When you’re used to drinking alcohol every day, giving it up can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re a moderate or heavy drinker. Heavy drinking is usually defined as drinking 3 or more drinks per day for women or 4 or more drinks for men. Often, heavy drinking leads to alcohol dependency or addiction.
After a period of moderate or heavy drinking, it may seem challenging to quit drinking at first, but hundreds of thousands of people who have given up alcohol for good can testify that the benefits are well worth the challenge. Here’s what happens when you quit drinking.
Alcohol and mental illness are closely linked. Around 30-40% of people with an alcohol addiction also have depression. Around 20% of people with alcohol addiction also have an anxiety disorder. In some cases, individuals experiencing these mental illnesses turn to alcohol as a coping strategy, but unfortunately, alcohol tends to make the mental illnesses worse in the long term.
Alcohol affects the neurotransmitters in your brain, which can impact your emotions and mood. While alcohol can lead to short-term feelings of calm and happiness, after the effects wear off, anxiety and depression symptoms often increase.
When drinking alcohol, the brain gets flooded with dopamine, a chemical that causes feelings of pleasure. Frequent drinking causes the brain to adjust to the extra dopamine from the alcohol and decrease its own dopamine production. This means that when the individual is not drinking, they experience lower moods than they would have otherwise.
Many people find symptoms of depression decrease after giving up alcohol, and overall mental health improves. After giving up alcohol, individuals who experienced mental illness prior to becoming heavy drinkers are more able to treat their mental illness in healthy and sustainable ways.
Adults need an average of 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep each night. Research has shown alcohol to be a significant deterrent of high-quality sleep. Alcohol reduces the time you spend in REM sleep. This stage of sleep is essential in helping your body regulate emotion and process new memories. When learning new information, REM sleep is crucial for turning incoming knowledge into long-term memories. Alcohol inhibits your ability to do this.
Alcohol can also exacerbate sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. Drinkers with a pre-disposal toward these conditions may see the conditions improve when they quit drinking. When you give up alcohol, you’ll be able to get the REM sleep your body needs.
Many people who drink alcohol regularly form deficiencies of certain important vitamins and minerals. This is because alcohol damages cells in the stomach and intestines, making it more difficult to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. Alcohol can also disrupt important gut bacteria that help your body break down nutrients.
Consuming significant amounts of alcohol commonly causes deficiencies in vitamins A, C, D, E, B, and K. Each of these vitamins plays an important role in the body’s processes. Vitamins C, D, A, and E are all important in maintaining a strong immune system. Vitamins B and D have a major impact on energy levels and mood. Vitamin K is necessary for allowing your body to heal after an injury because it supports cell health.
Giving up alcohol allows your body to more easily absorb these nutrients. Because you’ll begin absorbing more vitamins and minerals, your mood, energy levels, and immune system will improve, and you’ll feel much better.
Giving up alcohol is one of the most beneficial things you can do to improve your heart health. Long-term heavy drinking can be very damaging to your heart. When you have a drink of alcohol, your heart rate and blood pressure rise slightly. When you drink frequently, your heart rate and blood pressure can become chronically elevated, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Cutting out alcohol can also lead to weight loss because most alcoholic drinks are high in calories. Individuals above a healthy weight range can improve their heart health simply by losing a few pounds because excess weight puts unnecessary stress on the heart.
Alcohol can be very damaging to the brain. One study found that long-term heavy drinking can impair cognitive ability by shrinking the frontal lobe region of the brain. Changes in your frontal lobe can cause difficulty with attention, emotional regulation, problem-solving, and motivation. Additionally, heavy alcohol consumption increases your risk of dementia.
Luckily, although alcohol damages the brain, giving up alcohol can quickly reverse the negative effects on the brain. The gray matter in the brain that is lost due to alcohol consumption will begin regenerating after a person stops drinking.
The first few days of being alcohol-free you may experience the strongest cravings. If you’re used to drinking large amounts of alcohol, you may experience some withdrawal symptoms during this stage. Luckily, this stage is short, generally lasting only 2-3 days. This stage is often easier to get through when you have someone reliable to support you while experiencing cravings and withdrawal.
After the first few days of being alcohol-free, things will become easier, but it’s still essential to get the support you need to stay alcohol-free in the long term. Many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for mental illness or stressful circumstances. When this is the case, it’s important to develop new coping mechanisms. Peer support groups can also help form new habits and stick to your commitment to avoid alcohol.
Often, heavy drinkers may need extra support to end the cycle of addiction to alcohol. Medical professionals specializing in addiction are excellent resources in these circumstances. Jackson House Recovery Centers has a treatment program that can support you in your physical and mental health while you recover from alcohol addiction. Reach out to discuss your needs if you or a loved one could use support giving up alcohol.