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What happens when you stop drinking alcohol

What happens when you stop drinking alcohol

There’s more to quitting drinking than eliminating hangovers. While a vow to quit drinking is often made in the throes of an epic hangover, if we dig deeper into the effect of alcohol on our bodies and minds, it’s clear that the benefits of sobriety include much more than headache prevention. Here, you can find out what happens to your body when you stop drinking alcohol as well as a timeline on the benefits. 

The information is based on the results of various studies as well as my own personal experience as someone who quit drinking alcohol after 30 years of social drinking. Keep in mind, my general timeline on what happens when you quit drinking alcohol after a week, a month, 3 months and beyond, is an estimation of how and when changes will occur. Every body is different and heals at its own rate, dependent on many lifestyle factors in addition to alcohol consumption. The timeline offers a general idea of how the human body can repair itself after sustained abstinence.

As with every post, I’ve written this to inform, not to shame or guilt anyone about the decision to continue drinking. I believe knowledge is power and if the time comes that you’re ready to quit drinking, temporarily or permanently, I hope that the more you understand the benefits of abstinence to your body, the more motivated you’ll be to stay the course despite temptations.

I can personally attest to feeling the best I’ve felt in a very long time since I quit drinking alcohol. I could never specifically explain why I felt so amazing but my research into the physical benefits that happen when you quit drinking alcohol  certainly made it clear that booze had myriad negative effects on me that I was not aware of.

Here’s the good news! Much of those negative effects can be reversed when you quit drinking alcohol. Trust me, the longer you abstain the more you will experience those positive changes.

I have more energy, better moods, improved complexion, fewer digestion issues, less anxiety and a stable weight. Here is the rundown of how alcohol affects your body and what happens when you quit drinking: 

Anxiety

Timeline

Short term: Anxiety related to alcohol can ease up immediately with abstinence.

Longer term: Over weeks and months, you’ll likely notice decreased mood swings and a better sense of power and optimism over your life.

Do you ever wake up after a night of drinking and feel that dreaded pit of anxiety in your stomach? Your mind runs through all the worst things going on in your life from financial struggles to relationship woes and you wonder how you’ll ever get your life on track? I had those regularly. Did you know that feeling depressed is a withdrawal symptom of alcohol? Your life isn’t actually as horrible as you think – it’s your body chemically reacting to the alcohol leaving your system.

Alcohol acts as a sedative when you first start drinking it, let’s say at a cocktail party. You feel at ease as your second glass of wine lubricates the initially uncomfortable social scene. You’re funnier and chattier as you work the room. That’s because alcohol depresses the part of the brain associated with inhibition.

When the alcohol wears off, and body is processing it, the sedative effects diminish, too. You begin to feel the withdrawal symptoms similar to people who are dependent on alcohol. This includes feelings of depression and anxiety; if you already struggle with anxiety in daily life, it can worsen with alcohol which affects the system of nerves and chemicals in the brain that help control our mood.

Since quitting drinking more than a year ago, I rarely wake up with that dreaded ache in my belly. And, when I do, it’s because of external factors that make sense – not because I’m nursing a hangover. 

Sleep

Timeline

Short term: A full night’s sleep can be enjoyed immediately on a night where no alcohol has been consumed.

Longer term: From my experience, it can sometimes take a few weeks for the body to acclimatize to falling asleep without the aid of alcohol if it’s become accustomed to nightly (or almost nightly) wine consumption. Patience required, and sleepy herbal tea.

It seems counterintuitive to think that alcohol wrecks a person’s sleep. Have you ever tried to read a book while sipping a cocktail? Forget it. The eyes are closed after page one.

Drinking alcohol does help you fall asleep more quickly. Hence, the complaint many people have that once they quit drinking at night, they can’t fall asleep as easily. However, alcohol actually disrupts a good night’s sleep and ends up causing more harm than good. I remember this awful feeling very well – waking up early in the morning with dry mouth, stuffed nose and an inability to fall back asleep.

