What happens when you stop drinking alcohol?

What happens when you stop drinking alcohol?

People often don’t make the connection between their drinking habits and their overall health and well-being, so what actually happens when you stop drinking alcohol? You don’t have to be an alcoholic or to binge drink to benefit from quitting drinking alcohol. Anxiety levels, sleeping habits, weight-loss and improvements in complexion are just some of the changes that can happen when you stop drinking alcohol.

There are changes that happen both in the short-term and long-term, for Joseph, 64-years old, and Matilda, 28-years old, some were more surprising than others.

I stopped drinking Alcohol: This is what happened

For Joseph drinking was an important part of his daily routine. He maintained a job as a senior engineer by day, but by night he would retreat to his study, or sit in front of the television. Two bottles of wine would disappear and then he would wake up and do it all again. Eventually having been diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff (“wet brain” syndrome), he was “forced to choose between dying or drinking.”

For Matilda, she had been drinking since she was in her early teens and it became problematic in her twenties with the death of her sister, “I was drinking to cope, most nights. I kept a pretty happy-go-lucky facade up. I lived with housemates and moved every 6 months or so, for the past 6 years to keep my drinking under wraps. That way people wouldn’t get to know me well enough to know I was an alcoholic, they’d just think I was going through a little rough patch.”

Immune system and alcohol

Matilda: “I just thought I was a sickly person, more prone to picking up colds than other people. I’d get the flu at least twice a year, every year. If a bug was going around I would catch it. Now, I realise when I don’t drink I rarely get sick.”

Research published in 2015, conducted at the University of Maryland, found immune system disruption occurs while alcohol is still in the system. By drawing blood samples throughout the period of intoxication, the study demonstrated that white blood count changes. The conclusion: Even one instance of binge drinking can lower the immune system.

Chronic drinking, paired with lower nutrition, which is typical in many heavy-drinkers, can see an even steeper decline.

Why do I sleep badly after drinking?

Joseph: “I have never slept well. Getting up during the night was normal for as long as I can remember. A few glasses of wines puts me out cold but then I’m up at 2am, 3am and wake early. I tried Melatonin and a whole raft of solutions. Eventually, I just accepted it.”

Alcohol consumption disrupts sleep in a number of ways.  Studies documenting sleep in relation to alcohol intake, date back to the 1930s. They show it can make it more difficult to get to sleep, increase the number of times you wake up, and make you rise earlier than you would without drinking.

Normal sleeping patterns involve SWS (Sl0w-wave sleep) and REM (Rapid eye movement sleep). Brain waves change during each sleep pattern.  Drinking alcohol has been documented to disrupt these sleep patterns.

In part, the disrupted sleep is caused by your body trying to metabolise the alcohol. It’s working overtime to do this. This can mean you initially go into a deeper sleep but then wake up earlier than you would otherwise.

One study, ‘Alcohol and the sleeping brain’, concludes that when alcoholics stop drinking and practice abstinence, their sleep issues continue. Some can experience ‘insomnia and vivid dreams being common complaints, which can be a factor leading to relapse.’

“Part of the reason rehab, during initial recovery, is a good idea, is because you are in a controlled environment. You have morning activities. If you aren’t up for your walk before breakfast you’ll have your therapist or support worker checking in on you,” says Dr. Hanan J Whelan Al-Said.

“That accountability is very important. Rehab means you have a community of people supporting you.”

Irritability in recovery

Joseph: “I was difficult to be around when I tried to stop drinking. Everything bothered me. Even though I knew it wasn’t always rational, I would get disproportionately irritated by small things like someone taking a long time to reply to an email or my washing taking longer to dry because it wasn’t as sunny that day.”

What happens when you stop drinking alcohol? Changes in mood, irritability, and anxiety are normal to experience, particularly in the immediate days after you stop drinking. This does not mean you will always feel more anxious or irritable in the long-term. In the short-term, particularly the immediate days of abstinence, it is a very normal way to feel. This is part of your body adjusting while you experiencing alcohol withdrawal.

“A new routine helps the chaotic mind to settle,” says Dr. Hanan J Whelan Al-Said, “when you are in post-acute withdrawal, you can have problems concentrating, be more tired than normal, and feel quite low. Being in that state, while trying to live your regular life – go to work, study, look after a family, means you’re setting the odds against yourself. If you can take time out for rehab, you can concentrate on recovery.”

Are you better looking when you don’t drink?

Matilda: “People kept saying to me ‘you’re glowing, what are you doing differently?!’ I did come back from Lanna Rehab with a tan, but it was more than that. I wasn’t puffy anymore, my face was more even in tone. The dark around my eyes from bad nights of sleep was gone. I think my eyes looked a lot whiter and brighter too. I look younger.”

Alcohol consumption can cause your skin to look more aged (dry, as it is a diuretic) with uneven tone and broken capillaries. It can increase the likelihood of conditions like rosacea. Drinkers can experience puffy eyes and a dull complexion. This is because alcohol dehydrates and that can result in liver damage. Over the course of weeks, months and even a year after drinking, the liver can repair itself and your skin can also regain much of its former luster. What you put into your body – drinking and diet – can see greater results than investing in expensive facial products and treatments.

For some people, when they stop drinking, they can gain a new healthier glow that surprises them.

Our team are happy to answer questions. Alcohol withdrawal can have serious health implications. Are you worried about your health or the health of a family member, when they stop drinking? If you are considering rehab, then reach out to us on chat or contact us here.


Anne Lazarakis joined the Lanna Rehab team in 2019, from Sydney, Australia. She writes about addiction and mental health as a global issue, often focusing on our own client experiences and linking these to broader social trends. Before joining our team, she worked for several health services with a focus on equality of care, including the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Royal Hospital for Women Foundation. Mental health - particularly addiction - is often stigmatised. Stigmas associated with these areas prevent people from seeking help and recovering. Barriers can be gender, religion, or culturally-based. In some parts of the world mental health is not even recognised as a health condition. By sharing people's stories, and making information more readily available, Anne advocates for accessibility of care for all.

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