Benefits of Quitting Alcohol and How to Stop Drinking
The Negative Impacts of Alcohol
According to a survey of Americans aged 12 or over, more than half (nearly 140 million people) reported drinking alcohol within the last month, in 2019. Additionally, more than 85% of people aged 18 and over reported drinking alcohol at some point in their life.1,2 Almost 66 million people admitted binge drinking within the last month (that means males had 5 or more drinks; females had 4 or more drinks in one sitting).1 Heavy drinking is defined as binge drinking on at least 5 occasions within a month, and 16 million people admitted to heavy drinking.1 Furthermore, 14.5 million people were diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2019.1
Alcohol can have a harmful effect on many of the organs and systems in the body, including the following:
- Brain. Alcohol can change how the brain functions and appears, altering moods, behavior, coordination, and memory. Alcohol has been associated with depression, anxiety, memory loss, and increased risk of dementia. It can also cause permanent damage and a disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1, that affects brain functioning and vision.2,5
- Heart. Both chronic alcohol consumption and binge drinking can affect the heart, leading to cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of heart muscle), irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), increased risk of stroke, and high blood pressure.3,5
- Immune system. Alcohol impairs the body’s ability to fight diseases, making individuals more susceptible to getting sick. Chronic drinkers are more likely to get pneumonia and tuberculosis (infection of the lungs). And binge drinking or drinking heavily on a single occasion slows the body’s ability to ward off infections—even a full 24 hours after getting drunk. Clinicians have also observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and slower, less complete recovery from infection and physical trauma, including poor wound healing.3,6
- Liver. Over time, alcohol can cause inflammation and liver diseases, including fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.2,3,4
- Pancreas. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can cause pancreatitis, a condition involving inflammation and swollen blood vessels that impairs digestion.3
- Risk of developing cancer. Evidence indicates that the more a person drinks regularly over time, the greater the likelihood they have of developing an alcohol-related cancer, such as breast, mouth and throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, and colon and rectum. Even moderate drinking—one or two drinks per day—has been linked to an elevated risk of breast cancer in women. And heavier drinking increases the probability of any of these cancers.4,7
- Stomach. Alcohol misuse can also contribute to gastric bleeding.4
Take Our Alcohol Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute alcohol abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with alcohol abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Quitting Alcohol: A Timeline
After a prolonged period of heavy drinking, alcohol withdrawal can occur, with symptoms lasting for days or weeks.8 Alcohol withdrawal is directly related to alcohol dependence, meaning that over time, your body becomes physically dependent on alcohol to function and when you cut back or quit drinking, your body has a high likelihood of experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Not every individual will experience withdrawal symptoms, especially if they are not physically dependent on alcohol. Additionally not every individual in the acute withdrawal stage will experience every symptom, but the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that do appear follow this predictable pattern.8
Minor, moderate, and severe withdrawal symptoms typically begin about six hours after the last drink.
Some people with a long history of alcohol abuse may start to experience seizures, which peak around 10 hours then taper off and subside entirely within 2 or 3 days.
Minor withdrawal symptoms peak somewhere between 18 and 24 hours. These generally include feeling anxious and irritable, having trouble sleeping, and loss of appetite.9
Hallucinations begin for some and peak around 36 to 48 hours.
Moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms peak around the 36-hour mark and may include tremors, sweating, elevated heart rate, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, vivid dreams or nightmares, trouble concentrating, hypersensitivity to noise and light, and brief periods of seeing and hearing things that aren’t there.9 Severe alcohol withdrawal may be associated with seizures, which can be life-threatening.9
The severe complication delirium tremens (DT) involves disorientation, agitation, altered consciousness, and difficulty regulating body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. This can start 48 hours after the last drink.8,9 It affects less than 5% of people experiencing withdrawal.10
By day 4 or 5, minor withdrawal symptoms subside.
Sometime between days 5 and 7, moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms typically lessen.
Hallucinations usually diminish after 7 days, though in some individuals they can last up to 1 month.
By day 14, delirium tremens ease.
The Benefits of Quitting Drinking for Good
While alcohol is known to cause harm to physical and mental health, the good news is that quitting drinking may improve or reverse some of alcohol’s negative effects.11 Sobriety can also have major long-term benefits on your health, which may include:11,12,13
- Improvement or reversal of most of the cognitive damage, including memory, planning, organization, behavior control, and reaction time.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Maintaining a healthier body weight.
- Potential regeneration of damaged liver cells.
- Reduction in insulin resistance.
- A lowered risk of cancer with each year of sobriety.
The Process of Quitting Alcohol
Quitting drinking is a process, and taking it step by step can be helpful. The journey to sobriety may be different for each person, but following some helpful tips can help you stop drinking:14,15
- Write down your reasons for wanting to stop drinking. Listing the positive impact this can have on your body, mental health, finances, relationships, and other areas of your life can help keep you motivated.
- Explore your current relationship with alcohol. You may want to consider why you drink, such as socializing or coping with stress, and how much you drink. Keeping track of how much and how often you drink and how you feel when you drink can be especially helpful.