Alcohol actually acts as a sedative for the first few hours of sleep – those who fall asleep with it in their system wake up infrequently this first portion of the night. Once alcohol is metabolized in the body, the person has a wakeful experience for the rest of the night. This is the second, restless portion of the night. Overall, this results in less time spent in REM sleep, which is essential to waking up rested and alert for the day ahead. 

Immune System

Timeline

Short term: After 24 hours your body returns to its normal immunity fighting abilities

Long term: Over weeks and months, abstinence can diminish the cumulative negative effects of alcohol consumption on your immune system.

We’ve all heard the advice to drink more alcohol to get rid of a cold. Personally, that has never worked for me so I’ve never understood how that myth gained any traction. The reality is that copious drinking on a single occasion slows the body’s ability to ward off infections. This unsavoury effect can last up to 24 hours after being inebriated. So, it’s not a good idea to go partying the night before you’re volunteering at a preschool where sniffles are often in abundance. You may increase your chances of catching that cold.

Over time, frequent overdrinking creates conditions in your body that make you more liable to contract pneumonia or tuberculosis. In fact, among those who consume alcohol in developing countries, tuberculosis is among the three leading causes of attributable deaths (in developed countries like Canada and US, vaccinations and treatment are readily available.)

Liver

Timeline

Short term: Within two weeks of abstinence, your liver begins to shed unhealthy fat and return to normal.

Long term: continued abstinence enables your liver to operate more optimally to nourish your body.

As one who used to enjoy regular weekend binging, I’m familiar with all the liver detox jokes. I’m also aware that many of us wonder, deep down, am I really wrecking my liver? Will I get cirrhosis one day? It was always easy to ignore these questions in favour of a good time. Who gets cirrhosis of the liver anyways?

I didn’t realize that the liver is the body’s largest internal organ and its main nutrient processor;  its role in one’s health is significant. It is estimated that one in 10 Canadians has a form of liver disease. The most common forms – viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease and liver cancer – are on the rise. While alcoholism is not the only cause of liver disease, it can be a factor. Each one litre increase in per capita alcohol consumption is associated with a 16 per cent increase in cirrhosis deaths in men and 12 per cent increase in women.

In Ontario, cirrhosis has risen enormously over the past 20 years. By 2016, it was present in almost one per cent of the population. According to Osteoporosis Canada, the risk of cirrhosis was 116 per cent higher if you were born in 1990 compared to being born in 1951. While alcohol consumption is only one cause of cirrhosis, drinking can increase one’s chances of contracting this disease. An article in The Economist indicated that the U.S. mortality rate associated with alcohol-related liver cirrhosis rose dramatically between 2009 and 2013. 

What exactly happens to the liver when alcohol enters the body? Let’s start with what the liver does for us: It helps digest food and turn it into energy. By converting proteins, carbohydrates, fat and vitamins into energy, the liver ensures that the body has what it needs to keep going.

When the liver metabolizes alcohol, it releases acetaldehyde. This is a toxic substance that spews free radicals that damage cells and cause premature aging. In addition, when the liver breaks down alcohol, the chemical reaction itself can damage its cells, leading to inflammation and scarring of the organ.

Overdrinking can also lead to what’s called fatty liver. An important liver process is to turn glucose into fat which is then distributed through the body to store for use when it’s needed. Alcohol affects how the liver handles this fat and the fat globules can become lodged in the liver cells causing them to swell.

Research indicates that if you stop drinking for two weeks, the liver can start shedding excess fat. Even if the liver has begun to store fat, it can return to normal over time. Your liver works hard to maintain a healthy body on your behalf; binge drinking or multiple drinks on a daily basis make this valuable organ work overtime.

Skin

Timeline

Short term: Your skin will remain hydrated every day you abstain from alcohol.

Long term: The improvements to skin – less redness, brighter skin – continue for weeks and months after you’ve quit drinking alcohol. The benefits are cumulative. 

If you think your skin looks older when you wake up with a hangover, you’re right. Speaking from personal experience, the changes to my skin have been the most visual benefit to quitting alcohol. I have no weird rashes popping up, my fine lines have almost evaporated and my complexion glows more than it has in a very long time. Abstinence has done way more for my skin than all of the expensive skin products I’ve ever bought (though I still use those, too! They complement my skin’s radiance rather than try to fix what isn’t working).

