What Happens When an Alcoholic Stops Drinking?


When an alcoholic stops drinking, they experience a period of withdrawal symptoms followed by gradual improvement of sleep patterns, blood pressure, physical energy, and an overall sense of health improvement.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on the duration and method used to reach sobriety. Typically, gradual withdrawal is recommended to minimize the possibility of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

However, some people quit alcohol cold turkey, which may be quicker, but poses several health risks, especially if not supervised by professionals.

This guide provides a timeline of expectations throughout the withdrawal period, along with some insights on the damage caused by alcohol and whether it can be reversed.

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Here are the changes that a person goes through once they stop drinking:

Symptoms of Acute Alcohol Withdrawal (2-72 Hours)

Some of the following withdrawal symptoms will occur, and the severity increases depending on the extent of alcohol abuse and the withdrawal method (gradual or sudden):

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia), which is often associated with palpitations
  • Headache
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating and cold skin
  • Tremors or shakiness (uncommon)
  • Seizures (rare)
  • Delirium tremens (rare)

Mild symptoms, like headache, sweating, and nausea, begin a few hours after a person stops drinking and gradually increase in severity within the following 24 hours.

These symptoms reach their peak 48-72 hours after complete abstinence. That’s when more severe symptoms, like tachycardia and high blood pressure, start to occur.

A few people may experience worsening symptoms. This should be treated as a medical emergency to prevent the development of dangerous conditions, like delirium tremens. In rare cases, and if the severe withdrawal symptoms aren’t treated, they can lead to death.

Short-Term Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal (3-14 Days)

For most people, alcohol withdrawal symptoms start to gradually reduce after the 72-hour mark.

At the one-week mark, the person who quit alcohol might notice an improvement in their sleep pattern. However, others who don’t feel an improvement shouldn’t lose hope, as it can take up to a month for the sleep pattern to improve.

If the person is undergoing detox, between the 7-12 day mark is when the detoxification process often stops.

Weight Reduction and Blood Pressure Normalization (2-4 Weeks)

Those who have been drinking for a long time may gain weight because of the excess calories found in alcoholic drinks. After two weeks of stopping alcohol consumption, they’ll likely lose the extra pounds gained because of alcohol.

By week three, the high blood pressure resulting from heavy drinking should drop to healthier levels.

Skin and Health Improval (1-3 months)

After 30 days of quitting alcohol, the pale, sweaty skin should start to improve and look better and healthier.

The overall energy also improves, and the person becomes able to do more tasks without feeling too exhausted.

Beginning of Long-term Sobriety (Beyond 3 Months)

After three months of sobriety, the person should no longer have significant withdrawal symptoms that may cause relapse.

The mental urge to get back to alcohol might still be there, especially if the person has been drinking for a long time. This facet of substance abuse is psychological, not physical. So, with the right therapeutic tools, it should be possible to overcome.

Quitting Alcohol and Damage Reversal

Alcohol can cause severe damage to the body, raising the question of whether it’s possible to reverse said damage.

The amount of reversible damage depends on the following questions:

  • How often did the person drink?
  • How much alcohol did the person consume per episode, and whether they were often binge drinking?
  • How many times did the person quit alcohol and relapse?
  • How much damage was already done to the body?

Unfortunately, years of alcoholism, extended binge drinking episodes, and multiple relapses can cause extensive, irreversible damage that can’t be mitigated even by achieving complete sobriety. The potential complications of alcohol abuse include:

Brain and Nervous System Damage

Alcohol causes nerve damage, which manifests as impaired memory, reduced cognitive functions, and bad memory. Alcohol can also increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Excessive drinking causes direct brain damage and increases the risk of seizures and vision and hearing problems.

In some cases, the extensive nerve damage can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a collection of symptoms like confusion, loss of body heat, drowsiness, difficulty walking, and various heart issues.

Liver Damage

Alcohol can lead to a plethora of liver diseases. These include alcohol-induced hepatitis, fatty liver diseases, fibrosis, and cirrhosis, which is the final level of liver diseases characterized by scarred liver tissue.

