive outcomes that were observed.
Learning to Live Without Alcohol
Now that we’ve established a timeline of what happens to your body and mind in the critical days and weeks after quitting drinking, it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts of long-term sobriety.
After months or years of alcohol abuse, your brain has literally changed its chemical structure to work with a consistent supply of alcohol. This means that the neurotransmitters — which shuffle chemicals throughout the brain — become depleted or just downright out of whack. When you deprive your brain of alcohol, that depletion and dysregulation of neurochemicals manifests as a variety of symptoms including moodiness and cognitive difficulties.
Many people don’t realize that these unfortunate side effects are actually a symptom of your brain healing and re-balancing its natural chemistry, and they allow these negative feelings to drive them back to drinking. How can people in recovery from alcohol addiction combat these feelings over the period following acute and post-acute withdrawal? When negative emotions and cravings strike, here are some general tips you can use to stay on track:
- Practice patience, acceptance and perseverance
- Seek out post-treatment support programs
- Engage in virtual or real life networks with recovery peers and professionals
- Augment the physical side of recovery with the benefit of diet and exercise
The road to successful recovery has different twists and turns for everyone, but the mile markers are the same. Attempting to conquer acute and post-acute withdrawal cold-turkey leads millions of Americans to abandon their attempts at recovery, even if they have made the decision to quit drinking — but making it through those stages and through the first year of sobriety significantly decreases the chance of relapse. A comprehensive eight-year study of almost 1200 addicts revealed that:
- Among individuals who have achieved a single year of sobriety, chances of relapse are less than 50%.
- When individuals make it to five years of sobriety, the chance of relapse dips below 15%.
With the appropriate treatment and support, quitting drinking can be the best permanent decision you make. The immediate and long-term benefits of quitting drinking vastly outweigh the temporary and destructive high that this drug can give you.
Addiction is almost always a touchy subject, and acknowledging it is a very tough call to make. For alcoholics, addressing addiction is made even more difficult by one undeniable fact: alcohol is everywhere. It’s nearly impossible for a person to go about their day without being exposed to the radio ads, TV spots, billboards and social media crowing of the alcohol industry — and because of this constant media saturation, many people simply accept alcohol, and even its abuse, as a regular part of the woodwork.
The end result of our culture’s attitude toward alcohol is a worrying percentage of our population struggling with the specter of addiction. Here are the stats:
- An estimated 17.6 million Americans struggle with alcohol abuse or dependence
- Every year, 88,000 deaths are attributed to excessive alcohol use
- At any given time, up to 40% of U.S. hospital beds are occupied by patients in treatment for alcohol-related health conditions
In addition, millions more demonstrate risky alcohol-related behavior in the form of binge drinking. It’s clear that the general population doesn’t have a firm handle on how addiction works, and that leaves alcoholics even more in the dark when it comes to understanding their own behaviors and how to alter them in a healthy manner.
Why Should I Stop Drinking?
Consumption of alcohol produces strong reactions in both the brain and body — which is why we tend to like it so much. However, that also means that the resulting addiction timeline has an incredibly strong physical and psychological grip on the sufferer. The physical symptoms of long-term alcohol abuse include:
- Increased risk of many types of cancer
- Digestive problems, like pancreatitis or gastritis
- Cardiovascular deterioration
- Stroke & neuropathy
The psychological side of things isn’t pretty either. Alcohol abuse puts you at risk for:
- Depression & anxiety
- Suicidal ideation
- Dementia and other neural degeneration
What Is Alcoholism?
Before launching into why quitting alcohol is beneficial, it’s important to know what you’re up against. Addiction to alcohol is a deceptively complex phenomenon, and it’s one that simply can’t be solved with a little willpower and elbow grease.
The most vital fact to keep in mind is that addiction is in fact a disease, and it’s one with relapse rates similar to other chronic diseases like asthma or diabetes. There is currently no “cure” for alcohol and other addiction, but it can be effectively managed through treatment and ongoing focus on maintaining healthy coping skills.
Am I an Alcoholic?
With alcohol marketed as an accepted part of society, it can be difficult to determine whether your social drinking has crossed over to the realm of addiction. Likewise, when does a beer or two after a tough day become dangerous? Luckily, there are some clear-cut criteria that can help you determine if your drinking habits have become symptomatic of fully-fledged addiction.
In short, alcoholism is characterized by a shift in priorities that allows drinking to rule your life. This shift may be gradual and not necessarily apparent without mindful self-reflection, so looking at your drinking habits from an objective perspective is key.
Answering affirmatively to one or more of the above questions is a sign that your consumption of alcohol is beginning to affect your quality of life, whether you realize it or not. The dangers of alcohol are very real, and can be very scary.
Opening Doors With 12 Keys
The decision to quit drinking is a monumental one. Now that you’re equipped with the timeline of what happens to your body when you stop drinking, you know that it’s not an easy road ahead. Luckily, it’s not a road you have to travel alone. Recovery from alcohol addiction requires the knowledge, expertise, and support of addiction professionals — which are available to you in the programs at 12 Keys.
These compassionate experts have the know-how and desire to help patients overcome addiction and live their best lives. This is accomplished through holistic treatment and an emphasis on individual care. If addiction is driving your life downhill, contact 12 Keys to learn more about your path to recovery.