No surprise, alcohol dehydrates the skin – your body’s largest organ. Every single time you drink alcohol, your skin is losing essential hydration. Water is the transport system of the body, distributing nutrients as well as collecting and delivering waste material. The body also uses fluids as shock absorbers to lubricate and cushion areas such as the brain, eyes and spinal cord and prevents friction between tissues and organs. When everything feels dry and tight after a night of drinking, this is why. You are, literally, drying up. Sounds awful, right?

A typical person needs two litres of water a day to maintain a healthy balance. Alcohol increases that need because it’s a diuretic; it causes an increase in urination. As you’ve probably noticed, alcohol also leaves the body through sweat – ever been around someone who smells like a bar on Sunday morning?

Another less obvious effect on the skin is the lack of sleep caused by alcohol consumption. A recent study commissioned by Estee Lauder demonstrated that poor sleepers had increased signs of skin aging and slower recovery from environmental stressors such as UV radiation.

On a personal note (again) the changes to my complexion have been so dramatic, that when I was tempted to have a drink over my first year of abstinence, it was my radiant looking skin that kept me sober – a wonderful perk to being vain. No expensive skin treatments for me… sobriety is my spa – and at age 47, that’s something I’m very happy about. 

Digestion

Timeline

Short term: Giving your gut a break from alcohol for a few days provides immediate relief from that extra work of processing it and expelling it.

Longer term: Over weeks and months, you may notice a reduction in IBS symptoms and energy levels, especially when coupled with healthier eating habits.

Ever have a stomach ache after a night of indulgence? Or worse still, vomited the next morning? Been there, done that. (I’ve embarrassingly had to stop the car to vomit outside the door on occasion). Even a little drinking can induce inflammation of the stomach lining. Alcohol consumption can also inhibit digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. This is because alcohol reduces the amount of digestive enzymes that the pancreas produces to help break down fats and carbohydrates.

If you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), alcohol can amplify its symptoms. Women take note: for drinkers, IBS is two times more frequent in females than males, so that nightly glass (or bottle) of wine is only going to exacerbate things.

Alcohol also affects blood sugar levels each time its consumed. Drinking causes an increase in insulin secretion which leads to low blood sugar. This may cause light headedness, fatigue and longer term health problems.

Ever heard of gut health? This popular term is gaining traction among the health conscious. It refers to the balance of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. These bacteria, yeasts and viruses (about 100 trillion of them) are also referred to as the gut microbiome or gut flora. There are a lot of ways to improve your gut microbiome to enhance overall health, and abstinence from alcohol is one of them. 

Weight

Timeline

Short term: One night without drinking saves you, at minimum, the empty calories from those beverages and may also save you from munching on junk food when your inhibitions are lowered.

Longer term: Weight stability can occur after weeks or months of abstinence from alcohol. From personal experience, I’ve found cutting alcohol helped me to maintain a stable healthy weight – this despite all the warnings that weight gain is inevitable at my age (mid-40s). It’s not. Disclosure here: I exercise a lot, including running a couple times per week. Keep in mind, now that I’m never buzzed after work or hungover in the mornings, it’s way easier to maintain a fitness routine than ever before.

There are no big surprises here. Alcoholic beverages have a lot of calories. A large glass of wine (does anyone ever order a small glass?) adds about 228 calories to your waistline. In fact, there are seven calories in each single gram of alcohol. These calories offer no nutritional value other than trace vitamins and nutrients.

Drinking alcohol has the added effect of reducing the amount of fat your body burns for energy. This is because the body cannot store alcohol, so the body puts removal of alcohol a priority above other, more essential, processes.  

As discussed earlier, alcohol causes your inhibitions to drop so it’s very likely you practice less self control when it comes to eating. This is another side effect to drinking that can influence weight – chowing down on pizza, chocolate or chips after a slew of cocktails. Then there’s the hangover diet. Anyone eat salads more when they’re hung over? McDonald’s fries were my go-to. Overall, it’s clear that alcohol can wreak havoc on plans to sustain a healthy weight. Choose your calories carefully and skip the wine or beer. 

