Here's What Happens to Your Body When You Quit Drinking
The scoop on why you'll lose weight, get better sleep and feel better overall.
Whatever your alcohol intake—whether you only indulge in a single celebratory Friday-night drink or pour yourself an Olivia Pope-size glass of wine every single night—there are a bevy of benefits to going booze-free.
You already know many of them: weight loss, better sleep and a happier, healthier mood. But what, exactly, happens inside your body that makes saying sayonara to alcohol so great?
"Alcohol is a toxin," Sal Raichbach, Psy.D., LCSW, chief of clinical compliance at Ambrosia Treatment Center points out. "As it enters the bloodstream, it impacts every organ system and takes a toll on the normal processes of the human body. So, if you stop drinking, then your body doesn't have to go through that recovery process the next day."
Here's what happens to your body when you stop drinking—on the outside and inside.
You'll Lose Weight
If you've ever gone even a week without your favorite cocktail, you've likely noticed your clothing fits a little more loosely. (Hello, skinny jeans!) That's because when you cut out alcohol's empty calories, your body can focus on burning the other calories you consume. "Alcohol contains empty calories, which don't offer nutrients," Raichbach explains. Those empty calories aren't as satisfying as energy from whole foods with nutrients like protein and fiber and fat, so you're likely adding alcohol's calories on top of your nutritional needs. If you eat an adequate amount to maintain your weight, any excess calories will be stored as fat.
It's true that most drinks only pack 100 to 200 calories per serving, but that adds up, says David Greuner, M.D., surgical director at NYC Surgical Associates. "Though no longer considered an exact measure, 3,500 calories translates to approximately one pound of weight," he says. So: "By simply eliminating nightly cocktails or weekend binges, you can potentially shed a couple of pounds by month's end."
You'll Sleep Better
Even drinking once or twice a week can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule, Raichbach says. "People who quit drinking often notice that their weekends are more productive and restful because their sleep is restorative," he describes. That may seem counterintuitive—especially for people who struggle to fall asleep at night. "Even though alcohol makes you sleepy, it's not a useful sleep aid," Raichbach explains. "Moderate alcohol consumption diminishes your quality of sleep by reducing the production of melatonin, a hormone that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to wake up. It also increases another chemical that affects sleep regulation, adenosine." What's more, Greuner adds, consuming alcohol forces your brain to work in alpha waves, which is a meditative or resting wave state we typically experience when we're awake. With these hormones, chemicals and brain waves out of whack, you'll find yourself waking up in the middle of the night—or needing to nap at work. And restorative REM sleep can be elusive. Cutting out alcohol can help you sleep soundly through the night.
You'll Get Sick Less
Prone to head colds? Your nightly glass—or three—of wine could be to blame, says Greuner. While light to moderate drinking shouldn't increase your susceptibility, "even a single episode of binge drinking can lead to exertion on the immune system and cause inflammation—a common cause of many ailments." When you refrain from drinking to excess, you'll reduce and reverse inflammation. And because of that "over time, your immune system will be strengthened," Greuner explains.
You'll Improve Your Digestion
The liver is responsible for cleansing the body of toxins—including alcohol. When you take alcohol out of the equation, "the liver doesn't have to deal with metabolizing ethanol and can focus on being the body's filter for other toxins that we naturally encounter," Raichbach says. Drinking too much can also cause fatty liver disease, inflammation of the liver and, over time, cirrhosis and liver failure. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you're taking any medications. Some medicines interact with alcohol and can increase the risk of liver damage from drinking.
Plus, our digestive system deals with alcohol differently than other toxins. Alcohol, particularly fermented beverages like beer and wine, can cause stomach cells to overproduce gastric acid, which can irritate the stomach. Excessive alcohol intake can damage the lining of the GI tract as well. "As soon as alcohol enters the body and travels into the esophagus," says Raichbach, "it's already doing damage to cells that digest our food. Studies show that it continues to affect the digestive system as it enters the stomach, where it can negatively affect the lining of the stomach and cause ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract." While you likely wouldn't see these effects with moderate alcohol consumption, stopping drinking eliminates this risk entirely.
You'll Stay More Hydrated
"Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it increases the rate at which you expel water from your body as urine," explains Raichbach. The need to go or not go to the bathroom begins in your brain, as your pituitary gland releases antidiuretic hormone (ADH) that tells your kidneys it's time to retain water. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol can have a temporary diuretic effect. "Alcohol causes ADH levels to drop, and as a result, the kidneys produce more urine and retain less water," Raichbach says. "When you stop drinking alcohol, you restore ADH levels to their natural state, and your kidneys expel the appropriate amount of water." By retaining water and staying hydrated, your whole body will feel better.
"Our bodies are entirely dependent on water," he says. "Every cell in our body uses water in one way or another. It's essential for circulation, maintaining body temperature, and helps to get rid of waste. Without proper hydration, the heart must work harder to pump the same amount of blood, and your kidneys will eventually start to fail."
Your Skin Will Look Better
Another plus to rehydrating your body is that your appearance may improve. "Though moderate drinking may not present a large number of immediate life-threatening concerns, it can quickly take a noticeable toll on your appearance—even after one night of overindulging," warns Greuner. "Less water in the body leads to some immediate and visible effects, including dry and more wrinkled skin, red cheeks, eczema and blood-shot eyes." But take a night—or a month—off from drinking, and you'll likely be happier with what you see in the mirror. "With the avoidance of alcohol and proper hydration, your skin should soon return to its normal healthy state," he says.
You'll Feel Less Anxious
You likely already know that alcohol is a depressant. As such, alcohol "directly affects the brain and neural networks, impacting almost every one of the brain's processes," Raichbach says. "A healthy brain that isn't impaired by alcohol maintains a balance of neurotransmitters like GABA and dopamine." On the other hand, he says, "Alcohol throws off the levels of neurotransmitters that regulate emotions and behavior, and control cognitive abilities."
When you drink, your GABA and dopamine levels deplete, and you may feel tired, anxious and depressed when the intoxicating effects of alcohol wear off, Raichbach says. But taking a break from alcohol allows your brain to restore the balance of feel-good hormones.
The Bottom Line
The recommendations around drinking caution not to start if you don't already drink, but say that in moderation—one glass per day for women and two for men—alcohol can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Besides the above-mentioned benefits of going sober, as little as one drink a day has been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. Plus, certain populations—including pregnant women, people under 21 and people with certain medical conditions—shouldn't drink at all.
Whether you're considering cutting back, doing a 30-day dry month or giving up alcohol entirely, you'll likely reap some benefits—but drinking in moderation can be okay, too.
This story originally appeared on EatingWell.