Alcohol use is a major part of our culture. From phrases like “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” to job-related cocktail events, the social pressure to consume alcohol feels like it’s at an all-time high. This pressure makes it easy to convince yourself that a couple of drinks is not a big deal or that drinking is needed to preserve your role in your workplace or social group.
As our culture has continued to encourage drinking, however, there are an extensive amount of health benefits when you stop drinking. Health experts have launched several media campaigns to encourage us to not drink. One of the most popular is Dry January.
The Dry January campaign was started in 2012 by Alcohol Change UK. Participants pledge to take a 31-day break from consuming alcohol. In 2013, 4,000 people took the pledge, but it has grown to over 6.5 million people in 2021. Participants, some of whom are celebrities, have been vocal about the benefits of taking a month-long break from alcohol. Many of them have continued to refrain from drinking long after the month is over.
Your body is a complex web of systems and organs designed to work as one. All of your organs and systems need to function optimally to be at your healthiest. When alcohol harms one part of the body, it can snowball into creating difficulties in other areas. Luckily, the reverse is also true. When one part improves because you eliminate alcohol, other parts are often better able to do their job.
1. Improved Mental Health
Our culture views alcohol as a fun way to handle stress or ease anxiety. At first, you may feel more relaxed, but you can build a higher tolerance over time. It then takes more alcohol to achieve the same results. Many people use alcohol to cope with chronic mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Drinking interferes with the treatments for these health conditions and makes it even harder to manage the symptoms.
A recent study by the University of Hong Kong found that overall mental health improves when participants quit drinking, especially women. When you quit drinking, you can objectively look at why this habit started in the first place, and you are better able to develop healthier ways to cope with life’s stressors. After eliminating alcohol, you may notice you are calmer and less irritable, and better equipped to handle family conflict or mental health issues.
2. Better Sleep
You may think a drink before bed helps with sleep. After all, alcohol tends to cause drowsiness. According to the Sleep Foundation, it’s common for a person drinking alcohol to feel drowsy at first but then fully awake a few hours later. Alcohol diminishes REM sleep — the deepest, most beneficial part of the sleep cycle. When the sleep cycle is disrupted, you may feel groggy the next day. Daily drinkers can experience consistent sleep issues, and over time, poor quality of sleep contributes to a wide range of physical and emotional health issues. Improved sleep is one of the first benefits you may notice when you choose to stop drinking.
3. Healthier Weight
It is common to joke about somebody having a “beer belly,” but there is actually some truth to this. Alcoholic beverages often contain high amounts of empty calories. These extra calories will be burned off first, delaying the process of burning off excess fat. Alcohol use has also been associated with malnutrition because regular drinkers often lack important nutrients.
Soon after you stop drinking, you may see a change in your weight from not consuming the calories in alcohol and the fatty food associated with drinking. Alcohol interferes with your metabolism, so eliminating that from your body can help you burn off excess weight quicker.
4. A Healthier Brain
Alcohol impacts our brain functioning in a variety of ways. Our neurons and neurotransmitters are the command pathways for all major body functions, such as breathing, thinking, speaking and moving. Alcohol slows this communication. It also impacts your ability to retrieve memories by damaging the prefrontal cortex. This damage can lead to multiple issues, such as decreased brain cells, depression, mood changes, poor sleep and alcohol dependence.
While some alcohol-related brain damage has no known cure, some small parts of the brain can heal after a person stops drinking. When we drink or use other drugs, our brain releases dopamine, the chemical that makes us feel good. Because of this, we often associate drinking with pleasure. When you stop drinking, there may be a period of time when cravings for alcohol increase due to the body adjusting to a lower level of dopamine. This lower level may also reveal underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. This is especially true if alcohol is used to manage or avoid uncomfortable emotions. Even though it may take some time for the dopamine system to recover, the results may include more stable moods and an improved ability to manage emotions.
5. A Stronger Immune System
Alcohol weakens the immune system, making it harder for the body to produce enough white blood cells to fight off bacteria and other illnesses. Many people already know that heavy drinkers are more susceptible to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or pneumonia. However, even one episode of drinking can expose the body to infection up to 24 hours afterward.
The immune system is designed to bounce back. Soon after a person stops drinking, their body can quickly begin to increase the number of white blood cells produced. This enables the body to fight off all sorts of illnesses, including infections, colds and the flu.
