What Happens When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?

We all know that drinking alcohol is not the healthiest activity to engage in. But what exactly happens to our body and mind once we stop?

Quitting or reducing alcohol for as little as one month1 reliably gives an uptick in physical wellbeing, mental health and mood, productivity and focus, stability of relationships, and money left in our pocket.

But there are potential downsides – some of them serious. You need to be aware of these, so be sure to read the last section before you take the plunge.

The Benefits

Better Sleep

Alcohol might get you drowsy at first, but it can wake you up repeatedly in the night as your liver does the vital work of metabolising it out of your system. It can increase brain activity which disrupts sleep, particularly during the second part of the night. It disrupts the important, restorative, REM stage of sleep and may interfere with your breathing. You also may need to get up more often to go to the toilet. 

When you give up alcohol you’re likely to notice a much deeper and restful sleep pattern emerging.

Weight Loss

Consider this: just 3/4 of a bottle of red wine contains the same amount of calories as a Big Mac. Wouldn’t you expect to lose weight if you stopped eating a Big Mac every day? It’s not just the calories in the booze, either – alcohol makes you more impulsive and therefore more susceptible to that tempting bowl of french fries. 

Plus, when you’re drinking or feeling hungover, you generally don’t feel like bounding about, and that means you’re not burning up the amount of energy that you might be if you were off alcohol.

Your Liver Will Thank You

Your liver’s job is to get rid of toxins in your blood, and you really make it work overtime when you drink alcohol. Drinking more than the recommended amount – that’s more than 14 standard drinks a week – can lead to debilitating chronic diseases such as liver disease, some cancers, oral health problems and cardiovascular disease2. The good news is that your liver has some capacity to repair itself and even regenerate. So it’s a good idea to help it along by reducing or stopping your alcohol intake.

Improved Skin

Alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the skin, and this becomes particularly noticeable on your face. Fortunately, most of the effects are reversible, and people who give up drinking usually notice a glow returning to their complexions within a week or so.

Alcohol directly causes 2.8% of cancers each year and is classified as a class 1 carcinogen. Other category 1 carcinogens you might have heard of include asbestos and tobacco smoke. Yet people who run a mile from asbestos and cigarettes are often quite happy to down a bottle of red each evening. 

Increased Productivity

Fewer hangovers mean fewer sick days and a better ability to concentrate on workday tasks. We’ve actually tested this with the Daybreak app on 287 people over three months. Their reduction in drinking was accompanied by a reduction in ‘days out of role’ from 3.5 days to 0.5.

Improved Relationships

Enjoying alcohol socially in reasonable amounts can boost your mood and help you bond with others. But if you drink alone, or a lot, it can affect the way you interact with other people, including friends and loved ones. Drinking less (or giving up altogether) can help you to respond more positively with others and lets you focus on your relationships, work, and health. 

You’ll probably find that you’re more able to navigate the social landscape, rather than just escaping it. You’ll have more time hangover-free to be a better spouse, parent, friend and employee.

Your Heart Gets Healthier

You might have heard that a regular glass of red wine is good for your heart. In fact, the jury is still out on that one, and if it is true, then it’s only true for very light drinkers (less than one standard drink a day) – increasing the dose certainly doesn’t increase the effect in this case! If you drink more than that, you increase your blood pressure, levels of fat called triglycerides, and chances of heart failure.

If your blood pressure is too high, you might be able to bring it down by doing one simple thing: giving up alcohol. Even just moderating your intake can help. It may not reduce your blood pressure enough though, so it’s best to talk to your doctor about this and other things you can do to help yourself.

Risk of developing some cancers decreases

Alcohol directly causes 2.8% of cancers each year3 and is classified as a class 1 carcinogen4. Other category 1 carcinogens you might have heard of include asbestos and tobacco smoke. Yet people who run a mile from asbestos and cigarettes are often quite happy to down a bottle of red each evening.

Lower Risk from Accidents

Alcohol plays a huge role in the incidence of serious trauma injuries and deaths from burns, drownings, homicides, fatal falls, traffic crashes and suicides.5 Cutting back your drinking can lower these risks.

You’ll Save Money

What’s your weekly expenditure on booze? Multiply that by 52 and see what it’s costing you each year. How handy would that be in your bank account? Some people start a booze-bank – they put in the amount they would have spent on alcohol every week and watch it grow!

