The capacity of alcohol to affect the human body is significant, and there are many cases where individuals with alcohol use disorders have ended up severely ill or even dead from drinking. Many people might be surprised, however, to learn that their bodies can actually bounce back fairly quickly once they stop drinking. While the early stages of recovery can be a rough ride, particularly for people who have formed chemical dependencies, getting well is very possible. From cognitive issues to one’s ability to sleep, improvements in well-being set in faster than you might guess.
The Effects of Alcohol
Before looking at what happens once a person chooses to stop drinking, it’s important to understand what the starting point in the treatment and recovery process is. To accomplish this, you should consider what the effects of alcohol consumption, especially sustained drinking over many years, can be. Alcohol has a documented history of causing many terrifying medical conditions, including:
- Impairments in thinking, risk-assessment skills and physical coordination
- Organ failure
- Chemical dependency
- Fluctuations in body chemistry, particularly metabolization
- Brain shrinkage
As is the case with many substances that lead to addiction patterns, alcohol also has a strong influence on how dopamine is released in the human body. Dopamine is a neuroreceptor that plays an essential role in how the human brain constructs its sense of reward from different activities. When operating in a healthy manner, this reward system encourages humans to eat, hydrate and have sex.
Dopamine also encourages us to try things we found pleasurable again, and that’s where it can play an insidious role in the cycle of addiction. When a person goes into the alcohol detox process, the loss of the dopamine release can give rise to cravings for whatever triggered it. In this case, when people stop drinking, they can develop a strong urge to start drinking again. This addictive cycle also can be reinforced by drinking-related activities, such as dancing and socializing at the bar. Consequently, people often end up feeling empty and unrewarded when they begin the treatment process.
When You Stop Drinking: The First Hour
About an hour after you stop drinking, your body will respond by initiating its built-in alcohol detox system. The liver goes to work trying to filter out what it perceives to be a poison from your bloodstream. At the same time, the pancreas will start generating insulin, a process that leads to carb cravings even though the body may not be biologically hungry.
If you come from a genetic group that’s prone to the alcohol flush reaction, you’ll begin to see indications of the reaction during the first hour. These can include:
- Inflammation of membranes inside the nose
- A reddening of the skin
- Increased symptoms for people with asthma
While we think of alcohol as making people tired, it actually serves as a sleep disrupter. The perception of drowsiness from alcohol consumption derives from the depressing effects it has on the nervous system. In point of fact, alcohol can be downright lethal during this period as cardiac and respiratory functions can become dangerously depressed.
The Next Two Days
At about the 12-hour mark following the end of a drinking session, you’ll begin to experience the effects of a hangover, especially if you did not make much effort to hydrate during your drinking episode and right after. Your body will ride up and down through shifts in glycemic levels, so you should definitely make an effort to have water nearby to mitigate the effects of a hangover.
It will take about 48 hours for your body to fully complete its alcohol detox effort. Some sense of grogginess may stick with you during this period.
One sign that someone may have an alcohol dependency problem will emerge about 10 hours after they’ve had their last drink. They may experience a combination of nausea, retching and sweating. If you go through this process, it will peak by 30 hours from when you stop drinking, and it should largely subside within 50 hours. Those suffering from severe mental problems arising from an alcohol use disorder may experience visual or auditory hallucinations that last as long as six days.
72 Hours Later
If you don’t have a chemical dependency on alcohol, this is the point at which your body will begin to feel significantly better. Carb cravings should now subside, and you’ll likely feel physical and mental energy returning.
For people who have developed long-term substance use disorders, this is where an alcohol detox can get downright scary. Around 72 hours since the last drink, an individual may develop delirium tremens, what are frequently called the DTs. This can lead to greater confusion rather than the improved mental function a non-addict might experience. At this point, a host of withdrawal symptoms can occur, including:
In extreme instances, a person may even undergo full cardiac or respiratory failure. This can result in death. Not surprisingly, there is a high risk of hospitalization under these circumstances.
