Are you thinking about quitting alcohol? Re-evaluating your relationship with drinking?
Or maybe you’re wrestling with some big realities, and the truth is, you have to stop.
No matter your reason, quitting alcohol is a daunting task – one you can conquer with the right knowledge and support.
The first step has led you here to understand what you can expect and how long it will take to get alcohol out of your system, past the cravings, and into a better life.
So let’s talk about it!
But first, we’ll start with the less glamorous side of quitting – alcohol withdrawal.
- Why do we experience alcohol withdrawal?
- Risk Factors for Severe Alcohol Withdrawal
- Quitting Alcohol Timeline: Alcohol Withdrawals in the First 72 Hours
- What does alcohol withdrawal feel like?
- What happens when you quit drinking alcohol for seven days?
- What happens when you quit drinking alcohol for one month?
- What happens when you quit drinking alcohol for one year?
- How long does it take for alcohol to stop affecting your brain?
- What happens to the liver after quitting drinking?
- What happens to the stomach after quitting drinking?
- Looking Ahead: Living Life Without Alcohol
Why do we experience alcohol withdrawal?
When alcohol is in your body, it blocks specific signals in the brain that are supposed to make you feel stressed or anxious.
It is a central nervous system depressant that increases the production of GABA (the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of calm and euphoria) while decreasing the production of glutamate (the excitability neurotransmitter).
Our brains don’t like this artificial imbalance and will try to overcompensate by decreasing the amount of GABA and increasing the production of glutamate.
Alcohol withdrawal happens when the alcohol leaves your body so quickly that your brain hasn’t had time to adjust.
It’s why you feel extra jumpy and anxious after a night of heavy drinking (i.e., hangxiety).
Alcohol withdrawal causes alcohol cravings, sweating, shaking, nausea, headache, irritability, and insomnia.
Symptoms range from mild to life-threatening.
It’s important to know the difference between mild alcohol withdrawal and severe alcohol withdrawal.
Risk Factors for Severe Alcohol Withdrawal
Research has identified the main risk factors for severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome as:
- Chronic, heavy drinking
- A history of generalized seizures
- A history of delirium tremens
Mild to moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Feeling anxious or nervous
- Feeling exhausted or tired
- Inability to think clearly
- Dilated pupils
- Trouble sleeping
- Appetite loss
Symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal will also include:
- High blood pressure
- Excessive sweating
- Altered consciousness and hallucinations
- Extreme confusion
It’s important to note that delirium tremens is extremely dangerous and can be fatal if left untreated. Approximately 3% to 5% of heavy drinkers experience DTs when withdrawing.
If you experience any severe symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal usually go away after a few days. More severe withdrawal symptoms generally resolve within a week.
If you’re a heavy drinker or someone with a history of alcohol dependence, always consult with a medical professional before quitting. The effects of alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. You may require a medically supervised detox.
Quitting Alcohol Timeline: Alcohol Withdrawals in the First 72 Hours
The following is a breakdown of the typical alcohol withdrawal timeline. We’ll touch on the symptoms associated with the initial stages of alcohol withdrawal before diving into the more extended timeline of quitting alcohol.
- 5-10 hours: Alcohol withdrawal symptoms start. These include, but are not limited to, anxiety, shakiness, increased or decreased blood pressure, irritability, rapid pulse, and vomiting. These symptoms typically peak between 24-48 hours.
- 12-24 hours: Alcohol withdrawal-related headaches and nausea set in (i.e., the hangover). Some people may experience “the shakes” and extreme anxiety (also known as ‘hangxiety‘). You may experience low mood, increased cravings, low energy, and sleep disturbances.
- 12-72 hours: This is the danger zone for people who are at high risk of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. During this period, severe symptoms like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and seizures can occur. If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately.
- 48 hours: Most people will start to feel better. However, heavy drinkers are still at risk within the first 72 hours of quitting drinking. They may start experiencing Delirium Tremens (DTs). This is a medical emergency, as DTs can lead to stroke or death. This is also why heavy drinkers and people who struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) should consult a doctor before quitting drinking. They may require a supervised medical detox.
- 96 hours: Life-threatening symptoms have passed at this point.
Again, if you or a loved one is experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, dial 911.
Here’s a video explainer on the immediate quitting alcohol timeline:
What does alcohol withdrawal feel like?
It’s different for everyone. Mild to moderate symptoms range from the worst, crankiest hangover of your life, to shakiness, raging anxiety, and an overall feeling of “ick.”
When I quit drinking, I experienced a lot of anxiety and depression. Now granted, I was also pregnant, so there were other hormonal fluctuations at play, but I mostly just wanted to feel like myself again – whatever that meant.
There are other people who feel physically sick and others who have mild physical symptoms but struggle mightily with psychological effects like cravings and thinking about drinking constantly.
Some people don’t experience any of that for the first week or two and jump straight to the pink cloud, before getting hit with cravings.
Your experience will depend largely on any number of factors including:
- Consumption levels
- Drinking history
- Pre-existing mental health conditions
- The severity of alcohol abuse
- Family history of alcoholism
- Combined drug use
- History of severe withdrawals from previous attempts to quit
With that caveat in mind, let’s examine an approximate breakdown of what happens at longer-term milestones along the quitting alcohol timeline.
