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What Happens When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?

by Demarco Moore

April 14, 2022
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous

Drinking alcohol can be a symbol of celebration or even stress relief, especially in the United States. More than 85% of adults ages 18 and older reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetime, according to one National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Many Americans enjoy a glass of wine after a long day at work, joining friends at a bar for happy hour, raising a glass as a show of love and support during a toast or tossing back a few beers at parties. Most people can maintain control over their alcohol use. But more than 6% of adults in the U.S. have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics.

Alcohol is the most accessible and socially condoned substance on the planet. Many medical researchers have linked social norms about alcohol use to media exposure. It’s no wonder why alcohol is one of the most addictive substances.

Some people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for sad or stressful situations. An alcohol dependency can develop quickly. Trying to stop can be hard and even dangerous for those who have become addicted to alcohol.

Have you ever tried to stop drinking alcohol, only to get a sick feeling or a headache for days at a time? You suffered from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. That’s normal for somebody who has become alcohol dependent and tries to stop all at once.

Once you decide to stop drinking, even for a short time, it’s crucial to find the right treatment. Quitting alcohol “cold turkey” is dangerous. Landmark Recovery offers an accredited treatment program, including medical detox and support groups to help equip you with tools for building long-term sobriety and regaining control over alcohol addiction.

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is how your body responds when you slow down your drinking or quit altogether. If you’ve ever had a hangover after a night of drinking, that was one of the symptoms or side effects of alcohol withdrawal. You can expect many physical symptoms like dehydration or a headache to ease up after a few days, as the National Library of Medicine explains.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, heavy drinking exposes your body and your brain to more severe symptoms of withdrawal when you try to slow down or stop. The CDC defines heavy drinking for women as having eight or more drinks per week and for men as having 15 or more drinks.

Hallucinations are examples of withdrawal symptoms that can occur for heavy drinkers. Their effects can linger for weeks and cause long-term health problems if untreated.

Headaches are symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

The more alcohol you drink, and the longer you drink, the more likely you are to experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal once you voluntarily or involuntarily decide to stop. Withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe and can affect your body and behavior. Milder symptoms usually start within eight-to-24 hours from your last alcoholic drink, according to the Clinical Management of Withdrawal.

Common withdrawal symptoms include the following:

  • Hand tremors
  • Sweating
  • A pulse (heart) rate above 100 beats per minute (BPM)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

More severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include hallucinations and Delirium tremens (DTs), which can be life-threatening without the right treatment.

Clinicians at Landmark Recovery’s detox centers medically manage patients during alcohol withdrawal. They monitor for symptoms at every level and will help ease you through the most difficult parts of recovery from alcohol addiction.

What causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms?

Withdrawal symptoms are caused by your brain’s reaction to a sudden decrease in alcohol levels in your bloodstream. Research suggests that up to 50% of people with a history of heavy drinking will go through alcohol withdrawal when they stop drinking.

Alcohol is a depressant to your body’s central nervous system (CNS). It slows down your brain functions and alters your mood and behavior. Drinking alcohol also releases dopamine, the chemical responsible for the feeling of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation, into your brain.

Many people drink alcohol for its stimulation and sedating effects. Having a few drinks may help you “loosen up” or reduce social anxiety. People who don’t feel “sedated” right away are at a greater risk of developing an AUD. Why? They drink more alcohol in pursuit of pleasure and wind up developing an addiction.

How long does alcohol withdrawal last?

If you drink heavy amounts of alcohol over extended periods (e.g., one week), you’re likely to experience withdrawal symptoms once you try to quit. If you have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you may experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) in one of three stages.

The three stages and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal progress as follows:

Stage one

Mild symptoms like dehydration, nausea, and tremors occur in stage one.

Stage two 

During stage two, you may experience other moderate symptoms like high blood pressure, confusion, abnormal breathing and a rapid heartbeat.

Stage three

Stage three represents the most severe symptoms of AWS, like visual and audible hallucinations, seizures and disorientation. You may also experience milder symptoms from previous stages.

