If you use alcohol every day, a life without drinking can be hard to imagine. However, stopping the use of alcohol can provide many benefits for your health and overall well-being. Still, there are some potentially life-threatening risks that can arise when trying to quit alcohol, especially for heavy, long-term drinkers. It’s important to be aware of these dangers and learn how to avoid them when getting sober.

Quitting Alcohol Timeline

Although everyone’s timeline for quitting alcohol will vary, the process of getting sober follows a relatively predictable pattern. After your last drink, side effects and symptoms will typically begin emerging after certain periods of time:

Six to 24 hours: Withdrawal symptoms like headaches, tremors, nausea and sweating will begin for those who have developed alcohol dependence. Initial symptoms will be mild, but they gradually increase in intensity.

36 to 72 hours: Withdrawal symptoms will peak and include more serious symptoms, like seizures and hallucinations. During this peak, a dangerous condition called delirium tremens may develop, making medical supervision absolutely essential. This marks the worst part of alcohol withdrawal, but symptoms gradually decrease in intensity once the peak is reached.

Three to ten days: Physical withdrawal symptoms will continue, gradually subsiding and disappearing one by one. While cravings and mood changes may still be present, physical symptoms will be relieved.

Two to three weeks: As withdrawal symptoms fade, the benefits of sobriety will begin to become apparent. Your thinking will become clearer, and your focus will shift from getting through withdrawal to life after detox. 

One month and beyond: Alcohol cravings may still be present for several more months, but they will gradually become less intense and less frequent. Sleep will become more restful, and you may begin losing weight. 

Three months: You will likely have regained most of your energy and can begin to focus more on enjoying life without drinking. Your relationships may improve, and you may begin to feel a sense of freedom from alcohol. Some residual psychological symptoms like cravings and a desire for the emotional help that alcohol can provide may still remain and be a struggle. Ongoing treatment, however, will help with these.

Six months: At this point, you should have adapted to living a sober lifestyle and be able to recognize triggers that might lead you back to drinking. You may start to feel more in control and have an increased sense of self-confidence. By this point, your successful track record and decreasing psychological symptoms will help you begin to realize that prolonged sobriety is achievable. 

One year: After a full year without alcohol, you will begin to notice even greater improvements in health, mood and overall well-being. The one-year mark will be a reason for celebration in which you recognize the progress that has been made and focus on maintaining sobriety. At this point in your recovery journey, your relationship with alcohol will begin to be more of a distant memory of something in your past rather than an ongoing and present struggle. 

Benefits of Quitting Drinking

Consuming high quantities of alcohol regularly can lead to changes in both your body and brain. Fortunately, you can reverse a lot of these symptoms and restore your health by quitting drinking. Some of the benefits of stopping drinking include:

  • Increased ability to absorb crucial vitamins and minerals
  • Improved metabolism, leading to weight loss
  • Lowered cancer risk and decreased levels of stress
  • Lowered blood pressure and associated decrease in stroke and heart attack risks
  • Decreased mental fogginess and increased mental performance
  • Improved immune response and healing from injury and illness
  • Improved liver health

Quitting alcohol also gives you the chance to improve other areas of your life that may have been negatively impacted by alcohol. In a recent study by The Recovery Village surveying more than 2,000 respondents who wanted to quit:

  • 53.5% reported alcohol affected their physical health
  • 44.5% reported alcohol affected their mental health
  • 41.9% reported alcohol affected their relationships with loved ones
  • 21.7% reported alcohol affected their abilities as a parent
  • 25.3% reported alcohol affected their career or job
  • 29.5% reported alcohol affected their hygiene
  • 34.0% reported alcohol affected their finances
  • 13.2% reported alcohol affected their legal status (incarceration, fines, etc.)

Ending your relationship with alcohol can start you on a path toward improving your physical and mental health, mending your relationships and rebuilding your finances.

Negative Effects of Alcohol

Anyone trying to quit alcohol knows that there are many potential negative effects of drinking, including the consequences of intoxication, long-term effects and withdrawal symptoms. An intoxicated person may experience nausea, vomiting and even memory loss, but these are just some of the mild side effects that can occur. Alcohol can also increase the risk of serious injuries, increase the probability of legal problems and lead to alcohol poisoning.

With long-term use, alcohol can cause even worse problems. The long-term effects of alcohol can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Increased risk of multiple types of cancer
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Learning problems
  • Dementia
  • Social problems
  • Alcohol addiction

If dependence on alcohol develops, withdrawal symptoms can occur during detox. In severe cases, these symptoms can be potentially deadly.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal happens because of how alcohol activates GABA receptors in the brain. These receptors normally suppress brain activity and function. When alcohol is constantly present, the brain reduces the sensitivity of GABA receptors. This helps them function at a normal level that accommodates the extra stimulation alcohol provides.

