The physical consequences of heavy alcohol use, such as liver damage and high blood pressure, are well known. Alcohol use at any level, however, is also bad news for the brain. Even moderate users or those who have been drinking in excess for a short period of time can experience mental fog, anxiety, and mood changes.
For people who have alcohol use disorder, binge drink, or have been using alcohol for many years, brain changes affecting cognitive function and mood can become severe and debilitating.
The good news is that by quitting alcohol, even those who have spent years throwing off the balance of their brains can begin to heal and restore the brain’s natural function. Here are some of the changes that will occur in your brain once you stop drinking.
5 WAYS QUITTING DRINKING AFFECTS YOUR BRAIN
1- Regeneration of the Frontal Lobe
The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for many critical functions including reasoning, behavior control, memory, and motor function, takes a heavy hit when you drink in excess.
Years of alcohol abuse can damage this area of the brain extensively, leading to a wide variety of issues including memory loss and the inability to think rationally.
While people in early recovery may still suffer from these symptoms, as well as an inability to process large amounts of information, new cell growth will eventually begin to repair this damage as time passes.
Rational decision making and impulse control are crucial in fighting addiction, and luckily these powerful functions of the brain will return as you begin to heal.
2- Dopamine Levels Begin to Normalize
Alcohol abuse creates a complex imbalance of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine release is triggered when you engage in activities you find pleasurable, such as eating chocolate or playing sports, and it teaches your brain what actions to repeat, and eventually, to crave.
Alcohol use overloads the brain with dopamine, while also reducing the brain’s dopamine receptors in the process. When you first quit drinking, the lack of dopamine and diminished receptors can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Both excessively high and abnormally low levels of dopamine can have adverse effects, but over time your brain will begin to normalize dopamine levels as well as your brain’s response to the chemical without the intrusion of alcohol.
3- Motivation Returns
As mentioned above, early recovery might mean struggling with mood and overall mental wellness, but as your body and brain begin to heal, you will experience renewed motivation towards healthy habits in your life.
This means you will be able to take up new activities that boost your mood and stimulate cell growth in the brain, such as daily exercise.
The early days of sobriety can be draining and challenging for anyone recovering from addiction, but a balanced and healthy brain will return, and with it, a sense of heightened motivation towards positive goals.
4- Serotonin Production Increases
While the short-term effect of alcohol may boost serotonin, a chemical that increases feelings of happiness and wellbeing, the long-term repercussions of heavy alcohol use often include a decrease in serotonin production, leading to an increased chance of depression.
Once you quit drinking, serotonin production can eventually return to normal. If you continue to struggle with depressive symptoms during recovery, you may require medication.
By eliminating alcohol from the equation, you can better understand your mental health and determine what it is you need to feel your best.
5- Healthy Activity Returns as You Learn New Skills
For many chronic drinkers, alcohol becomes a crutch to handle many situations and emotions in daily life. You may have used alcohol to become more outgoing, manage stress, or combat depression.
While alcohol isn’t a cure for any of these problems, it can numb your natural response to life’s circumstances and make it hard to function without it. While early sobriety can be challenging, for this reason, experiencing life without alcohol means that you must learn new coping mechanisms and social skills.
This is an opportunity for your brain power to grow and evolve as you begin to participate in the same activities as you have before, but while sober.
Depending on how long you have been a heavy drinker, entering recovery may mean you are socializing and emotion-managing sober for the first time.
With the acquisition of each new coping skill and the evolution of emotional maturity, your brain builds new connections and creates pathways for healthy interactions in the future.
While the damage you can inflict on your brain with heavy alcohol use is disturbing, it is entirely possible to experience recovery from addiction and begin to heal from the inside out.
How to Stop Drinking Alcohol on Your Own?
Quitting drinking on your own is not easy – if it were then you would probably have stopped by now. If you have an alcohol addiction, you will find it difficult to break free from the cycle of abuse; if your addiction is severe, it is unwise to quit without supervision.
That being said, a less severe addiction may mean being able to stop drinking alcohol by yourself using various self-help techniques. If you are serious about quitting alcohol, you should make sure that you tell the people who are close to you about your intentions. This way you will be held to account and you will be more likely to stick to your promise.
Staying away from places where you know alcohol will be present is another way to help you achieve your goal of quitting alcohol. Try to keep busy and arrange alternative activities or alcohol-free outings at times when you would normally drink.
How to Help an Alcoholic Quit Drinking?
If someone you love is struggling with an alcohol addiction, it will be tough to watch and your every instinct will be to do all you can to help this individual. You probably already know that getting this person to quit will not be easy, especially if he or she is not even aware of how serious the problem is.
Communicating with your loved one is key to getting him or her to accept the illness exists and to consider treatment. It is really important to talk to the individual to raise your concerns though however uncomfortable this might make you feel. Nevertheless, before attempting to discuss the issue of alcohol abuse or addiction you should ensure that he or she is sober. Stay calm, avoid getting angry, and be sure to show your support; you may find that the affected person is prepared to accept the problem exists and is willing to consider help.
You could also consider staging an intervention where you gather a group of individuals who your addicted loved one loves or respects. Together you can meet with your addicted family member or friend to discuss the impact of the illness on all involved. The aim of an intervention is to encourage him or her into treatment; it should not be seen as a chance to gang up on the person.
How Long Does Alcohol Detox Take?
For most, an alcohol detox will last for between one and two weeks. The first withdrawal symptoms tend to appear a few hours after the last drink and will progress over the following days. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe in intensity but there is no way to predict which ones you will experience or how severe these will be.