When the National Drug Research Institute monitored 287 Daybreak users over three months, they were found to save an annually projected $7,000 from money not spent on alcohol.

You Won’t Get As Sick As Often

Over time, large amounts of alcohol blunt your body’s ability to ward off infection and to repair itself. Ease up on your drinking and you’re likely to stay healthier, longer.

Better Sex

Alcohol can make us less inhibited, but anything more than a drink or so a day may have the opposite effect, especially if you abuse it or develop a dependency. As Shakespeare said, ‘it provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.’ Men might have trouble getting and keeping an erection. Women’s sex drive might drop. Cut down on the booze, and see if it stirs up the romance.

Improved digestion

Alcohol can inflame the lining of the gastro-intestinal tract, and long-term drinking can disrupt the delicate lining of the intestines, triggering a variety of chronic ailments. People who quit alcohol can experience a few days of abdominal discomfort as their system becomes re-adapted to an inflammation-reduced diet, but these symptoms are typically transient. Heavier drinkers may have changes to the way their bodies digest, store, use and excrete nutrients, leading to various forms of malnutrition, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, folate deficiency, Vitamin A depletion and pellagra.5 For these people, quitting alcohol should be done under medical supervision in order to manage the sometimes severe reactions.

Psychological benefits

Alcohol usage goes hand in hand with some very common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and the combination of alcohol misuse and depression increases the risk of suicidal behaviour. It can also affect the efficacy of antidepressant medication.5 So it makes a lot of sense to take alcohol out of the equation if you’re experiencing these kinds of issues. We saw this when we tested the Daybreak app. The National Drug Research Institute monitored nearly 300 people who reduced their drinking by an average of 50% over 3 months. The ‘K-10’ measurement of psychological distress showed a reduction from ‘mild-to moderate’ distress at the start, to ‘low distress’ over that period. Alcohol dependence can make it harder to think or remember things. Over time, heavy drinking can cloud your perception of distances and volumes, or slow and impair your motor skills. It can even make it harder for you to read other people’s emotions. But if you quit, your brain seems to be able to regain some of these abilities.

Warning: for some people, giving up can be dangerous

If you’ve been drinking alcohol heavily for a long time you may have both psychological and physical problems when you stop drinking or seriously cut back. This is called alcohol withdrawal, and the symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.

If you don’t drink heavily, you’re unlikely to get withdrawal symptoms when you stop. But if you’ve gone through alcohol withdrawal once, you’re more likely to go through it again the next time you quit.

What Causes It?

Alcohol has a depressive effect on your system. It slows down brain function and affects the way your nerves send messages back and forth. Over time, your central nervous system adjusts to having alcohol around all the time. Your body works hard to keep your brain in a more awake state and to keep your nerves talking to one another.

When the alcohol level suddenly drops, your brain can stay in this keyed-up state, but there’s no alcohol around to bring it down. That’s what contributes to withdrawal.

If you have been drinking alcohol heavily for a long period of time, you should contact your GP if you plan to quit drinking. You should also seek immediate medical attention if you are already experiencing any of the following symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms?

They range from mild to serious, and depend on how much you drank and for how long.

Mild symptoms usually show up as early as 6 hours after you put down your glass. They can include anxiety, shaky hands, headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia and sweating.

More serious problems range from hallucinations about 12 to 24 hours after that last drink, to seizures within the first 2 days after you stop. You can see, feel, or hear things that aren’t there.

That’s not the same as delirium tremens, or DTs as you’re likely to hear them called. DTs usually start 48 to 72 hours after your last drink. These are severe symptoms that include vivid hallucinations and delusions. Only about 5% of people with alcohol withdrawal have them. Those that do may also have confusion, racing heart, high blood pressure, fever and sweating. This is a medical emergency, and urgent transfer to a hospital is recommended – carers should be urged to call an ambulance.

Personal Stories

Here are some personal stories (from our blog) that may give you a better idea of what happens when you quit drinking:

A Hundred Day Ones

By: Molly Stroud My first Day One was over a decade ago. I was a single mother of three who had just finished fast tracking
5 minutes

Learn about alcohol

How alcohol affects us. How our relationship with alcohol can go wrong, and what we can do about it.

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