In This Article
How Does Alcohol Use Affect the Brain & Body?
Alcohol use causes memory impairment and reduced motor function abilities. In large quantities, it can lead to blackouts. People who drink large amounts of alcohol over time are also at risk of developing serious and persistent brain changes.
Health issues related to alcohol consumption are directly from exposure to alcohol, as well as an increased likelihood of poor general health status.
Additionally, the vast majority of people with alcohol use disorder have a thiamine deficiency and a high risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), a serious brain disorder.
WKS consists of two separate syndromes, which include:
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a short-lived and severe condition
- Korsakoff’s psychosis, a long-lasting and debilitating condition
One of the most common effects of long-term alcohol use is liver damage. This can lead to prolonged liver dysfunction, including liver cirrhosis. Cirrhosis also harms the brain and can lead to a potentially fatal brain disorder called hepatic encephalopathy.
Hepatic encephalopathy causes:
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in mood
- Shortened attention spans
- Problems with coordination
Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Health professionals generally consider moderate alcohol consumption (by otherwise healthy adults) relatively safe. Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. One standard drink equals:
- 12 fluid ounces of beer
- 5 fluid ounces of wine
- 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits
Moderate alcohol consumption might reduce the risk of developing heart disease and heart-related health issues, such as ischemic stroke.
Despite the potential health benefits of moderate drinking, any amount of alcohol consumption increases a person’s risk of some types of cancer by a small amount.
Effects of Heavy Alcohol Consumption
Heavy alcohol consumption, whether it is over time or in the form of binge drinking episodes, is never considered safe. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Consumption defines heavy drinking as:1
- More than four drinks in a day or more than 14 drinks per week for men
- More than three drinks in a day or seven drinks per week for women
The effects of heavy alcohol consumption include:
- Certain cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Sudden death for those with cardiovascular disease
- Heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) that eventually causes heart failure
- Accidental serious injury or death
- Brain damage and other problems in an unborn child
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome
Is Life Better Without Alcohol?
For some people, yes. This is especially true if the alcohol consumption is negatively impacting their health, relationships, and career or education.
Despite the potential benefits of moderate drinking, health professionals do not recommend those who do not drink to begin doing so.
For those who are light to moderate drinkers (and are otherwise healthy), continuing to drink in this matter likely won’t be a problem.
Everyone is different. If you are concerned about your drinking or you have a desire to stop drinking and you’ve been unsuccessful, speak to your doctor about your options.
11 Benefits of Not Drinking Alcohol
Here are eleven benefits of not drinking alcohol:
- Lower risk of cancer: A variety of cancers are associated with heavy drinking, including cancers of the esophagus, mouth, breast, and more.
- Lower risk of unplanned pregnancy and/or STDs: Drinking impairs your ability to make smart decisions and increases the likelihood of impulsive behavior.
- Reduced risk of pregnancy complications: Alcohol harms a developing fetus. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage and fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Fewer risks of negative interactions with medications: Alcohol lessens the effects of many prescription medications. Additionally, some medications are dangerous when mixed with alcohol.
- Improved blood pressure and better overall heart health: There are some mild heart health benefits for light to moderate drinkers. But heavy drinking negatively impacts heart health.
- Lower risk of liver health problems: Alcohol severely impacts the liver. Over time, heavy drinking wreaks havoc on the liver and causes a variety of primary and secondary liver health issues.
- Reduced risk of developing dependence and addiction: The less you drink, the less likely you are to develop an addiction, even if you have a genetic risk.
- Lower risk of dementia: Alcohol has a significant impact on the brain and increases a person’s risk for a variety of cognitive health issues.
- Lower risk of and better ability to deal with co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety: People who self-medicate with alcohol to treat mental health disorders are able to deal with their issues better when they switch to appropriate medical care.
- Financial savings: Alcohol is expensive. The less you drink, the less money you spend.
- Reduced risk of injury and accidents: Heavy drinking is linked to an increased risk of injuries and accidents.
How Long Until You Feel the Benefits of Quitting Alcohol?
Most heavy drinkers experience immediate benefits when they give up alcohol. Within just a few days or weeks, they drop excess weight, no longer experience hangover symptoms, and avoid the brain fog that’s common among people who drink. They also reduce their risk of developing serious health conditions.
However, despite the benefits, suddenly stopping alcohol consumption after long-term heavy use can trigger dangerous withdrawal symptoms. It’s important to speak to your doctor if you are concerned about alcohol withdrawal.
What Happens After a Week of Not Drinking?
Within a week of giving up alcohol, you’re likely to:
- Sleep better because alcohol increases alpha brain waves during sleep
- Lose weight because many types of alcohol are so high in empty calories
- See improved skin quality due to rehydration
- Experience improved blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes
What Happens After a Month of Not Drinking?
Within a month of giving up alcohol, you’re likely to experience:
- Decreased risk of several types of cancer
- Decreased liver fat percentage
- Immune system boost (the ability to fight off a variety of health issues, including pneumonia and respiratory disorders)
- Better fertility
- Improved brain function
- Better impulse control
Is Your Drinking a Sign of an Alcohol Problem?
Everyone is different. However, if you experience any of the following when drinking, you may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Signs you may have a problem with alcohol include:
- Loss of control, including drinking for longer than or more than you intended
- Risk-taking, including getting into potentially dangerous situations while drinking
- Prioritizing drinking over other things in life
- Neglecting responsibilities, hobbies, and obligations in favor of drinking
- Continuing to drink despite experiencing negative consequences such as problems at work or school, health problems, or problems in your relationships
- Lying about or hiding drinking
- Getting into legal trouble because of drinking
- Making excuses about drinking and feeling upset when people criticize your drinking
- Drinking alone
- Drinking at odd times of the day, such as first thing in the morning
- Feeling guilty about drinking
- Feeling like you need to drink to get through the day
- Worrying about having enough alcohol to “get through” the weekend or evening, etc.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction
- Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
- Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) — Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
- Outpatient Programs — Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
- Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) — Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
- Support Groups — Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.