Alcohol is likely the most widely used recreational substance in the world. In the United States, most people will drink alcohol at least once. Its cultural acceptance has made it a common psychoactive substance in the United States. More concerning is the prevalence of binge drinking and heavy alcohol use. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 61.6 million people binged on alcohol in 2020, which is excessive drinking that elevates one’s blood-alcohol concentration to 0.08% or higher. In the same year, 28.3 million people had an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Alcoholism is linked to many chronic diseases, including heart disease, liver disease, and certain cancers. Chronic, heavy drinking can significantly increase your risk of serious illness and premature death. Unless an AUD is addressed, the health problems drinking causes may be unstoppable.
However, an alcohol use disorder doesn’t just affect your physical health. Alcoholism can affect multiple areas of your life, including your relationships, career, financial stability, and mental health. Alcohol addiction is a progressive disease that can cause you to become dependent on alcohol. While it was once something that you used socially or to have fun, you now need it to feel normal. AUD can be dangerous, especially when you drink heavily in one sitting, risking alcohol poisoning. But quitting alcohol after becoming dependent can also be dangerous.
Alcohol dependence causes your body to adapt to the presence of alcohol in your body. Quitting will cause withdrawal symptoms, as with any drug. But alcohol causes some of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms you can experience, and it can be fatal in some circumstances. But since alcohol addiction can also be dangerous, you may need to get through withdrawal to achieve sobriety and better health. How can you get through alcohol withdrawal safely? Learn more here about tapering off alcohol and how to wean off it safely.
How Does Alcohol Dependence Work in the Brain?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that works in the brain by slowing down activity. It achieves its effects by working with an inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, known as GABA. GABA is a chemical messenger in the brain that slows activity in the central nervous system so that you can rest, relax, and sleep. It is important in curbing the effects of anxiety and vigilance when it’s time for you to get some rest. The chemical binds to its receptors on your nerve cells and opens up a channel that allows a negative charge to shut down or slow your nervous system’s excitatory functions.
Ethanol, the chemical name for drinkable alcohol, can also bind to GABA receptors. It doesn’t take GABA’s place; rather, it binds to a different site on the receptor and makes GABA even stronger. When GABA opens the channel to a negative charge, ethanol keeps that channel open for longer, leading to feelings of sedation, muscle relaxation, and other depressant-like effects.
Alcohol can also activate opioid receptors, the same receptors that bind with your body’s natural endorphins and narcotic drugs such as oxycodone and heroin. Opioid receptors dull pain, but they also cause the release of dopamine, a natural chemical tied to reward. All of these chemical activities caused by alcohol can make drinking feel good, which can train your brain to seek out alcohol compulsively, which leads to addiction.
As your body gets used to alcohol, you will need more and more of it over time, which is called tolerance. If you continue to drink, your body will come to rely on alcohol to maintain its chemical balance. As your body adapts to alcohol, it will change its natural chemical balance to include alcohol. Quitting will cause your body’s chemical balance to be thrown off suddenly, leading to withdrawal symptoms.
What Happens to Your Body When You Quit Alcohol?
Your body’s reaction to quitting alcohol will depend on several factors, including:
- The amount of time you were drinking heavily
- Your tolerance level
- How often you drink throughout the week
Someone who drinks heavily for many weeks or months is likely to develop a dependence on alcohol. Some drink for years and become severely dependent on alcohol. Another factor is how you quit.
Quitting cold turkey is likely to cause more intense withdrawal symptoms than if you taper off alcohol slowly. However, the self-control it takes to taper can be challenging for someone with an AUD. For that reason, it’s best to speak to a doctor or clinician when you’ve decided to stop drinking before you quit cold turkey.
When you quit alcohol after having developed alcohol dependence, your brain will be thrown into a chemical imbalance. As a depressant, alcohol will cause your brain and body to get used to its inhibitory effects on your nervous system. It may adapt by producing more excitatory chemicals and fewer of its native inhibitory chemicals. When you stop drinking, your brain will stop getting the inhibitory effects of alcohol and become overstimulated. Alcohol withdrawal often involves restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia, among other symptoms.
What Are Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?
If you’ve become dependent on alcohol, you may encounter alcohol withdrawal when you cut back or stop drinking. Withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous and even life-threatening, particularly when you quit cold turkey after a long period of alcohol abuse. If you experience withdrawal symptoms, speak to a doctor about tapering safely. If you’ve been drinking regularly for a long time, you may need to speak to a doctor before you stop drinking.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include the following:
- Appetite loss
What Are the Benefits of Quitting Alcohol?
If it’s dangerous to stop drinking, why should you do it? Quitting alcohol can be done safely, and it may be important for someone with a substance use problem. Chronic alcohol abuse can cause serious health problems, including heart and liver disease. An alcohol use disorder can also have an impact on your social, psychological, and financial health. Addiction tends to take over a person’s life.
Soon after you stop drinking, it can affect your body positively, including the following:
- Your heart health will improve. Fat cells called triglycerides will stop building up around your heart. Too much fat around the heart puts extra strain on the organ.
- Your liver health improves. The liver can regenerate quickly and effectively. When you stop drinking, fat will stop building up in your liver, and damage will heal. As long as you aren’t suffering from end-stage liver disease, your liver can recover from alcohol use.
- Your weight may improve. Alcohol can cause you to store extra fat. Drinking even low-calorie drinks causes your body to prioritize processing the alcohol first, which means storing anything you drink or eat along with it.
- Your sleep may improve. Drinking at night can block REM sleep, wake you up in the middle of the night, and generally lower your sleep quality. While withdrawal can cause insomnia, eventually quitting it can lead to better sleep quality.
- You may get sick less often. Alcohol can weaken your immune system, which stunts your ability to fight off germs. It may be hard to notice, but it’s possible that you’ll get fewer colds throughout the year.
How Do You Taper Off Alcohol?
With a doctor’s help, you can taper off alcohol slowly to avoid severe symptoms. You may cut back on drinking slowly over time, but if you have an alcohol use disorder, it can be very challenging to resist drinking too much for an effective taper. Instead, you may be treated with benzodiazepines, a class of medications that are chemically similar to alcohol. It’s important to work with a professional during the tapering because it can be a delicate process. Too high of a dose can prolong your withdrawal period or be ineffective. A dose that is too low could cause severe withdrawal symptoms.
Does Your Alcohol Tolerance Go Down if You Stop Drinking?
Yes, your tolerance to alcohol can diminish fairly quickly after you stop drinking. It will begin to diminish within days after your last drink. After a week or more, it can return to normal. Relapse after a period of sobriety can be dangerous because your tolerance has gone down. If you drink the same amount you were used to during active addiction, you may experience extreme intoxication or alcohol poisoning.