Excessive drinking can also increase the risk of developing liver cancer. 7 out of 100 liver cancer cases in the UK are caused by drinking alcohol.

Circulatory System Damage

Alcohol consumption is directly related to heart and blood vessel damage. High blood pressure, increased risk of blood clots, and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) can be caused by alcohol consumption.

Prolonged drinking can also lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy (ACM), a condition where the heart muscle becomes too weak to function properly.

Digestive System Damage

Drinking can frequently cause gastritis and inflammation of the stomach lining, which can lead to gastric ulcers. Alcohol also affects the intestines, reducing the amount of nutrients absorbed, which causes malnutrition in the long term.

Excessive drinking can also cause pancreatitis and increase the risk of developing cancer in the mouth, throat, stomach, and colon.

Skeletal System Damage

Alcohol affects the muscles’ ability to contract properly, which reduces their overall strength. Long-term drinking can also interfere with bone growth, reducing the density of bones and leading to osteoporosis.

Weakened muscles and bones can increase the risk of bone fractures.

Reproductive System Damage

Alcohol can lead to decreased fertility in both genders, with drinking being a culprit in erectile dysfunction in men. Drinking is also a leading cause of birth defects in pregnant women.

How to Safely Stop Drinking?

Here’s how you can reduce your alcohol consumption safely:

Step 1: Assess Your Condition

Determine how “severe” is your drinking problem. Do you only drink on occasions when everyone else is doing it? Or do you struggle to maintain your daily routine without consuming alcohol every couple of hours?

If your answer is the former, then you can stop alcohol consumption immediately because you’re not physically or mentally dependent on it.

If it’s the latter, you need gradual withdrawal, which leads us to step 2.

Step 2: Safe Withdrawal Procedure

Safe withdrawal involves a medically supervised approach (for severe alcohol dependence) and a non-medically supervised one (for mild-moderate dependence).

If your case was assessed by a professional and determined to be less severe, here’s how to avoid experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms:

  • Gradually reduce your daily alcohol intake over time. You can lower your daily drinks by 1-2 units per week.
  • Consider switching to lower-alcohol drinks or diluting stronger drinks.
  • Allow yourself to only drink on specific days or occasions and stick to your decision.
  • You may replace some drinking episodes with other healthy, neutral activities, like walking, hiking, joining a dance class, or meeting friends in alcohol-free places, like parks or cafes.
  • Consider seeking support through online groups or in alcohol addiction treatment centers. Connecting with peers with the same struggle can provide a mental boost to overcome alcohol dependency.

If you think your condition is more complex or severe, you should reach out for professional help.

Consulting a doctor to understand where you are on the dependency levels scale. This will allow them to formulate a treatment plan to match your condition.

The treatment plan may include using medications like Naltrexone, which prevents alcohol from achieving its desired effect in the brain, potentially reducing the cravings.

The option of hospitalization or in-patient detoxification is also available in severe cases of alcohol dependence.

Utilizing telehealth services is also a great option regardless of the alcohol addiction severity. Most telehealth services provide complete anonymity and can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Step 3: Maintaining Your Sobriety

Once you reach the point where alcohol cravings are manageable, remaining sober is less challenging. However, certain occasions or triggers can cause relapse or jeopardize your progress, so it’s important to:

Identify the Triggers

You should identify the reasons that started the drinking problem, or those that push you psychologically to think about drinking. Double your efforts to get away from or minimize exposure to those triggers as much as possible.

Stay Within Your Support Group

Whoever helped you through your tough times is likely to stay with you in your better times. Embrace your support group, whether it’s your family, friends, or a group of peers.

Practice Self-Care

Focus on the aspects of life that make you feel better, like improving your physical health, addressing any mental pressure, and finding hobbies to keep your mind occupied.

Living a purposeful life, and setting clear goals can help you achieve a sense of progress and fulfillment.

Final Words

A sober life begins when you decide to leave drinking behind. You might be curtailed by the more severe withdrawal symptoms, but it’s never too late to take the first step.

Book an appointment with CuredNation to reach our team of professionals and start your recovery journey today.


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