To learn more about what happens to your body when you quit drinking alcohol, check out this video:
What happens when you quit drinking alcohol for seven days?
After seven days, alcohol withdrawal symptoms should be gone.
For people who do not drink heavily, this is the time you’ll see noticeable improvements.
You’ll find that your skin is clearer and brighter, you have more energy throughout the day, less drowsiness after lunch, and you’re better able to focus on tasks at work.
Your relationships with family and friends may improve because of less stress and irritability.
When someone stops drinking so much alcohol, the body experiences a sugar crash.
Sugar is your body’s way of getting energy quickly and effectively, so even if you eat healthy foods like whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables throughout the day, you still might find yourself craving candy and other sugary treats.
This is temporary and should dissipate within a few weeks.
What happens when you quit drinking alcohol for one month?
After thirty days of sobriety, your energy levels will continue to increase.
You’ll also notice that you’re sleeping better at night (and waking up more easily in the morning ), and you’ll find yourself more alert and ready for the day.
You will experience reduced anxiety and stress, improved digestion, less bloating, potential weight loss, and an improved ability to handle life’s issues.
For many people, this is the beginning of improved quality of life.
People who don’t suffer from alcohol use disorder may find that quitting alcohol for thirty days improves their relationship with alcohol.
For people with a history of chronic alcohol use, it may take a little longer. There is no one-size-fits-all timeline to quitting alcohol, unfortunately.
Even if the psychological benefits are not as apparent, additional health benefits of one month sober include:
- Restored liver function
- Reduction in liver fat
- Improved skin
- Recovery of cerebral gray matter volume
- Decrease in alcohol-related inflammation
So even if you are still struggling with cravings and the psychological battles of quitting alcohol, rest assured you are experiencing the physical health benefits.
If you’re quitting alcohol for health and fitness-related reasons, this video has additional benefits you’ll want to hear:
What happens when you quit drinking alcohol for one year?
By one year of sobriety, many alcoholics and problem drinkers will have stopped drinking entirely and won’t even think about having a drink.
You’ll notice many emotional and physical health benefits like:
- Decreased risk for cardiovascular disease
- Decreased risk of alcohol-related cancers
- Improved cognitive function
- Continued improvement in liver function
- Deeper, more restful sleep
- Improved immune function
- Decreased levels of anxiety and depression
- Better emotional regulation
- Increased emotional resilience
- More meaningful personal connections
If all of that sounds good to you, let’s dive deeper into the long-term benefits of quitting alcohol.
And because you’ve come this far and we all need good sobriety inspo, check out this final video from a couple who quit alcohol for a year:
How long does it take for alcohol to stop affecting your brain?
The length of time it takes for the brain to heal back to normal after quitting alcohol is a process that varies from person to person.
The healing process will continue long into sobriety.
People who do not abuse alcohol regularly might notice positive cognitive changes soon after quitting drinking.
For heavy drinkers, the benefits may take a bit longer.
Drinking heavily can lead to brain damage, even without developing an alcohol use disorder.
The body is immediately affected when someone begins drinking heavily because it prompts changes in neurochemistry that impact cognition.
Heavy drinkers may experience confusion and memory problems when they quit. These can take up to two weeks to dissipate.
Different parts of the brain heal at different rates, so depending on your previous drinking habits and the amount of damage done, the recovery process could take some time.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
What happens to the liver after quitting drinking?
As soon as you quit drinking, your liver will start to repair itself from alcohol-related damage.
In most cases, after a year of sobriety, non-heavy drinkers can expect their liver enzymes to return to normal levels.
Additionally, giving your liver a break from alcohol allows it to take on important tasks like breaking down toxins, and metabolizing fats and excess hormones.
What happens to the stomach after quitting drinking?
Alcohol is very harsh on the stomach, so once you quit, you’ll see improvements in your acid reflux and stomachaches.
Studies have shown that after three-weeks of abstinence from alcohol, patients saw a complete recovery of gut barrier function in subjects who suffered from alcohol addiction and leaky gut.
That’s promising news!
You may have problems with digestion for up to a year after quitting drinking, but this will improve over time.
Give your digestive system several weeks to start feeling better.
Health risks that improve after one year of not drinking alcohol include:
- Heart disease risk: According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heart disease is reduced by 50% in those who stop consuming alcohol. This number is even more impressive for women as their risk for heart disease is cut in half.
- Cancer risk: The NIAAA also states that even one year of sober living reduces cancer risk by 30%. Many forms of cancer are linked to alcohol consumption, including cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and rectum.
- Type 2 Diabetes risk: According to a study published in the Lancet, those who drink heavily regularly double their risk for Diabetes.
- Alzheimers: Studies show that people who started drinking before age 25 or binge drink frequently are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
At the one-year mark, most of the mental and physical dependency on alcohol has disappeared.
You will experience improved sleep, better digestion, noticeable weight loss (assuming you do not replace alcohol with terrible food), and a healthier-looking complexion.
Looking Ahead: Living Life Without Alcohol
It can be difficult to quit alcohol, but the benefits make it worth the struggle.
The process takes time, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see results immediately.
Your desire for a drink might take a while to disappear. But with determination and help, whether through recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other sobriety support systems, you can beat alcoholism and live a life you love.