After a couple of weeks, most symptoms will have passed, although a few – such as mood swings or sleep problems – can linger for several weeks or even months.
What’s It Like to Quit Drinking?
Alcohol is a substance that affects almost every cell in the body, so when you quit drinking you will likely experience a variety of symptoms as your body tries to get back to normal. The earliest symptoms will be similar to a hangover, with a headache, nausea, shaking, and tremors all common. The symptoms may progress and become moderate to severe in intensity, but most will subside after about a week to seven days.
The potential for severe withdrawal symptoms exists for everyone. These symptoms are known as DT, or Delirium Tremens, although it is estimated that only around five percent of affected people will experience them. They are a set of sudden changes in the body that can lead to minor symptoms becoming much more intense. So you might experience severe shaking and sweating, and your temperature may become quite high. You may also suffer paranoid delusions.
At their worst, DT can be fatal; a combination of shock, dehydration, and heart irregularities brought on by a surge of adrenaline and over-stimulation of the nervous system can result in cardiac collapse.
11 ways to curb your drinking
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests that the following steps may be helpful:
- Put it in writing. Making a list of the reasons to curtail your drinking — such as feeling healthier, sleeping better, or improving your relationships — can motivate you.
- Set a drinking goal. Set a limit on how much you will drink. You should keep your drinking below the recommended guidelines: no more than one standard drink per day for women and for men ages 65 and older, and no more than two standard drinks per day for men under 65. These limits may be too high for people who have certain medical conditions or for some older adults. Your doctor can help you determine what's right for you.
- Keep a diary of your drinking. For three to four weeks, keep track of every time you have a drink. Include information about what and how much you drank as well as where you were. Compare this to your goal. If you're having trouble sticking to your goal, discuss it with your doctor or another health professional.
- Don't keep alcohol in your house. Having no alcohol at home can help limit your drinking.
- Drink slowly. Sip your drink. Drink soda, water, or juice after having an alcoholic beverage. Never drink on an empty stomach.
- Choose alcohol-free days. Decide not to drink a day or two each week. You may want to abstain for a week or a month to see how you feel physically and emotionally without alcohol in your life. Taking a break from alcohol can be a good way to start drinking less.
- Watch for peer pressure. Practice ways to say no politely. You do not have to drink just because others are, and you shouldn't feel obligated to accept every drink you're offered. Stay away from people who encourage you to drink.
- Keep busy. Take a walk, play sports, go out to eat, or catch a movie. When you're at home, pick up a new hobby or revisit an old one. Painting, board games, playing a musical instrument, woodworking — these and other activities are great alternatives to drinking.
- Ask for support. Cutting down on your drinking may not always be easy. Let friends and family members know that you need their support. Your doctor, counselor, or therapist may also be able to offer help.
- Guard against temptation. Steer clear of people and places that make you want to drink. If you associate drinking with certain events, such as holidays or vacations, develop a plan for managing them in advance. Monitor your feelings. When you're worried, lonely, or angry, you may be tempted to reach for a drink. Try to cultivate new, healthy ways to cope with stress.
- Be persistent. Most people who successfully cut down or stop drinking altogether do so only after several attempts. You'll probably have setbacks, but don't let them keep you from reaching your long-term goal. There's really no final endpoint, as the process usually requires ongoing effort.
Some of these strategies — such as watching for peer pressure, keeping busy, asking for support, being aware of temptation, and being persistent — can also be helpful for people who want to give up alcohol completely.
Once you've cut back on your drinking (so you're at or below the recommended guidelines), examine your drinking habits regularly to see if you're maintaining this level of drinking. Some people attain their goal only to find that old habits crop up again later. If this happens, consult your doctor.
What happens when you quit drinking – timeline
This timeline is a broad estimate of what will happen and when after a dependent drinker has their last alcoholic drink.
Everyone is likely to experience slight variations on this.
|Period since last drink||Symptoms/outcomes you may see|
|Two to 12 hours||Onset of withdrawal symptoms which may include hand tremors, retching, excessive sweating, restlessness and anxiety.|
|12 to 24 hours||Withdrawal symptoms continue. Alcohol cravings, reduced energy and feeling low or depressed are common. Sleep is likely to be disturbed.|
|12 to 72 hours||This is the danger period for the most severe withdrawal symptoms such as dangerously raised heart rate, increased blood pressure and seizures.|
|48 to 72 hours||For most people, this is the point at which withdrawal symptoms begin to recede or become more manageable.|
|3 to 7 days||Withdrawal symptoms will, on the whole, stop for most people. In a few cases, the symptoms will worsen and can develop into the medical emergency delirium tremens (DTs), involving disorientation, confusion and profuse sweating. This is why heavy drinkers should only stop drinking with medical supervision.|
|1 week||Sleep patterns are likely to improve, though it can take up to a month or longer for some people.|
|1 to 2 weeks||Between the one and two week mark is the point at which a clinical detox period usually comes to a close.|
|2 weeks||You may start to notice weight loss due to removing alcohol calories. Those whose livers have not been badly damaged by drinking but have become ‘fatty’ can start showing signs of recovery.|
|3 to 4 weeks||Blood pressure may reduce to healthier levels if drinking was causing an increase.|
|1 month||Your skin may start to look better.|
|3 months||More energy and a general sense of better health.|
|1 year||A few people will find some degree of the sense of low energy, anxiety, sleeping troubles and/or alcohol cravings present at the beginning of withdrawal continues for much longer than is usual.
At the 12-month mark, almost everyone will leave these behind and begin to enjoy all the benefits of being drink-free.