What Happens To Your Body When You Stop Drinking?

Research indicates that over time, continued alcohol consumption affects nearly every system in your body. Therefore, when you stop drinking, your body goes through a multitude of changes. By practicing sobriety or moderation, you can reduce the risk of many of the detrimental effects of alcohol. To better understand what happens to your body after you stop drinking, let’s examine how alcohol harms the body, and what recovery can look like.

What are the Effects of Excessive Alcohol Consumption?

First, let’s begin by defining excessive alcohol use. According to the CDC, moderate alcohol use is defined as drinking one unit or less of alcohol per day for women and two units or less per day for men. A unit of alcohol is defined as 12 oz of 5% ABV beer, 5 oz of 12% ABV wine, or 1.5 oz of 80 proof hard liquor. Consuming any more than this amount is considered excessive drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption can impact multiple organs and systems in the body including the liver, heart, and brain. It can also raise the risk of developing a serious related health condition.

Title "Lesser-known health risks of long-term alcohol use:" Image of a wine bottle with a side effects label "Side effects: breathing issues, kidney damage, high cholesterol, chronic shakes and tremors, memory loss, nerve tissue damage, low bone density, hormone imbalance, disordered sleeping"

Liver

The liver is the organ that is most commonly associated with damage from alcohol use. Extended periods of excessive drinking can lead to alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation), and eventually alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. However, in the earlier stages of damage, the liver can actually self-repair if steps are taken to stop alcohol use. Within weeks of becoming alcohol-free, you can reverse fatty liver damage. This is because instead of processing alcohol, the liver gets the opportunity to break down other toxins in the body and metabolize fats that need to be processed.

Heart and blood pressure

Alcohol has a significant effect on the cardiovascular system, affecting the functioning of your heart and blood vessels. When a person drinks alcohol, it gets broken down or metabolized in the liver by an enzyme called dehydrogenase. Consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol saturates this enzyme and creates a chain reaction that results in a type of bad cholesterol called LDL (low-density lipoprotein). The LDL cholesterol then sticks to the insides of arteries, causing blockage. This increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Excessive alcohol use can also contribute to heart arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms.

A person’s blood pressure can also rise as a result of alcohol use. Alcohol increases the hormone ‘angiotensin II’ in the blood, which leads to the narrowing of blood vessels. This means more “push” is needed from the heart to pump blood, and the heart’s walls become weaker and thinner. This can cause heart failure due to stress on the heart muscles.

Brain

Alcohol can negatively impact the brain in many ways. The connection between alcohol and sleep is a key example. Alcohol limits REM cycles in the brain, preventing deep sleep and its restorative effects. Alcohol is also a depressant, affecting dopamine and serotonin concentrations in the brain. Over time, this can worsen or cause depression and anxiety. Alcohol use may also affect a person’s ability to concentrate, decrease their coordination, impair short and long-term memory, slow down their reaction time, and increase their risk of impulsive behavior.

Increased risk of health conditions and disease

In addition to directly impairing organs and systems in the body, excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to debilitating health conditions and disease.

Alcohol is a known cancer-causing agent according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Report on Carcinogens. Alcohol was linked with 740,000 new cancer cases globally in 2020, representing 4% of all newly diagnosed cases that year.¹ The risk of developing cancer related to alcohol use increases with the amount used over time. It has been particularly linked to cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast and colon, and some studies indicate association with pancreatic cancer and melanoma risk.

In addition to various cancers, alcohol has also been linked to higher rates of the following conditions:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Pancreatitis
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Diarrhea and other digestive issues

If you’re concerned about how alcohol is affecting your health or wellbeing, it’s never too early to seek support. You can speak with a physician at Monument entirely online to ask questions and learn about your treatment options.

What Are the Health Benefits of Quitting Drinking?

