How to Stop Drinking Alcohol for Good

Excessive alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on your body, mind and daily life.

There comes a point when "the negative effects to the body, brain and mind are irreversible," said Dr. Ashish Bhatt, medical content director for the Addiction Center website. Although alcohol is drunk all over the world, "it is a toxin to the body."

For many, casual to moderate consumption (one to two drinks) "may not cause any profound effect." But Bhatt told Newsweek that chronic, heavy use of alcohol can lead to medical problems such as:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver and gastrointestinal issues
  • Neurological and psychological issues
  • Nutritional and immune deficiencies
  • Encephalopathy (a brain disease)
  • Dementia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Confusion

Excessive alcohol use has also been correlated with various types of cancers. Accidents and injuries when intoxicated are common too.

People with an alcohol use disorder—an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational or health consequences, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)—suffer in multiple areas of their lives. These include failing in school or at work, relationship difficulties and neglecting themselves or their dependents, as well as financial or legal consequences.

"For many, there is a chronic pattern of negative consequences which drags on, worsens over time, and often does not get addressed until something devastating happens," Bhatt added.

Sober moments become limited as well as psychologically and physically painful, with minds consumed by thoughts of "yesterday's mistakes and tomorrow's consequences," he said.

A silhouette of a person drinking.
A silhouette of a person drinking a bottle, seen near empty bottles of alcohol. iStock/Getty Images Plus

What Happens When You Stop Drinking

Effects on the Body

There are many physical and mental benefits to quitting alcohol, Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer for American Addiction Center, told Newsweek.

They include weight loss, improved memory and a better immune system. "Alcohol affects the development of red blood cells, and when alcohol is removed for a moderate length of time can it actually help with anemia and lessen fatigue," Weinstein said.

Most people who do not consume alcohol excessively won't have problems not drinking any more after one or two glasses.

However, incidental heavy drinking can "cause a hangover effect due to the accumulation of a toxic metabolite—acetylaldehyde." This is what leads to the headaches, sweating, palpitations and nausea/vomiting generally associated with hangovers.

If you are not physically dependent on alcohol or the drinking is not repeated chronically, these symptoms will resolve within a day or two, Bhatt said.

Those who become physically dependent on alcohol can suffer longer-lasting withdrawal symptoms, he warned. These can range from mild problems (such as sweating, increased blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety) to full-blown psychosis, delirium, seizures and death.

George F. Koob, the director of the NIAAA, told Newsweek that the way alcohol affects the body depends on how heavily and for how long a person was drinking.

"The abrupt cessation of alcohol consumption following prolonged excessive use can lead to a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome," Koob said. He lists the three phases of alcohol withdrawal as:

  • Acute Lasting roughly one week, the individual will experience anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, increased heart rate; stress circuitry rebounds, seizure peaks by 48 hours; delirium tremens (a rapid onset of confusion) peaks by the 72-hour mark.
  • Early abstinence Lasting about three to six weeks, the person will experience anxiety and insomnia.
  • Post-acute withdrawal The patient experiences dysphoria (a deep sense of unease or dissatisfaction, the opposite of euphoria) and anxiety for more than a year.

Roughly 850 people in the U.S. die from alcohol withdrawal every year and 250,000 require treatment in emergency rooms, according to hospital records. In general, around half of those who have been drinking heavily experience significant withdrawal, said Koob.

A woman in bed, with alcohol nearby.
A woman on a bed with hands covering her face and with several glasses of alcohol on a table nearby. Excessive drinking has various physical and mental consequences. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Effects on the Mind

Consistent drinking depletes dopamine levels and can lead to feelings of depression and frustration. "When alcohol is no longer consumed, those negative symptoms reverse," Weinstein said.

According to studies on "Dry January" and other periods of abstinence, those who stop drinking for a month tend to report improved sleep, more energy, and better focus and memory, Koob said.

"People who drink less often and less heavily might not notice large changes in their moods when they stop," he added.

Alcohol interferes with the brain's communication pathways, affecting various functions, including ones that control balance, memory, speech and judgment, according to the NIAAA.

An alcohol overdose takes place when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that parts of the brain that control basic life-support functions (such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control) begin shutting down.

Long-term excessive drinking can impair your perception of distances and volumes, reduce your motor skills and make it harder for you to read other people's emotions. When you quit drinking, your brain appears able to regain some of these abilities, according to a WebMD article medically reviewed by Dr. Minesh Katri, a New York City-based physician.

A person refusing an alcoholic drink.
A person refusing an alcoholic drink offered on a table. Those looking to quit alcohol after long periods of excessive drinking should only do so under the supervision of a trained physician. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How to Quit Drinking Alcohol

Anyone who is considering limiting their alcohol intake—or removing it from their lives completely—should run this past their primary care provider first.

"Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed on average, alcohol withdrawal can potentially be fatal, so it's highly recommended that someone in that situation stop their drinking under the guidance of a medical professional in an appropriate detox setting," Weinstein said.

There are various types of substance abuse treatment program. They can be office or outpatient based, individual or group sessions, in person or remote, and require daily or weekly attendance.

"The intervention should match the person's needs on a biological, psychological, social and environmental level across multiple domains," Bhatt said. "Also, the level of commitment, impairment, functionality, withdrawal, recovery support and environment should be considered to determine if outpatient treatment or inpatient treatment is appropriate."

A person sitting at therapy session.
A person in a counselling session. One-to-one behavioral therapy is among the many treatment options available for alcoholism.

When it comes to quitting alcohol, Koob explains that "there is no one-size-fits-all approach" and treatment doesn't always lead to recovery on the first try. So, it's important to keep pursuing options until you find one that works for you.

Koob and Bhatt both advise that anyone who has been drinking heavily for long periods of time and who is physically dependent on alcohol should only quit under the supervision of a physician trained in addiction treatment.

The NIAAA provides several resources to help people decide whether they need to make changes to their lives. Its Rethinking Drinking website helps you assess your relationship with alcohol and explore options for cutting down or quitting.

Below are some treatment options for those looking to stop drinking:

  • Medication Medications and monitoring can allow someone to detoxify from alcohol safely, minimizing the adverse effects of withdrawal. Drugs such as naltrexone and acamprosate can help reduce cravings and promote abstinence.
  • Rehabilitation Rehabilitation in a treatment setting can assist the individual in addressing the underlying factors that contributed to their excessive alcohol use, as well as learning the tools to maintain sobriety, according to Bhatt.
  • Behavioral therapy Some may benefit more from one-on-one therapy. Other options include motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapies, 12-step programs, or any combination of these, Koob said.
  • Support groups Groups for those trying to quit drinking and their families can provide a positive environment for staying on a path of recovery.

For more information, see the Alcohol Treatment Navigator at the NIAAA website. "Here one can learn about the spectrum of what is alcohol use disorder and the concomitant treatments available," Koob said.

"While in-person treatment options are still a challenge because of the pandemic, there are a variety of evidence-based tele-health options from which to choose, from one-on-one therapy to mutual support group meetings."

To learn more about treatment for all types of substance use disorder, see FindTreatment.gov or call the national helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

People seen at a support group meeting.
People at a support group meeting. These groups can provide a positive environment for those looking to quit alcohol and their families. iStock/Getty Images Plus