What Happens When You Give up Alcohol … and When You Can’t
30 Days of Sobriety: What to Expect
If you have been a moderate drinker, you may be able to quit drinking on your own for 30 days. However, if you have been a heavy drinker and/or have been drinking for some time, you may need some help.
It is safest to quit with professional support in an alcohol treatment program. Why? Alcohol withdrawal sometimes leads to delirium tremens, or the DTs, which can arise two to three days after you stop drinking and last for a few days. The DTs occur in roughly 5% to 10% of people when they stop drinking. This rapid onset of severe withdrawal symptoms includes high fever and sweating, shaking and shivering, confusion and agitation, and may lead to hallucinations, seizures, irregular heartbeat and, sometimes, a heart attack.
Whether you choose to get sober on your own or to undergo assisted detox and treatment through an alcohol addiction program, you can expect to encounter a few challenges.
Early detox challenges – When you first give up alcohol, you will experience the good, the bad, and the ugly. The bad and the ugly come first — in the first 48 to 72 hours — as your body and brain go through alcohol withdrawal. The acute withdrawal symptoms can include cravings for alcohol (especially if you are around others who are drinking) and sugar (to replace the alcohol sugars your body got accustomed to), headaches, fatigue, mild anxiety, shakiness (not necessarily the DTs), insomnia, nausea and abdominal pain.
If you have been a heavy drinker, the first 72 hours can be really tough. (Did I mention undergoing alcohol detox through a medically assisted treatment program?) If your withdrawal symptoms seem severe, entering an alcohol detox and treatment program can help ensure your safety, reduce unpleasant symptoms, provide support and make you more comfortable as you detox.)
After the first week of alcohol detox, you will gradually begin to feel better and notice the good things that result from alcohol abstinence, including:
Less moodiness, less anxiety – When you first stop drinking, you might feel agitated for a few days, with feelings of anxiety, anger or aggression overcoming you at moments. These feelings arise because alcohol has affected your brain’s neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which affect mood. As alcohol leaves your system, the signals being sent through your central nervous system to the neurotransmitters begin to shift, and the initial rollercoaster ride of emotions begins to level out. Physical withdrawal symptoms tend to subside before the emotional and psychological ones, but hang in there. Each day you stay sober should feel incrementally better — especially if you are able to talk through your feelings with a supportive friend or therapist.
Improved sleep – After a couple of weeks without alcohol, you will notice that you are having fewer nightmares, sleeping better and feeling more refreshed when you wake up. This is because alcohol alters sleeping patterns and leads to disrupted sleep. Studies show that even if alcohol initially helps you nod off, it messes with your sleep quality later in the night, which is why you wake up feeling groggy or less sharp the morning after drinking.
Weight loss – The “liquid calories” you have been consuming via alcohol can add up — a martini or rum and Coke each tally about 300 calories, a beer is 154 to 200 calories and a glass of white wine is about 130 calories. What’s more, alcohol is metabolized before other foods, like fats and carbs, causing you to gain weight. Cutting out the alcohol calories — and resisting the urge to replace them with sugary treats — can help you drop a few pounds. You may also eat less when you are not imbibing, and your blood sugar levels tend to be lower without alcohol in your system.
More energy – When your body is no longer using alcohol for energy, it can more efficiently burn your other calories for energy, giving your metabolism a boost. Alcohol makes the liver and other body systems more sluggish, which is why most people report feeling more energetic after abstaining from alcohol for about three weeks. You can put that extra energy to good use by going to the gym during the times you used to go out drinking.
Clearer skin – After a couple of weeks without drinking you'll notice your skin looking better and more hydrated. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, which causes you to urinate more. Alcohol also decreases the production of an antidiuretic hormone, which prevents your body from holding or reabsorbing water. Less water in your body means drier skin. The redness or rosacea in your cheeks or around your nose will also begin to fade, improving your skin tone.
Sobriety Reaps Great Benefits
Experiencing significant improvement in overall health and attitude and feeling more in touch with your mind and body are the benefits that most people report after 30 days of sobriety.
“By the end of week two, I was sleeping much better, my brain was firing on all cylinders, I was getting all my to-do lists done, my mood was sky-high, my outlook on life was more positive, my energy levels were constant, I felt clear-headed, and my skin was glowing,” said former social drinker Linda B., after putting herself on a no-alcohol-for-a-month-diet.
Continuing your sobriety beyond the 30 days can lead to even greater benefits. You will experience less moodiness overall, and also will have better liver health and lower risk for cancer and other diseases like type 2 diabetes. Abstinence of 90 days or more can lead to improved fertility, a stronger immune system and continued improvements in cognition as your brain heals and returns to a more balanced “pre-alcohol” state.
When You Just Can’t Stay Sober: What It Means
What if you try to undertake 30 days of sobriety and find you can’t make it? Transitioning to a life without alcohol can be challenging, and there can be many reasons why quitting alcohol fails. There are external triggers to drink, such as peer pressure from work colleagues or friends in your social circle who don’t know how to deal with someone who isn’t drinking. These can be huge stumbling blocks. Giving up alcohol takes commitment and fortitude. You may have to avoid the people in your life who push you into having “just one drink.”
But what does it mean if you can’t quit drinking because of internal triggers? If you cave in to alcohol cravings and relapse after a couple of days without drinking, you may have physical or psychological alcohol dependency. Alcohol is an addictive substance, and drinking heavily or steadily over time can lead to dependency and an alcohol use disorder.
If you find that after a couple of days without alcohol you are struggling with a lot of stress and overwhelming negative emotions, this can be an indication that you have an underlying mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression. Like many people, you may be relying on alcohol to diminish or numb those difficult feelings — “self-medicating” your feelings away. If this seems like a possibility, it might be time to consult a mental health professional for an evaluation and appropriate treatment. Once any underlying issues are addressed and treated, giving up alcohol will be that much easier.
8 Things That Happen When You Stop Drinking Alcohol. Meghan Rabbitt. Health, Prevention, September 2015. http://www.prevention.com/health/what-happens-when-you-stop-drinking-alcohol
5 things that happened when I gave up alcohol for a month. http://www.msn.com/en-us/health/wellness/5-things-that-happened-when-i-gave-up-alcohol-for-a-month/ar-BBzOQc0?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp
Our liver vacation: Is a dry January really worth it? New Scientist Staff. New Scientist, December 2013. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129502.600-our-liver-vacation-is-a-dry-january-really-worth-it/?full=true#.VLbhgMYirFI
Alcohol and Nutrition. Betty Kovacs Harbolic, MS, RD. Medicine Net, February 2016. http://www.medicinenet.com/alcohol_and_nutrition/page5.htm