When you quit drinking, you allow your liver, heart, brain, and entire body to heal from alcohol. You also decrease your risk of developing alcohol-related conditions, and experience improved physical and mental wellness. Here are a few of the health benefits of cutting out alcohol:

  • Improved sleep
  • Lower cardiovascular risks
  • Improved immune response
  • Decreased risk of cancer
  • Liver repair
  • Potential weight loss
  • Lower blood pressure

Let’s dive deeper into each of these benefits. 

Improved Sleep

While it’s normal to experience disrupted sleep during early sobriety, you will experience higher quality sleep once your body is able to re-establish its natural sleep cycle. Typically, by the fourth week without alcohol, a sober person experiences an additional 5-6 REM sleep cycles per night than they would if they were drinking alcohol every night.

Lower Cardiovascular Risks

As alcohol intake decreases, so do cardiovascular risks. This is because blood pressure normalizes, heart functioning improves, and weight loss may occur.

Improved Immune Response

Excessive drinking can impair your body’s immune system and ability to recover from illnesses. After you quit drinking, you may notice that you get sick less often, or are able to heal from sickness more quickly.

Decreased Risk of Cancer

Once a person has achieved three months of alcohol-free living, their risk of cancer starts to decrease. This includes the risk of cancer of the esophagus, stomach, mouth, liver, breast, and colon.

Liver Repair

After about a month without alcohol, your cholesterol levels start to decline and fatty liver starts to resolve. This can help repair the liver and improve its ability to filter toxins.

Potential Weight Loss

It’s not uncommon to experience weight loss after quitting drinking. Many alcoholic beverages are high in calories, which can play a significant role in one’s weight. When you stop drinking, your caloric intake typically decreases. Plus, many people find they have more energy and free time for activities like exercise.

Lower Blood Pressure

Around 3-4 weeks into becoming alcohol-free, blood pressure may decrease. As mentioned above, alcohol can raise your blood pressure by narrowing your blood vessels. Without the stress imposed by alcohol, your blood circulation system is able to recover.

person walking alongside the ocean in ripped jeans

Mental and Social Benefits of Drinking Less

Beyond the physical improvements that come with leading an alcohol-free lifestyle, there are many rewarding mental and social aspects to sobriety. These can provide transformative benefits to your overall quality of life.

Mental benefits

As mentioned, alcohol is a depressant and can deregulate our “happiness hormones.” This can worsen anxiety and depression. Because many people turn to alcohol to escape from negative feelings, it’s common to get stuck in an unhealthy cycle of using alcohol to cope. When you stop drinking alcohol, your brain chemicals can regain their balance, and depression and anxiety levels typically decrease. Plus, replacing alcohol with healthier coping mechanisms will make it easier to overcome challenges and relieve stress.

Social benefits

While socializing while sober can feel uncomfortable at first, it can ultimately lead to a more meaningful social life. Without the presence of alcohol you’re able to make authentic connections and form strong memories. Many people in long-term sobriety report that their relationships have significantly improved. If alcohol was affecting your romantic relationships, it’s likely becoming sober will provide great relief. Also, sobriety can provide a boost in self-esteem, and prevent the common feelings of guilt and shame that can occur after drinking.

Pie chart with one teal color titled "Perceived side effects of excessive drinking" Teal color is labeled: "hangovers" vs pie chart split into many colors titled: "Actual side effects of excessive drinking:" Many shades of blue, each with label: "Disrupted sleep, strained relationships, productivity loss, dehydrated skin, memory lapses, Increased risk of health conditions, Intensified depression, Intensified anxiety"

Timeline of What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking

So, when can you expect all of this healing to take place? While everyone’s timeline is different, there are common patterns in the first year without alcohol. Here are some of the changes you might expect.

