Swearing Off Alcohol? Here Are 6 Side Effects to Expect
At least towards the beginning of the pandemic, many of us might admit that our drinking habits got a tad out of control. While working from home, cocktails were served earlier and earlier in the day, and one quarantini quickly turned into two or three. But as people head back to the office and their social lives return to some semblance of normalcy, many are starting to realize that it’s time to reign in the drinking. Some have even quit alcohol altogether. In fact, a 2021 NielsenIQ survey showed that 22% of consumers are cutting back on alcohol. Respondents said the main reasons are that they don’t go out as much as they used to, and they’re interested in leading a healthier lifestyle.
Whether you’re quitting drinking to lose weight, recover from an addiction, or for another reason altogether, know this: cutting alcohol out can lead to positive changes in all aspects of your life, including your relationships, finances, career, and well-being. But what happens to your body when you stop drinking? Well, let’s just say you can expect to feel some major physical changes.
For example, board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Clark Chen says some people may experience excessive sweating, headaches, tremors, and other physical symptoms as the body adjusts to having no alcohol.
“You can think of alcohol as an inhibitor of many chemical systems in your brain and when that is removed those receptors are no longer blocked,” he explains. “In response, they become super excited and are prone to overactivity.”
Over the long term, giving up alcohol can greatly reduce your risk of countless types of cancer — among other major health perks. That said, you may need to put up with some unpleasant side effects in the short term.
With that in mind, here’s what to expect as you embrace sobriety.
Anxiety Might Kick In
Some people might feel a sense of rising or cycling anxiety after going back on the wagon.
“When you quit drinking, your body needs time to reset certain neurotransmitters that were previously being affected by alcohol,” explains Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, a board-certified neurologist and chief medical officer of Clearing.
The good news? These symptoms should improve within 3-6 weeks. If they don’t, or if you’re experiencing chronic anxiety or panic attacks that are interfering with your everyday life, consider seeking out some support from a therapist. Specifically, Hascalovici recommends trying cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is aimed at addressing problematic thought patterns that cause or contribute to your anxiety. Even joining a support group or talking to a trusted friend can be helpful, says Hascalovici — especially if you’re worried that your anxiety might drive you to drink again.
You’ll Start Sleeping More Soundly
Don’t be surprised if you wake up feeling more rested once you quit alcohol.
A massive review found that even though having a couple of drinks may help you pass out faster at first, it wreaks havoc on the quality of your sleep over the course of the night. Specifically, studies have shown that drinking before bed can increase the alpha wave patterns in your brain, thus resulting in disrupted sleep.
So, soon after you cut alcohol out, you may notice that you sleep straight through the night, and wake feeling refreshed — with more energy and capacity for focus and concentration.
You Might Feel Nauseous
According to Hascalovici, it’s not uncommon to experience some nausea or an upset stomach shortly after you stop drinking.
“Your stomach may have been protecting itself from the irritating effects of alcohol by making more mucus, and once you stop, that mucus protection can unsettle your stomach, in some cases triggering you to vomit to try to get rid of it,” he explains. “Nausea may also be related to stress and anxiety.”
In order to minimize these symptoms, Hascalovici advises staying hydrated as well as eating bland, non-fatty foods like the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast).
Your Skin Might Improve
Researchers have found a close link between alcohol use and a number of skin conditions.
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it causes your body to flush out water more quickly via your urine. In other words, it can dehydrate you, leaving your skin dry, itchy, and dull. Since alcohol also weakens the immune system and impairs the body’s ability to absorb skin-enhancing nutrients, it can also increase your risk of skin infections. Not only that, but alcohol also causes facial flushing.
So, if you’ve suffered from psoriasis, eczema, acne, or rosacea, we bear good news: going sober just may help clear up your skin problems.
Sugar Cravings Will Likely Strike
If you feel like you’re reaching for candy and desserts a lot more after giving up alcohol, you’re not imagining things. In fact, there’s a very good reason for these cravings.
Alcohol boosts dopamine — a brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward. As it turns out, sugar does the same thing. So, when you stop giving your body alcohol, it makes sense why your body might need to get its fix of feel-good chemicals elsewhere — with the sweet stuff.
Of course, it’s totally fine to indulge in some chocolate or ice cream now and then. But if you find these insatiable cravings are striking on a daily basis, consider satisfying your sweet tooth with more nutritious options like frozen grapes, dates with almond butter, pretzels with chocolate hummus, or unsweetened Greek yogurt with honey and granola.
You May Shed Some Pounds
Considering the astronomical calorie, sugar, and carb contents in many alcoholic drinks, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that weight loss is a common effect of quitting drinking.
But that’s not the only reason why going sober may help you shed excess pounds. A 2013 study revealed that alcohol is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to overeating. Researchers believe this may be because alcohol heightens the senses — including smell and taste — making food even more satisfying. They found that when people drank the equivalent of two drinks, they ate 30% more food than people who had no alcohol.
According to Hascalovici, your symptoms can vary quite a bit based on how often and how much you were previously drinking, as well as other factors like your age and overall physical health condition. Chen notes that the longer you’ve been drinking heavily, the greater the chances that you’ll have full-on alcohol withdrawal symptoms — which tend to kick in 6-12 hours after your last drink, peak around 48 hours later, and can continue up to 5-7 days.
Remember: most of these side effects are short-term and will go away as your body adjusts to having no alcohol. However, if they don’t go away within a few weeks, and they’re negatively impacting your mental health, work, relationships, or overall quality of life, make an appointment with your primary care provider. Your doctor can assess your overall health to determine the cause of your symptoms and suggest potential treatments.
Chen also recommends taking a multivitamin after you quit alcohol — especially one with Vitamin B1 — which can help to reduce some symptoms that arise or worsen as a result of nutrient deficiencies.
“Many vitamins are not absorbed as well when you drink a large amount of alcohol, so supplementation and replenishment may be necessary,” he explains.
Working with a mental health professional — particularly an addiction specialist — can also be immensely helpful in coping with the side effects of giving up alcohol, says Chen.
“These physical symptoms can be incredibly hard to get through on your own, which can lead some to reach for more alcohol to stop the feelings of withdrawal,” he tells AskMen. “It’s important to have a game plan before going into the detoxification process and a professional can help put all the pieces together before you start the process.”
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