Bones

Timeline

Longer term: Abstinence over weeks and months can increase your ability to absorb and maintain healthy calcium in your bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

I bet you never thought about how alcohol could impact your bones. Well, it does. And, as we age, this is increasingly important. Osteoporosis is most common among Canadians 50 years and older. While there are many factors that contribute to this disease, Osteoporosis Canada lists alcohol intake – more than three drinks per day – as one of nine risk factors for low bone mineral density, future fractures and falls. 

Excess alcohol interferes with the balance of calcium in healthy bones. It can also interfere with production of vitamin D, which is essential for calcium absorption. Heavy drinking additionally may contribute to hormone deficiencies in men and women. For men, this could lead to a decrease in testosterone which is linked to the production of osteoblasts – needed for bone formation. In women, alcohol consumption can trigger irregular menstrual cycles which may lead to reduced estrogen and an increased risk in osteoporosis. 

Brain

Timeline

Short term: Within a few weeks, the brain will experience some reversal of the negative effects of alcohol

Longer term: Positive changes in brain matter can continue even a year after quitting drinking alcohol.

As anyone who enjoys alcohol knows, the immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are clear. We feel relaxed, more social, more confident. The more we drink, the less inhibited we become which can lead to all sorts of behaviours from falling asleep in front of guests, stumbling, slurred speech, dancing on tables to getting into fights or having a serious accident.

Over the long term, however, drinking can cause lasting damage to your cranium. The brain may shrink and become deficient in the fibers that carry information between brain cells. As anyone who drinks regularly has experienced, the body builds a tolerance to alcohol over time. The body also grows reliant on alcohol. This dependence can lead to changes in brain chemistry that causes the body to go into withdrawal if alcohol consumption stops or is dramatically reduced. You may fee disorientation, hallucinations, nausea, sweating and seizures within 24 to 72 hours of quitting. While this is not likely to occur if you only enjoy a couple glasses of wine per night, if such symptoms appear after two days of abstinence, that may be a sign that your body has an unhealthy dependence on alcohol.

Fortunately, studies have shown that abstinence from alcohol can reverse some of the impairment it caused, even within a few weeks, and increase brain volume for up to year after quitting drinking, as well as improve cognitive skills, visuospatial abilities, working memory and attention span.

Stay healthy

This article was written to share vital information about how your body may be affected by alcohol. It’s not, in any way, to sway you to quit drinking or to shame you for your decision to continue imbibing. I get it. I drank for 30 years! I was a social drinker – a glass or two of wine most nights and binge drinking on weekends on a pretty regular basis. Weekend hangovers were a common part of my life. Quitting alcohol is a big decision that requires, for many of us, tremendous change in the face of societal pressure to clink glasses on as many occasions as possible.

It is my hope that the information in this post provides you with the power to make an informed choice – whether it’s to continue drinking, cut back, or quit completely. I chose to quit completely and it has been one of the best decisions of my life. The longer I go without drinking, the less I want to ever pick up a glass of wine again. That has been my journey. I own it. I also own my past, riddled with overdrinking, bad decisions and insecurities I was unwilling to face.

I know you can do it, if you really want to. Because if I did it, anyone can do it. 

If you do decide you're ready to try sobriety full-time check out my post on how to quit drinking.

 

 

Sources:

https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm

https://www.liver.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/CLF_LiverDiseaseInCanada_Synopsis_E.pdf

https://www.ices.on.ca/Newsroom/News-Releases/2018/The-rate-of-cirrhosis-is-rising-in-the-general-population-more-so-in-young-adults-and-women 

https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/alcoholism4.htm

https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/osteoporosis/conditions-behaviors/alcoholism#b

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/ss/slideshow-quit-alcohol-effects

https://www.verywellmind.com/symptoms-of-alcohol-withdrawal-63791

https://jcdr.net/article_fulltext.asp?issn=0973-709x&year=2015&volume=9&issue=9&page=VE01&issn=0973-709x&id=6538

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-body

 

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