For many people who drink more than the government’s daily unit guidelines, cutting back on alcohol or quitting altogether can have a significant impact on your health. However, because alcohol is a depressant drug which changes the functioning of your nervous system when drinking, the process of adjusting your body back to normal can be intense and difficult to handle. The psychological and physical effects of quitting alcohol depend on how much you were drinking, for how long and how high your tolerance to alcohol is.
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If you depend on alcohol, quitting suddenly brings with it a set of withdrawal symptoms which vary in intensity from one person to another. You may suffer from shakes or excessive sweating, feel sick or vomit, have difficulty sleeping and eating, and experience anxiety, panic or irritability. You will have cravings for alcohol. These symptoms usually strike four to 12 hours after your last drink and increase in severity up to 72 hours after quitting. Some people suffer from the delirium tremens – the DTs – including hallucinations, confusions and severe tremors.
Depression and anxiety
Alcohol affects your mood because it disrupts your brain chemistry makeup. Consequently, heavy drinkers are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression, and people who suffer mood disorders are more likely to drink heavily. After quitting alcohol your symptoms of anxiety and depression may get worse initially but then improve two or three weeks after stopping drinking. Use relaxation techniques or antidepressants if the symptoms of anxiety or depression persist.
Drinking alcohol disrupts your sleep patterns and quitting drinking helps you feel better in the morning and less exhausted throughout the day. Your sleep pattern may take a little time to adjust after stopping drinking, but after a few weeks you will sleep more deeply and wake feeling more rested. Try to avoid sleeping during the day and skip caffeine and nicotine in the evenings.
Weight and fitness
A person drinking wine regularly consumes an extra 2,000 calories a month, according to a 2009 Department of Health survey. And a glass of wine has as many calories as four biscuits, while a pint of lager is equivalent to one pizza slice, says DrinkAware. The calories in alcohol, made by fermenting sugar and starch, are called empty calories because they contain no nutritional value. Quitting alcohol means you stop gaining weight, you may lose weight and you feel fitter.
Stopping drinking alcohol reduces your risk of diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart disease and liver disease, according to DrinkAware. Your heart may become enlarged when you drink heavily over a long period of time and quitting stops this problem getting worse. And you are less at risk of catching infectious diseases because drinking on a regular basis affects your immune system.
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- NHS: Change for Life: Benefits of drinking less alcohol
- Alcohol Learning Centre: Coping with alcohol withdrawal
- NHS: Avon Organisations: Physical and mental effects of alcohol
- DrinkAware: Alcohol, mental health and wellbeing
- NHS: Tips on cutting down
- DrinkAware: Calories in alcohol
- DrinkAware: How to cut down on alcohol - tips and advice