Can You Reverse Alcohol Damage? Reversing the Effects of Alcohol
What Happens When You Drink Alcohol Every Day?
Daily alcohol consumption does not necessarily mean that an individual will develop an alcohol addiction. However, binge drinking or excessive alcohol consumption—defined as 5 or more drinks per day or 15 drinks per week for men and 4 or more drinks per day or 8 drinks per week for women—can increase the risk for developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD), the clinical term for alcohol addiction, and other adverse health effects.3
There are many significant risk factors—such as genetics, the age in which someone begins drinking alcohol, and the existence of other mental health conditions, among other things—that impact the likelihood of an individual developing an alcohol use disorder. Therefore, not every heavy drinker becomes addicted to alcohol.4
However, just because an individual doesn’t develop an alcohol use disorder doesn’t mean alcohol isn’t doing damage. Chronic alcohol use can lead to other adverse health conditions, including:5
- Cardiovascular problems like hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
- Liver disease.
- Digestive problems.
- Cancer of the liver, colon, breast, mouth, throat, and esophagus.
- Weakening of the immune system.
- Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
- Learning and memory problems.
As alcohol enters the upper gastrointestinal tract, a significant portion is absorbed straight into the bloodstream through the tissue lining in the stomach and the upper small intestines.6 A small amount is immediately metabolized in the stomach. Once in the bloodstream, it is carried throughout the body to organs like the liver, brain, and heart.6,7
Can the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain Be Reversed?
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and can change the way areas of the brain work, impacting balance, memory, speech, and judgement—all of which can increase the likelihood of injuries and other negative outcomes. Long-term heavy alcohol use and misuse affects the neurons in the brain, which can lead to alcohol-induced blackouts, alcohol poisoning, and alcohol use disorder.8
While some neurological issues associated with alcohol use can improve when drinking stops, other changes in the brain may be more lasting. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there are a growing number of studies that indicate that at least some of the alcohol-induced brain changes—and the changes in thinking, feeling, and behaving that accompany them—can improve and possibly reverse with treatment and sustained abstinence from alcohol.9
Wernicke-Korsakoff (WK) syndrome, a serious alcohol-related brain condition typically associated with severe alcohol use disorders, involves two different disorders that often occur together. They develop because of brain damage from the alcohol use disorder and when the body is deficient in thiamine. Wernicke’s disease is a severe condition characterized by confusion, lack of energy, vision problems, and muscle coordination issues. Some of these symptoms—such as muscle and vision problems—are reversible with prompt thiamine treatment, while other symptoms might respond more slowly or may not be completely reversible. However, without treatment, Wernicke’s disease can progress to Korsakoff’s psychosis, a persistent and disabling condition that results in long-term learning and memory problems.10
If you think someone has WK syndrome, get them help immediately. If diagnosed and treated promptly, early symptoms can be reversed and Korsakoff’s psychosis can be avoided.10
Can the Effects on the Cardiovascular System Be Reversed?
Chronic heavy drinking or even binge drinking on a single occasion can cause damage to cardiovascular health. This includes diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease (a narrowing or blockage of the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the legs), and cardiomyopathy (a stretching and drooping of the heart muscle)—all of which can lead to arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, and even death.2,11,12
The heart is an adaptable organ and can heal from many toxins, including moderate alcohol consumption. Research shows that individuals who abstain or even substantially reduce their drinking can experience an improvement in heart function.12
One clinical review found that individuals with alcohol-related cardiomyopathy, who abstained from alcohol or significantly cut back, showed major improvement in their cardiac functioning.12
Can the Effects of Alcohol on the Liver Be Reversed?
Because alcohol is mainly metabolized by the liver, chronic or heavy alcohol use can lead to a range of liver diseases, including fatty liver disease (steatosis), alcoholic steatohepatitis (ASH), cirrhosis, and liver cancer.13
Depending on the stage and the extent, alcohol-related liver damage may be reversible due to the liver’s remarkable ability to regenerate. Abstinence is the only way to allow the liver to recover from alcohol-induced damage.13 In fact, abstaining from alcohol for 2 to 3 weeks, may completely resolve hepatic steatosis. Additionally, evidence indicates that even if alcoholic fatty liver disease has progressed to fibrosis, the liver can repair itself if alcohol use stops.14 Abstinence from alcohol consumption is key; it also provides the best long-term outcome for survival from other forms of alcohol-related liver disease, such as cirrhosis.13
Impact of Alcohol on the Digestive System
Alcohol can have myriad effects on the digestive system since multiple organs and components of the digestive system are involved in the consumption, metabolism, and elimination of it. Recent research suggests that chronic, heavy alcohol use can lead to inflammation, gastrointestinal tract damage, and issues with organs within the digestive system.15-17 These conditions include:15-17
- Cirrhosis of the liver.
- Alcohol-involved gastritis, or alcohol-induced inflammation of the stomach and small intestine.
- Ulcers or sores in the stomach lining.
- An increased risk of stomach cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers.
Certain medications can help relieve inflammation, ulcers, and sores. However, abstinence can heal some of these conditions and prevent all of them from worsening.13
Impact of Alcohol on Skeletal Health
Alcohol can negatively impact overall bone health. Research suggests that the greater the amount and duration of alcohol consumption, the greater the bone loss and the higher the risk of developing osteoporosis.13,18 Continued heavy alcohol use decreases bone density and impairs bone formation.
Studies suggest, however, that a decrease in plasma concentrations of osteocalcin, a marker of bone formation, may be reversible. One study of male heavy drinkers with alcohol use disorders found that after 3 weeks of abstinence from alcohol use, plasma osteocalcin levels were significantly higher, even equal to those of the control group, who did not have alcohol use disorders.13
Seeking Alcohol Addiction Treatment
While chronic, excessive drinking can adversely impact various organs throughout the body, treatment can help. As mentioned above, much of the damage caused by alcohol is reversible when drinking stops or is drastically reduced.
Effective alcohol addiction treatment looks different for each person but may start with medically managed detox, a process that allows the body to safely rid itself of toxins under the supervision of healthcare professionals, who can keep you as comfortable as possible through the withdrawal.
Detox is often the first step in a more comprehensive treatment plan that may include a combination of evidence-based behavioral therapies—such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), individual and group counseling, and mutual-help groups—and medications for the treatment of alcohol use disorder.19 These interventions may take place in an inpatient setting, which requires you to reside at the facility 24/7 for the duration of treatment, or in an outpatient setting, which allows you to live at home or in a sober living environment while you participate in treatment.
If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol misuse or addiction, you are not alone, and it is never too late to seek treatment. Call American Addiction Centers (AAC) 24/7 at and speak to one of our compassionate and knowledgeable admissions navigators, who can listen to your story, answer your questions, explain your options, and get you started on your path to recovery.