Quitting Alcohol: Before and After Quitting Drinking
What Happens After You Quit Drinking?
For those who consume alcohol chronically or heavily, abstinence can lead to myriad physical and/or mental health benefits. However, immediately after cessation, people can experience withdrawal symptoms as their body readjusts to functioning without alcohol. These acute withdrawal symptoms—some of which can be life-threatening if left untreated—typically occur within the first 6 to 72 hours after cessation.1
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
Whether a person experiences withdrawal symptoms and the degree to which they do so typically depends on the amount of time that’s elapsed since their last drink, the quantity of alcohol typically consumed, and the number of times they’ve previously detoxed.1 However, the following timeline of alcohol withdrawal symptoms provides broad guidance for what people may experience immediately after they stop drinking:1,2
- 6-12 hours: A person may begin to experience mild withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, tremors, anxiety, digestive upset, headaches, sweating, heart palpitations, and loss of appetite.
- 12-24 hours: Visual, audio, or sensory hallucinations can begin, but they often resolve within 48 hours.
- 24-48 hours: Withdrawal seizures can occur during this time; however, they have also been reported as early as 2 hours after alcohol cessation.
- 48-72 hours: Delirium tremens (DTs)—which include hallucinations, disorientation, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, low fever, agitation, and sweating—can occur within this timeframe. DTs have also been reported as late as 5 days after drinking cessation.
Many of these symptoms are uncomfortable—and some can be life-threatening if untreated. However, medically assisted detox, which is offered in both inpatient and outpatient settings, can minimize withdrawal symptoms and help people to detox as safely and as comfortably as possible.
Physical Health Before and After Quitting Alcohol
Alcohol misuse can damage the body over time, affecting a host of systems. (Explore the Risks, Dangers, and Effects of Alcohol on the Body for detailed insights.) However, once someone quits drinking, many negative effects can be reversed or minimized.
Here’s a high-level, before-and-after overview of alcohol-related health risks associated with various systems and organs of the body—along with the positive impact abstinence can have on each.
Alcohol use can have serious acute and chronic effects on the brain and nervous system.3 Its acute effects inhibit the way the brain works and interfere with its communication pathways. As such, it’s more difficult for the brain to control speech, memory, judgement, balance, and more, which in turn increases the risk of traumatic injuries.4
Chronic alcohol use can result in a host of neurological conditions including: stroke, movement disorders (e.g., tremors), peripheral and compression neuropathy, myopathy, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, and more.5 Over time, chronic heavy drinking and alcohol use disorders also can lead to impaired learning, memory, and perception as well as changes in personality and emotions.6 Plus, regular excessive use of alcohol can increase the risk for cognitive decline, dementia, and brain damage.7
Neurological Improvements With Abstinence
While some alcohol-related brain conditions/impairments—such as stroke, traumatic injury caused by accidents, Korsakoff syndrome, etc.—may endure even after alcohol cessation, many alcohol-related brain impairments and changes associated with alcohol use disorder can improve and may reverse within months of abstinence.3 For example, of those with alcohol-related myopathy who abstain from alcohol consumption, 85% show muscle strength improvements within the first year of sobriety and a return to normal strength by the fifth year of abstinence.8
The brain also may be able to “rewire” itself to some degree. That is, for those with ongoing alterations in brain function and circuitry caused by alcohol use disorders, over time other brain circuits may be able to compensate for the damaged areas and restore function.3
Alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of several cardiovascular conditions such as cardiomyopathy, hypertension, arrhythmia, and more.9,10 Alcohol-related heart damage can in turn lead to other cardiovascular dysfunction, such as chronic heart disease, stroke, and heart failure.11
The severity of cardiovascular damage tends to increase with greater amounts of alcohol consumed over longer periods of time, but it may also be affected by genetics and other individual differences.11 That said, even acute episodes of binge drinking are linked to myocardial inflammation, decreased cardiac contractility, transient arterial hypertension, and arrhythmias.9,11
Cardiovascular Recovery in Sobriety
