The pandemic has driven many of us to drink. Whether it’s a little added stress relief or an attempt to alleviate months of mind-numbing monotony, many of us are adding another cocktail, beer, or glass of wine at night. Does it lead to sluggish, irritable mornings? Sometimes. But even if you don’t notice the change, if you look at the science of what happens when you stop drinking, let’s just say you might have second thoughts about leaning into this habit.
First of all, alcohol in moderation is mostly fine and maybe even good for you, according to some research. The problem lies in the fact that it’s surprisingly easy to exceed what the experts call “moderate” drinking. For men, imbibing 15 or more drinks per week renders them a “heavy” or “problem” drinker. For women, it takes just 12 or more a week to enter the trouble zone.
Now, having that many drinks over the course of seven days doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic (though it can put you at risk of developing a dependency). It does, however, take a toll on your health. “Alcohol is nondiscriminatory — it affects the entire body,” says Mita Johnson, an addiction educator and president of NAADAC, the Association of Addiction Professionals. “It slows down systems, causing them to work harder than they need to, and that’s what becomes problematic.”
Some of the downsides of heavy drinking are painfully obvious: low energy, morning headaches, an expanding waistline, to name a few. Others are subtler but potentially more harmful, such as high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, liver damage, and heightened risk of heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers. “Just because you’re not feeling something doesn’t mean something is not happening in your body,” Johnson says.
The good news is these negative effects are reversible. By cutting out booze, you can score more get-up-and-go, more patience with your kids, a clearer head, and much better health overall — and it doesn’t take long to reap the benefits. Although each person’s experience will be unique, here’s a general timeline of what happens when heavy drinkers give it a rest.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking: Day 1
On your first day without a drink, don’t expect to feel much different. Unlike an alcoholic, who will experience acute withdrawal symptoms and cravings within hours of quitting cold turkey, Johnson says most heavy drinkers who stop won’t notice the effects right away, “because you don’t have that much alcohol continually present in your system.”
What you might notice is sugar or carb cravings, as your body isn’t getting the empty calories it’s used to getting from booze. “When you stop using alcohol, your sweet tooth still kicks in, so be careful of which foods and beverages you replace it with,” Johnson says.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking: Days 2 and 3
Since you’re probably not physically addicted to alcohol, going without it for a few days won’t make much difference on a physiological level. Emotionally speaking, however, you might miss the release and relaxation you’re used to getting from wine, beer, or mixed drinks. If a stressful situation arises, you may wish you had your go-to and feel slightly irritated that you can’t indulge. Just push through it. Good things are about to happen.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking: Days 4 to 7
Subtle physiological changes start occurring within 72 to 96 hours of no alcohol, Johnson says. The first big one most people will notice is sounder slumber, as alcohol majorly messes with sleep cycles.
“When a problem drinker has alcohol in their system, two things happen: They have fewer REM cycles than normal, and they often don’t sleep through the night,” Johnson explains. “The body breaks down alcohol into sugar before breaking it down further into vinegar and water so the kidneys can remove it. At the point that it’s sugar, it’s a stimulant, and the effect is enough to wake you up during the night.” Even though most people fall back asleep eventually, they often don’t get deep sleep, which is key for regenerating cells and restoring energy.
After four or five successive days without alcohol in the system, Johnson says sleep cycles typically begin to normalize, and people start waking up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking: Week 2
With better-quality sleep comes more daytime energy. Once restful nights become a regular occurrence, tasks feel less arduous, work doesn’t drag as much, and when your kids ask you to play a board game, you’re more likely to say yes.
At this point, you mind find you look better too. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes you pee more, flushing water from the body and leading to dehydration. This hinders all systems, but it really shows on the face. When skin cells are parched, the face looks dull, dry, tired, and old. With alcohol no longer sapping your cells of moisture, the reflection in the mirror may not scare you as much.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking: Weeks 3 to 5
This is when the really good stuff starts to happen. After a few weeks to a month, Johnson says the central nervous system repairs: “You start thinking more clearly, your memory is better, and you can concentrate better.” Along with that, anxiety and depressive symptoms often abate.
You’ll probably also notice fewer digestive issues. “When you drink regularly, the stomach is irritated because there is way too much acid present,” Johnson says. “This can cause pain, indigestion, and acid reflux. For many people, all of that slows down and starts reversing after several weeks of not drinking.”
The liver and kidneys become much healthier, too, which Johnson says is a very big deal. “The liver is so important,” she says. “It’s responsible for ridding the body of toxins and converting nutrients into substances the body can use, such as vitamin K for blood clotting, which start building back to normal levels. We see a reversal of alcohol-induced fatty liver issues, which can lead to liver cancer, when someone stops drinking. Cirrhosis, or scarring of the of liver, will stop.”
The three- to five-week period is also when sugar cravings brought on by the lack of alcohol tend to subside, Johnson adds. And, assuming you haven’t indulged those craving the past few weeks, you could find your clothes fit a bit looser. Johnson insists it’s impossible to put a timeline on weight loss since everyone’s diet, metabolism, and activity levels are different. That said, it’s common for people to drop a few pounds at this juncture.
What Happens When You Stop Drinking: Months 1 to 3
After a few months of refraining from booze, all of the positive changes that come from abstinence add up to significantly improved long-term health projections. “Within a month to a few months, we start to see a decrease in heart-related issues such as high cholesterol and blood pressure levels,” Johnson says. “Future cancer risks — such throat, stomach, and liver cancer — also decrease significantly.” Cheers to that.