1 Week: It’s common to experience alcohol cravings, heightened anxiety, nausea, sleep disruptions, and other acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms during the first several days and after one week sober. It’s important to speak with your medical provider before you stop drinking to ensure you have a plan to safely cut back. It can be dangerous and even life-threatening to quit alcohol cold turkey.
3 Weeks: While acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms have likely subsided, you may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) during this time. PAWS symptoms include anxiety, mood swings, and trouble sleeping. Towards the end of three weeks without alcohol, it’s normal to start feeling significant improvements in sleep habits, mental clarity, energy levels, and physical fitness. If you don’t feel the benefits of sobriety yet, you’re not alone. Everyone’s alcohol recovery timeline is unique, and relief is right around the corner.
2-3 Months: At this stage you’ll likely be able to more fully reap the physical and psychological benefits of sobriety. You may experience improvements such as decreased levels of anxiety and depression, healthier looking skin, and decreased health risks.
1 Year: Many experts say it takes about one year of sobriety for the body and mind to fully heal from the damaging effects of alcohol. At this point, your brain chemistry, sleep cycles, and organs will likely regain their natural functioning. While some effects of alcohol are irreversible depending on your past use, most people can significantly reverse many negative effects of alcohol use.
Beyond: The benefits of sobriety are compounding. With more energy and better sleep, you’re likely to engage in more activities that improve your wellbeing. Your liver and heart health will continue to steadily improve. Plus, you’ll have more mental capacity for new ventures.

Alcohol Withdrawal Effects

While abstaining from alcohol can start improving your health in just the first 24 hours, it’s common to experience uncomfortable side effects initially. People who have a history of heavy drinking may suffer from anxiety, sweating, headache, irritability, fatigue, depression, and tremors. Within 48-72 hours, many of these symptoms improve due to an increase in hydration. However, it’s normal for some withdrawal effects to continue for the next few weeks or even months. This is a common condition called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome.

Delirium tremens (DTs) are also important to mention here. This is a rare complication of stopping alcohol use, occurring in only about 5% of people experiencing withdrawal. Symptoms may start 12-72 hours after a person’s last drink and last up to 7-10 days. Initial symptoms may include disorientation and restlessness, trouble concentrating, and hypersensitivity to light, but may progress to symptoms such as shakes and tremors, agitation, nightmares, and hallucinations. It’s important to remember that DTs are a medical emergency and you should seek medical attention right away if you notice symptoms.

If you believe you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal syndrome, please contact your provider immediately and visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find a location to get supervised alcohol detox near you. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

How to Cut Back on or Eliminate Alcohol

Taking the step to change your drinking habits is something to be incredibly proud of. Finding professional and peer support along your journey can make it easier to define and achieve your goals. In fact, experts recommend engaging with as many tools as possible for the greatest chance of success. Evidence shows that a combination of alcohol therapy, community support, and, when appropriate, medication to stop drinking, can help reduce alcohol consumption and improve health outcomes. At Monument, we connect people to this evidence-based care entirely online. You can sign up for Monument to gain free access to resources like therapist-moderated support groups, and explore your treatment plan options. Our clinicians will work with you to form a treatment plan unique to you and your needs.

Other tools and resources that can help you change your relationship with alcohol include finding local sobriety groups, attending sober events, and exploring sobriety podcasts and books. It’s also helpful to read up on tips for navigating early sobriety. There is a wide variety of communities, resources, and treatment options available to help you get to where you want to be. You can do this!

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Sources:

  1. U.S. News. “Alcohol Tied to 740,000 Cancer Cases Worldwide in 2020, https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-07-14/alcohol-tied-to-740-000-cancer-cases-worldwide-in-2020.” Accessed July 12, 2022.
Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Elizabeth KlenkDr. Elizabeth Klenk graduated from the University of Toledo with a BA in Biology and from the University of Cincinnati with a Master of Science in Biological Sciences followed by her MD. She was a hockey player and played goalie for several high level mens' teams. Dr. Klenk also reads avidly and enjoys spending time with her children, playing music, hiking, and participating in cattle herding competitions across the country with her Border Collies. She lives on a working cattle ranch in Ohio with her family and is an active part of the farm in her spare time.