Alcohol withdrawal timeline

Specific withdrawal timelines differ from person to person, depending on factors like age, gender, how often you drink, etc. Listed below is a general timeline for alcohol detox and the symptoms that could occur once you have your last drink, according to the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine:

  • Within 6-to-12 hours: Minor withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, headache, tremors, mild anxiety
  • 12-to-24 hours: Visual, audio, or tactile (sense of touch) hallucinations. It’s important to point out that these symptoms normally settle within 48 hours.
  • 24-to-48 hours: Withdrawal seizures (convulsions). These symptoms can happen as early as two hours after your last drink.
  • 48-to-72 hours: Delirium tremens (DTs), hallucinations, disorientation, fever, agitation. You can start experiencing these more severe symptoms as late as five days after your last drink.

Without alcohol treatment from medical professionals, your level of AWS could progress to stage two or three. The accredited treatment programs and staff at Landmark Recovery help to reduce the most harmful effects of alcohol withdrawal.

The connection between withdrawal and alcohol dependence

If you experience severe symptoms of withdrawal when you stop drinking alcohol, that’s a sign your body has developed a dependence on it. Many people feel a strong desire to use alcohol that can take priority over daily activities, responsibilities and even their health.

Catching other signs of alcohol dependence can be hard, especially if you or a loved one have a difficult time acknowledging it.

Listed below are more signs of alcohol dependence:

Impaired control over alcohol use

Impaired control means you struggle to manage how much or how often you drink alcohol. You may not have a good sense of when to stop or you drink at improper times, like before work.

Giving increasing priority to alcohol

Your body may be alcohol-dependent if drinking becomes a higher priority than maintaining a job, working on personal relationships or doing activities you once enjoyed. You value going to a bar after work every day over watching your health. You may also continue to drink even after experiencing a negative consequence like a DUI.

Benefits of quitting alcohol

We realize quitting alcohol isn’t easy, especially if heavy drinking has become a lifestyle. However, the benefits of addiction recovery will help you clear your mind (literally) and improve your overall health.

Here are three benefits that quitting alcohol can have on your health:

Better short and long-term memory

Quitting alcohol can help you avoid damage to the areas in your brain that help you remember something simple, like someone’s name or where you placed your keys.

Have you ever had a “blackout?” Then you can imagine how frustrating or scary it is not to be able to remember what happened while you were drinking. Blackouts, or small memory disruptions, are examples of short-term memory problems that happen when alcohol enters your brain.

Drinking alcohol affects the hippocampus, a region vital to your learning and formation of memory. Alcohol abuse can damage the hippocampus, causing long-term problems to your brain functions. Quitting alcohol can help your brain heal and reverse any damage caused by heavy drinking.

Getting to a healthy weight

Alcohol abuse can cause severe weight loss or weight gain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that excessive alcohol use causes the body to lose its metabolism and ability to absorb essential nutrients.

Exercise is one important part of a successful recovery from alcohol addiction and can help you combat weight loss or weight gain.

Treatment programs like the ones at Landmark Recovery help patients develop structure in the form of exercise routines. Patients keep their minds preoccupied, reduce stress and increase self-esteem by setting healthy goals for their bodies.

Quitting alcohol lowers your risk of cancer

The more alcohol you drink, the more at-risk for cancer you are. Alcohol use represents 4% of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of getting the following cancers:

  • Mouth cancer
  • Larynx (voice box) cancer
  • Throat
  • Colon and rectum.
  • Liver
  • Breast (women)

Quitting alcohol is not as easy as it sounds, especially if you’ve developed an addiction. Our treatment program at Landmark Recovery is designed to help you battle alcohol addiction and avoid long-term illnesses like cancer.

How can I treat alcohol dependence?

It is advised to never attempt alcohol detox by yourself, “at home” or cold turkey. If you or a loved one want to recover from alcohol addiction, we recommend doing so under the supervision of medical health professionals, like the staff found in Landmark Recovery’s certified detox centers.

Call Landmark Recovery at 888-448-0302 to learn how to reclaim your life from alcohol addiction.

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About the Author

Demarco Moore

Demarco Moore

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Demarco Moore currently writes blogs about drug addiction treatment and recovery to help save lives at treatment provider Landmark Recovery. Before that, he cut his teeth as a sports writer at the Manchester Times, where his coverage and stories won Tennessee Press Association awards in 2016 and 2017.

He’s always had a knack for storytelling. Moore’s written content for junior golf tournaments and helped to amplify the “People Not Profits” message of credit unions. When he’s not writing, Moore loves to travel, laugh and put his mental health into the hands of the Tennessee Titans during football season.