- Consider whether you want to cut back or stop drinking completely. Talk to your doctor to decide what makes the most sense for you right now. Think about your habits. Can you stop drinking once you start? Try taking days off from drinking or pacing yourself when you do drink by not having more than one alcoholic beverage in one hour.
- Remove alcohol from the house. It is a lot easier to cut back or stop drinking completely when alcohol isn’t readily accessible.
- Set aside time for self-care. Ensure that you take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating properly, getting exercise, and meditating. These practices provide healthy alternatives to drinking.
- Reach out for support. Encouraging friends and family members can help reinforce your decision and help you manage difficult situations.
Tips to Giving Up Alcohol
If you’ve decided that you want to quit drinking, some effective tips and strategies can help you.15,16
Learn how to say no. If drinking has been a big part of your life, you are likely to encounter situations where alcohol is present, and you might be offered a drink. Plan for these instances. Ask a friend to role play with you and request a non-alcoholic drink instead.
Find ways to occupy your time. Replace alcohol-centered activities with healthier pursuits, such as exercise, catching up with old friends, or learning a new skill.
Stay away from high-risk situations. Identify trigger situations and avoid them if possible. If you can’t, bring a supportive friend or family member with you to help you cope with temptation.
Ask people for support. Consult friends, family, people in self-help groups, or professionals, such as a doctor or a therapist to get helpful tips and strategies for avoiding alcohol.
Consider joining a support group. Many people find that attending a self-help group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which provides support and effective techniques, helps them stay sober.
Don’t get discouraged if you slip. Relapses happen, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. Talk about it with your support group and examine what you can do differently next time.
Learn how to manage urges. Cravings for alcohol are common, and they will pass. When they arise, remind yourself of the reasons why you want to change, talk things through with someone you trust, or distract yourself with a healthy activity that doesn’t involve drinking. On the other hand, it might be best to ride the wave (it’s temporary) and let it pass without giving in.
Finding Alcohol Rehab and Treatment
If you struggle to quit on your own, have an AUD, or experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, attending an alcohol rehab may be the best option for you.9,17 Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for recovery, treatment has to be tailored to your needs.18 Finding the best fit means the program addresses all aspects—including alcohol use, co-occurring mental health disorders, and any social, legal, or employment issues, too.18 Effective treatment programs incorporate behavioral therapy and medication as needed and regularly assess the plan to make adjustments when necessary.18
Treatment typically starts with alcohol detox, where a medication taper helps ease withdrawal symptoms. This medication taper is provided to keep you safe and comfortable as you withdraw from alcohol.8,9 This doesn’t address the addiction or associated underlying triggers, however, so long-term alcohol rehab is recommended.18 This may take place in an inpatient rehab center, where you stay at the facility for the duration of treatment, and staff is available 24/7 to provide support and monitoring.18,19 On the other hand, an outpatient facility allows you to live at home and follow your normal routine while attending scheduled treatment appointments.18,19 Both types of care offer group and individual therapy sessions and may include family or marriage counseling as well.18
Aftercare is ongoing support to help you stay sober as you transition back to life after treatment and may include follow-up appointments, attending self-help meetings, living in recovery housing, or ongoing counseling sessions.17 Alcohol abuse hotlines are another available resource. You can call these free hotlines at any time and speak to someone who understands what you are going through and who can provide information, compassionate support, crisis management, and referrals to treatment.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP20-07-01-001, NSDUH Series H-55). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021, June). Alcohol facts and statistics.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s effects on the body.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). What are the consequences?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 11). Alcohol use and your health.
- Sarkar, D., Jung, M.K., & Wang, H.J. (2015). Alcohol and the immune system. Alcohol research: Current reviews, 37(2), 153-155.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, July 8). Alcohol and cancer.
- Kattimani, S., & Bharadwaj, B. (2013). Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review. Industrial psychiatry journal, 22(2), 100-108.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4131. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2006.
- Schuckit, Marc A., M.D. (2014). Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens). The New England Journal of Medicine, 371(22), 2,109-2,113.
- Oscar-Berman, M., Valmas, M.M., Sawyer, Ruiz, S.M., K.S., Luhar, R.B., & Gravitz, Z.R. (2014). Profiles of impaired, spared, and recovered neuropsychological processes in alcoholism. Handbook of clinical neurology, 125, 183-210.
- Mehta, G., Macdonald, S., Cronberg, A., Rosselli, M., Khera-Butler, T., Sumpter, C., … Moore, K.P. (2018). Short-term abstinence from alcohol and changes in cardiovascular risk factors, liver function tests and cancer-related growth factors: A prospective observational study. BMJ open, 8.
- Miyaoka, Y., & Miyajima, A. (2013). To divide or not to divide: Revisiting liver regeneration. Cell division, 8(8).
- National Institute on Aging. (2017, May 16). Getting help for alcohol problems.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Tips to try.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Building your drink refusal skills.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, January). Treatment approaches for drug addiction DrugFacts.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (Third edition).
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help.