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What happens when you stop drinking?

There are physical and material benefits to giving up alcohol this year

What happens when you stop drinking? | Benefits of not drinking alcohol | How to stop drinking

The holiday season is filled with good spirits—including the kind that comes inside a bottle. Surveys indicate that Americans drink twice as much during the holiday season than they do at other times, and one study says alcohol consumption peaks on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. All that imbibing can take a physical, mental, and even a financial toll. If you’ve overindulged this holiday season, you might consider a Dry January challenge. 

Dry January is a public health campaign in which people abstain from drinking alcohol for the first month of the year. Research is mixed about whether the challenge helps people cut back on alcohol consumption long term, but giving up booze, even temporarily, can improve your health. Participants in one Dry January challenge reported that after a month alcohol-free, they slept better, lost weight, lowered their blood pressure, and their liver fat decreased by 40%. 

“Alcohol affects virtually every organ in the body, and its effects depend on how much and for how long you drink,” notes Joseph R. Volpicelli, MD, Ph.D., founder of the Volpicelli Center in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, and executive director of the Institute of Addiction Medicine. “Recent research shows that alcohol can have harmful physical and emotional effects at lower doses than most people realize. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans now states that drinking may be problematic if it exceeds more than a drink a day for females and two drinks a day for males. During the pandemic, alcohol drinking increased for many Americans, and considering a Dry January can help show if you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.” The good news is at least some of that damage can be reversed when you stop drinking.

What happens when you stop drinking alcohol?

If alcohol affects nearly every organ in your body, then it makes sense that quitting or limiting your intake of booze can give health rewards from head to toe. How significant those rewards are and how quickly they’re felt will vary from person to person and depend on a person’s genetics and how much and often they drink.

“Discontinuing unhealthy alcohol consumption will markedly improve both your short-term and long-term health,” says Lewis Nelson, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine and Director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. 

To some extent, the health effects of heavy drinking can be reversed, and all of them can be slowed once alcohol consumption is ended,” Dr. Nelson says. “The greatest beneficiaries are the liver, heart, and brain, but all organs, including your muscles, kidneys, and even skin, will benefit since alcohol damages nearly every cell in your body. Some of our organs are excellent at self-repair, and if damage is not irreversible, improvement can occur.” 

Kidney function often remains normal despite alcohol abuse. So, abstaining from alcohol will not improve kidney function appreciably, unless kidney function is reduced due to other health issues. Muscle wasting can occur with alcohol due to decreased physical exertion and poor food choices, not actually from the alcohol intake.

It’s important to remember that not everyone’s the same. Some may feel better quicker than others or have different reactions, but here is a typical timeline of what happens to your body when you stop drinking:

First day without alcohol

Depending on how much alcohol you regularly consume, the first day without it may be unpleasant. In the first two to 24 hours, you may experience a hangover or withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal can cause sweating, fast heart rate, hand tremors, vomiting, retching, restlessness, anxiety, and feelings of depression.

Heavy drinkers should only stop drinking under medical supervision because of the risk of delirium tremens (DTs), a severe and potentially life-threatening withdrawal from alcohol that can result in seizures, hallucinations, and other physical symptoms that need to be monitored and treated in a controlled medical setting.

First week without alcohol

“Heavy alcohol drinkers may have a week-long period of abstinence-related withdrawal, which can include anxiety, sweating, vomiting, tremor, and high heart rate, and often requires medical assistance,” says Dr. Nelson. “Once this is complete, if it occurs, you will feel overall healthier, with more energy, nearly immediately.” 

Alcohol is a depressant. As such, after the first week of not drinking you may notice:

  • Better sleep
  • Brighter mood
  • Increased sex drive

If you take regular medication, and that prescription’s efficacy is affected by alcohol, you may notice that your underlying conditions improve when you stop drinking. That’s because the medication can work more effectively.

RELATED: 10 drugs you should not mix with alcohol

First month without alcohol

According to experts, in first four weeks after you quit drinking you may notice:

  • Improved concentration
  • Better-looking skin (Alcohol use can disrupt sleep, cause dehydration, and make you more prone to skin conditions such as rosacea and psoriasis, all of which affect the appearance of your skin.)
  • Increased energy
  • Possible weight loss (A 5 oz. glass of wine is close to150 calories; a mixed drink can be  200 calories or more, depending on the spirit, the mixer, and the size of the pour.)
  • More self-esteem—gaining control over an addictive substance like alcohol is no small feat.
  • Blood pressure and liver function will return to normal after 30 days for most people.

Several months without alcohol

All of the benefits of the first month continue, and even improve. You may notice better energy levels and an increased sense of health and well-being.

First year without alcohol

Every symptom of withdrawal has ended. More severe health impacts, such as heart arrhythmias, may return to normal. You can enjoy all the benefits of a healthy life without alcohol.

9 benefits of not drinking alcohol

According to the Mayo Clinic, light-to-moderate drinking has been associated with some possible health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But experts are quick to point out that you can lower those risks with a healthy diet and regular exercise, and that drinking even just a small amount of alcohol is not risk-free. 