If you’re worried that your alcohol detox efforts might lead to withdrawal symptoms, you can discuss your desire to stop drinking with a qualified professional. If necessary, you can be given drugs to encourage the process. However, it’s wise to be aware that one of the most common drugs prescribed, benzodiazepine, has its own withdrawal risks; it has been documented to have serious interactions with other medications, especially antidepressants.
At this stage, if you’re not exhibiting withdrawal symptoms, your body should begin to show significant indications of bouncing back. Thanks to the fact that you’ll be sleeping better, you should notice a great deal more physical and mental energy. Alcohol also has negative effects on the skin, and these will begin to clear up once a person has quit drinking for more than a week. If you’re worried about dry skin, rosacea or dandruff, it’s very possible that cutting alcohol out of your diet may lead to a marked improvement in your appearance.
By the time it has been a month since your last drink, internal organs in your body will begin to exhibit signs of recovery. Liver fat levels should drop by about 15 percent, leading to a visible reduction in belly fat and an improvement in your body’s capacity to filter out toxic materials, including alcohol. You’ll also continue to notice improvements in the appearance of your skin.
The reduction of belly fat levels will continue for the whole year after you stop drinking, and you may lose more than 10 pounds during the process. Internal organs will also continue their recovery process.
It’s believed that the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the medulla are all adversely affected by alcohol consumption, and they should all bounce back during this period. There’s some evidence that the adverse effects on them may play a role in the increased cancer risks that are associated with heavy drinking. Consequently, if you can stop drinking for one year, you’ll face a lowered chance of developing several types of cancers, especially ones associated with the digestive tracts, such as oral, colon and rectal cancers.
Beginning the Recovery Process
One of the trickiest aspects of a recovery effort is that the ability of some people to quit cold turkey is high while others will struggle to kick a drinking habit. Amazingly, about 60 to 80 percent of people who appear to have serious substance use disorders during their teens and 20s will just quit having problems because they get too old to indulge in dangerous drinking behaviors by the time they hit their 30s. On the downside, the remaining 20 to 40 percent of the population who won’t be able to casually stop drinking or just age out of it are much more likely to require assistance from professionals within a structured treatment program.
A study of what leads to this split among people who show signs of addiction indicated that the susceptibility of an individual to addiction is roughly 60 percent genetic. On the flip side, the ability to kick a habit appeared to be 54 percent genetic. There will be those who never get addicted, and there will be those who never have trouble quitting cold turkey. Also, there will be drinkers who can easily develop substance use disorders and may struggle mightily to stop.
In light of the potentially lethal effects of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, it’s advised that anyone who is worried that they might face a difficult climb when they attempt to stop drinking should look into recovery program options. Proximity to where you live is important, but finding a program that fits your needs is more important. If you’re dealing with a complex set of potential interactions, such as drinking alcohol along with using drugs, you may need to enter a program that’s focused on dual-diagnosis cases. This is particularly important because only a professional can make a determination about whether someone might need treatment with drugs in order to stop drinking.
It may be necessary to take a closer look at mental health concerns as well. For example, research has shown that there’s a genetic propensity for individuals with anxiety disorders to self-medicate by consuming alcohol. Many mental health treatments call for antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications to be prescribed, and there are possibly complex interactions that can occur in those who are being treated for alcohol withdrawal issues. An experienced professional can help you sort out how you might want to move forward with treatment under those circumstances.
You should also try to build up a social support unit. If there’s someone in your family or a close friend you trust to assist you with things like getting to counseling sessions, you should recruit them as an ally in your recovery process. Due to the strong linkage between alcohol and social activities, you may also want to curtail relationships that tend to lead to drinking sessions. For example, rather than meeting friends at a bar and deciding not to order a drink, you could choose to only meet in public places where no alcohol is served.
Given enough time, your body can begin to heal itself once you stop drinking. The recovery process, however, is one that can take months or even years. By far, the most important thing is to keep your focus on trying to get better. Even if you stumble and have a drink, you’ll want to remember what your goal is rather than dwelling on a slip-up. With a commitment to health and wellness, recovery is absolutely possible.