Withdrawal occurs because when alcohol use is stopped, the GABA receptors in the brain still have reduced sensitivity like they did when alcohol was constantly present. It takes the brain several days to adjust the GABA receptors back to their normal levels. During this period, GABA receptors are unable to calm the brain like they normally would, causing withdrawal symptoms.

Acute Alcohol Withdrawal

The acute withdrawal stage is the first challenge someone detoxing from alcohol will go through. Some of the early withdrawal symptoms will kick in as soon as six hours after your last drink and will grow in intensity as withdrawal progresses. New symptoms may begin at any time until the peak of withdrawal occurs.

In some cases, withdrawal symptoms can lead to seizures and a sometimes fatal condition called delirium tremens (DTs). A recent survey found heavy drinkers (those who binge drink at least five times a month) are 90% more likely to experience DTs than moderate or light drinkers. If you drink heavily or have more severe alcoholism, it is recommended to seek out a treatment center that can help you detox safely and effectively.

Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Increased sweating and body temperature
  • Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens

Post-Acute Alcohol Withdrawal

A full detox often takes between two and ten days, with most people experiencing peak symptoms 36–72 hours into withdrawal. After the initial alcohol withdrawal, you’ve gotten past one of the hardest phases of detox. Most of the symptoms that remain after this phase tend to be more psychological in nature, as the physical effects caused by GABA receptor readjustments are resolved.

You may also feel cravings for alcohol in the months after withdrawal. During this time, it can be helpful to seek out counseling to help support your sobriety and treat any underlying mental health conditions that may be causing your alcoholism.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms

After physical withdrawal symptoms subside, it’s common for the psychological effects to become more pronounced. Psychological symptoms begin at the same time physical symptoms do, but the physical withdrawal symptoms generally distract from them. Some of the common psychological symptoms felt during this time include:

  • Anxiety
  • Hostility
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Mood changes
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Problems concentrating and thinking
  • Reduced libido
  • Pain

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol detox refers to the process in which alcohol is eliminated by the body. During detox, the body and brain also adjust to the absence of alcohol. The terms alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal are often used synonymously. 

Alcohol detox can be done on your own at home or under professional supervision in a medical detox facility. However, because alcohol withdrawal can cause serious and potentially fatal symptoms, a person should speak with their doctor before detoxing to see what their individual risk is. Detoxing at home when moderate or severe withdrawal symptoms could occur is not recommended due to the life-threatening complications that can arise.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Heavy alcohol use is considered to be unhealthy and should be avoided. Heavy alcohol use occurs when someone uses more than a certain amount of alcohol in a day or week. It can also refer to excessive alcohol use in one sitting (binge drinking). 

Alcohol is metabolized differently depending on your biological sex, so the definition of heavy drinking varies slightly for men and women. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking for men as consuming four or more drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks in one week; for women, it is defined as consuming three or more drinks in one day or more than seven drinks in one week.

How To Stop Drinking Alcohol

When someone wants to stop drinking alcohol, the first step is to understand what risks they are likely to encounter, given their specific situation. This is best done by speaking with a trusted medical professional. These experts can give advice on what risks specific individuals should expect and what measures can be taken to reduce these risks.

If moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms are expected, medical detox is recommended. These programs help reduce the risks and dangers of detox and provide a more comfortable experience by treating symptoms as they occur.

Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

Quitting alcohol cold turkey can be deadly for some people and very uncomfortable for others. If a serious dependence is present, quitting alcohol suddenly without any medical treatment makes the most serious symptoms more likely to occur. The discomfort and lack of support during the withdrawal process also make this method of stopping alcohol use less likely to be successful.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

While a timeline for quitting alcohol can provide you with general information on what you might expect, you can never predict exactly how your body will respond to stopping drinking. If you have misused alcohol and are trying to quit, professional alcohol addiction treatment will provide a safer, more comfortable detox experience that gives you peace of mind as you undergo the withdrawal process. 

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake can help you or a loved one quit alcohol to begin a healthier, substance-free future. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to learn more about our medical detox services and rehab programs.

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Editor – Abby Doty
Abby Doty graduated from Hamline University in 2021 with a Bachelor's in English and Psychology. She has written and edited creative and literary work as well as academic pieces focused primarily on psychology and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.