For those with alcohol-related heart disease, abstinence can lead to significant improvements in heart function and allows for recovery in most cases.11 For instance, most heavy drinkers can quickly reverse hypertension with abstinence.12 That said, some cardiovascular damage due to alcohol use can be permanent. For example, although abstinence can reverse some cases of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, severe cases can lead to congestive heart failure even with cessation.10
The liver plays a key role in the metabolism of toxins such as alcohol. Toxic by-products produced by the metabolization process contribute to inflammation and damage to the cells. As a result, people may develop various liver diseases, such as steatosis (aka fatty liver), chronic inflammation, fibrosis and cirrhosis (scarring that distorts the liver), and/or liver cancer.13
Liver Rejuvenation with Abstinence
With abstinence, liver disease can improve in some cases. For example, a fatty liver can typically heal and return to normal with sobriety. Similarly, fibrosis damage usually stops with cessation, and the liver improves; however, cirrhosis is not reversible even after cessation as this scar tissue remains. Meanwhile, with alcoholic hepatitis or foamy fatty liver change, abstinence can lead to improvements, but it may not stop the progression of the disease.14
When it comes to the digestive system, alcohol use can damage saliva glands, weaken the esophageal sphincter (causing gastric reflux), hinder muscles around the stomach and small intestines, and more.15
Additionally, chronic and heavy alcohol use disrupts the microbiome—which is associated with many conditions including diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Alcohol also can affect the gut’s ability to metabolize and absorb life-sustaining nutrients. These disruptions, then, can lead to chronic nutritional deficiencies and immune dysfunction. 13
Reduction of alcohol use provides the opportunity for the gut to heal. Repairing or replacing the gut microbiome can positively affect other body systems as well, but the process does not occur on its own. Reduction of alcohol intake combined with probiotics, fecal microbiota transplant, dietary changes, and other interventions have shown promise for microbiome repair.13 By healing the gut, eventually nutrient deficiencies and immune function may improve as well.11,13
Mental Health Before and After Quitting Alcohol
Just as with physical health, chronic and/or heavy alcohol consumption can impact mental health. Plus, mental health disorders and AUDs often co-occur.16 However, at least some of these conditions can be improved or eliminated with sobriety. (For a deep dive into the effects of alcohol on the brain and mental health, explore Mental Effects of Alcohol.)
Mental Health Disorders: Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, ADHD
Some mental disorders are known risk factors for developing a substance use disorder. A common hypothesis for this connection is that people with mental disorders may use substances as a form of self-medication. In reality, though, the temporary symptom reduction can actually exacerbate symptoms in the long term.17
Some mental health conditions related to substance use include:16,17
- Anxiety disorders e.g., generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic disorder. Roughly 20 to 40% of people with anxiety also have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- Mood disorders. Major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are the most common mood disorders that co-occur with AUDs. Between 27% to 40% of people with major depressive disorder develop an AUD sometime in their lifetimes, and 42% of people with bipolar disorder develop an AUD. This co-occurrence is particularly prominent in people with a serious mental illness (SMI), as roughly 1 in 4 people with an SMI also have a substance use disorder.
Minimized Mental Disorder Symptoms
While AUDs and mental health disorders seem to go hand in hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other, even if one clearly manifested first.17 Thus, abstaining from alcohol use doesn’t mean that the mental disorder will vanish as well, but sobriety can help.
According to a recent research report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcohol abstinence can often improve co-occurring mental health disorders. While treatment may still be necessary in the form of therapy or medications, healing is possible.16
How Long Will It Take to Feel Better After Quitting Alcohol?
Each person is unique, which means an individual’s road to recovery is distinctive as well. Additionally, it may take a fair amount of time to experience some of the aforementioned physical and mental benefits of sobriety. But the sooner you enter alcohol treatment, the sooner you can reap the rewards of abstinence.
If you’re ready to take your first step toward recovery, or if you have questions about treatment, insurance, payment options, and more, contact American Addiction Centers at . With facilities scattered across the country, AAC provides myriad levels of care, from detox and inpatient treatment to intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) and traditional outpatient care. Admissions navigators are available 24/7 to help you begin your journey to recovery.