6. A Healthier Liver
The liver is a 3.3-pound organ that is often considered the hardest working part of the body. It has many functions, one of the biggest being to filter harmful particles from the bloodstream. This includes bacteria, fungus, food additives, alcohol and its toxins. Over time, alcohol use can cause the liver to become overloaded with toxins and fat build-up, leading to steatosis, or “fatty liver.” A fatty liver can lead to hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
A study done by Merck Manuals shows that liver damage can begin to improve as early as 24 hours after a person stops drinking, and in some cases, it can be completely healed within six weeks. The extent that the damage is reversed depends on a wide range of factors. These include the amount of damage present and whether there are other concerning factors such as obesity. A severely damaged liver may be permanent, but the best way to prevent additional liver damage is to not drink alcohol.
7. A Stronger Heart
Drinking large amounts of alcohol regularly or even on a single occasion can damage the heart and weaken its muscles. This damage can lead to strokes, hypertension, heart arrhythmias and heart disease. If you drink heavily, you are at a higher risk of having a cardiovascular event. Heavy drinkers are about twice as likely to have a cardiovascular event within a given 24 hour period and up to six times more likely within a week, compared to those who don’t drink alcohol.
There have been studies suggesting small amounts of alcohol can be beneficial to the heart, but recent evidence raises questions on the validity of these claims. Instead, we now know that the health risks associated with alcohol use are significant, and the best way to minimize these is to stop drinking. By avoiding heavy alcohol use, you can improve the health of your cardiovascular systems and prevent alcohol-related heart damage, including heart attacks.
8. Decreased Risk of Cancer
Drinking alcohol puts you at a higher risk for some forms of cancer, including head and neck cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer and colorectal cancer. Experts have speculated several reasons why this may be, but many believe that alcohol harms the antibodies that protect our bodies from tumor cells.
The American Journal of Public Health found that alcohol causes 3.5% of cancer deaths in America, or about 20,000 cancer-related deaths each year, so they recommend reducing alcohol consumption to help with cancer prevention. Even though the body may take years to fully lower a person’s cancer risk, it is still important to eliminate alcohol to reduce a person’s overall cancer risk.
9. Improved Digestion
There is a strong connection between alcohol consumption and overall digestive health. Alcohol inhibits vitamin and nutrient absorption in the small intestines and can cause chronic diarrhea, nausea and anorexia in people who drink alcohol heavily. Alcohol can also contribute to stomach inflammation, which may lead to heartburn and acid reflux.
Luckily, the stomach is able to recover quickly once alcohol consumption has stopped. Within a few weeks, you may experience an improvement in overall digestive health, including an impact on stomach ulcers and a reduction in heartburn and acid reflux.
10. Improved Memory and Cognitive Function
Moderate to heavy alcohol use is linked with brain shrinkage, especially the parts associated with cognition and learning. Alcohol makes it difficult for the brain to transfer information from short-term memory to long term. Memory impairments are seen with even a few drinks, and these memory lapses increase with the amount of alcohol consumed.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinkers often need several months or longer to see partial correction of structural brain changes due to drinking. However, removing the additional impacts of adding alcohol to the brain can help people find some relief from cognitive symptoms.
Your Health Is in Your Hands
The benefits of ceasing alcohol use, especially binge drinking, aren’t limited to these ten listed. While some damage may be irreversible, every body is different and can repair itself to a certain degree. The main goal in abstaining from alcohol is to prevent further damage.
If you are trying to quit alcohol, keep these positive benefits in mind:
- Improved cognition and problem-solving
- Increased mental focus and improved memory function
- Improved digestion and removal of harmful toxins
- Increased absorption of vitamins and minerals
- Weight loss due to less caloric intake
- Reduced sugar intake (as long as alcohol is not replaced with sugar-heavy foods)
- Reduced risk of heart disease and alcohol-related cancers
- Better immune system
- Improved heart function
If you are a heavy drinker, the body can at first go into shock when you suddenly stop ingesting alcohol, causing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This withdrawal period occurs because the body has become dependent on the chemicals from alcohol and has adjusted its processes to accommodate the added alcohol intake. It is not recommended to detox from alcohol at home, as alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly among heavy drinkers.
Finding Help to Quit Drinking
If you or a loved one is trying to quit drinking and would like assistance, please contact us. We would be happy to go over the alcohol withdrawal timeline with you, as well as explore treatment options and programs available for chronic alcohol use.
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- Medical Disclaimer
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.