  1. Improved cognitive function: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) reports that alcohol use can affect the way your brain works, altering things like your mood and concentration.
  2. Reduced risk of cardiovascular problems: Depending on how much and how often you drink, it can lead to high blood pressure, strokes, and heart arrhythmias.
  3. Reduced risk of liver disease and pancreatitis. Nearly all heavy drinkers develop fatty liver disease, according to the American Liver Foundation. Thirty-five percent develop alcohol hepatitis and 10% to 20% develop cirrhosis. Additionally, alcohol causes 1 in 3 cases of acute pancreatitis in the U.S. 
  4. Stronger immune system. A single episode of drinking can weaken the immune system for up to 24 hours. Long-term effects of chronic alcohol use significantly increases your risk of infection and cause inflammation.
  5. Reduced risk of cancer: Drinking alcohol also increases your risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and esophageal cancer.
  6. Having better personal relationships: “Reductions in drinking help one be more present for social interactions, and partners and loved ones appreciate the special attention,” Dr. Volpicelli says. “Alcohol abstinence can also improve sex drive and performance. Cutting out binge drinking [four drinks for women and five drinks for males, per occasion, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] reduces the risk of car accidents, violent crimes, suicide, and hangovers.”
  7. Better job performance: “Not only does a hangover feel bad, but it can seriously affect work or school performance,” Dr. Volpicelli says.  
  8. Saving money: Alcohol is also costly—in a variety of ways. First, there’s the price, which varies based on what you drink and where you buy it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans spent an average of $478 on alcohol in 2020. That’s a lower number than in previous years, largely because pandemic lockdowns forced people to drink at home instead of in bars and restaurants where profit margins drive the price of alcohol up.
  9. Helping the economy: Lost wages, added healthcare costs, and criminal justice expenses are also associated with problem drinking. In 2010, for example, the CDC estimates that excessive drinking drained the U.S. economy of $249 billion.

How to stop drinking

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to limiting or even stopping your drinking habit. In fact, many people will need to use a combination of methods to successfully quit drinking. Your first step should be talking to your healthcare provider. Your physician can give you tips for success, lead you to a substance-abuse treatment program if they feel that’s appropriate, and let you know if it’s safe to take a cold-turkey approach. 

Find alcohol rehab support

“A daily, excessive drinker is probably someone who is going to need a medical detox,” explains James Flack, MD, deputy chair of psychiatry at Houston Methodist Hospital. How do you know if you’re an excessive drinker? You need to consider more than just the quantity and frequency of your alcohol intake. You need to consider your alcohol dependence.

It’s important to examine how strong your urge to drink is and what happens when you try to quit,” cautions Michael J. McGrath, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director of Ohana Addiction Treatment Center in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. “If stopping results in [alcohol withdrawal symptoms]  like nausea, vomiting, trouble sleeping, then it’s imperative to get help from a professional.” 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) runs a free, confidential, 24/7 hotline (1-800-662-HELP). They can put you in touch with treatment centers, support groups, and community-based organizations. It can also provide you with some general information on substance use and alcohol addiction. Your healthcare provider and local hospital can also steer you toward help. 

Medication to stop drinking

Your doctor may also talk to you about the use of medications to help you quit drinking. These drugs are designed to help those who have alcohol use disorder (AUD, defined as a medical condition in which people cannot control their drinking even when it causes physical and emotional harm). Some of the medication for alcoholism most commonly used include:

  • ReVia, Vivitrol (naltrexone): This is an opioid antagonist, which comes in an oral and extended-release injectable form. It helps to reduce cravings for alcohol and reduce the number of drinking days. In one study, naltrexone was shown to significantly reduce the risk of people with AUD relapsing after three months of the drug’s use. The most common side effect with naltrexone use is nausea. Naltrexone should be avoided in people using opioids or in those with acute hepatitis or hepatic failure
  • Campral (acamprosate): This is another drug that helps to reduce alcohol cravings and prevent relapses. It’s meant to be used in tandem with counseling. Research shows that those taking acamprosate were twice as successful staying abstinent for one year as those taking a placebo. Campral cannot be used in those with severe kidney dysfunction.
  • Topamax (topiramate): This is an anticonvulsant medication that is also effective in treating AUD (although it isn’t Food and Drug Administration approved to treat the disorder). It’s been shown to be helpful in reducing the number of drinking days and the amount a person drinks in a day. Topamax side effects include drowsiness, weight loss, nausea, and brain fog.

One thing to note: While a variety of “detox” supplements are available, don’t take anything without first checking with your doctor. “Supplements can help aid in relieving symptoms, but taking supplements is not a substitute for medications,” says Dr. McGrath. “For example, a person might use melatonin to help with sleep if they’re experiencing insomnia as a result of withdrawal. But always check with your doctor before taking any supplements for alcohol withdrawal.” 

Other tips

  • Consider a Dry January challenge if you’re a casual drinker who’d just like to take a break from alcohol. You can boost your odds of success if you tell people about what you’re doing and ask for their support. “Secret goals are a lot easier to drop,” Dr. Flack says. “A goal that you share with others will be more attainable—and people will be on your side.” Some people also embark on what’s known as a “damp” January, in which they limit the amount of alcohol they drink but don’t abstain altogether. 
  • Replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one. Giving up Friday evening happy hour or Sunday mimosas with friends? Recruit them to talk a walk, hit the gym, or go to a movie or museum with you, instead.
  • Don’t give yourself easy access to alcohol. Keep it out of your home.
  • Develop a plan for how you’ll handle drinking events like parties. For example, bring your own mocktail and practice what you’ll say to people when they offer you a drink. There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re taking a break from alcohol. 
  • Look for new ways to cope with stress. Many people reach for alcohol when they’re anxious or upset. Create an arsenal of other coping mechanisms: It could be taking a walk, talking to a friend, deep breathing, or snuggling with your pet.
  • Get support. Alcohol is addictive and many people need assistance to quit successfully. Some options include behavioral therapy (counseling that aims to change a behavior) and peer-support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery

“The approach to treatment works best when it is individualized to the needs of the person,” Dr. Volpicelli says. “In general, the combination of medication and psychosocial support gives you the best chance to obtain and stay abstinent. And remember, if your approach is not initially successful, there are effective options, so it is important to stay motivated.”