What Drinking Alcohol Really Does to Your Body—And What Happens When You Stop

Woman drinking alcohol at a bar while wearing a Fitbit tracker

For most people, drinking is a way to unwind, relax, and socialize. And when done in moderation, that’s not a problem. In fact, drinking can even be healthy. A glass of red wine a day can help lower your cholesterol, lower your risk for heart disease, and might even help reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes by a whopping 20 percent.

The problem is, not everyone drinks in moderation. Between 2002 and 2013, overall alcohol use increased 11 percent, high-risk drinking (more than four drinks a day for women, five for men) rose 30 percent, and alcohol use disorder (defined by a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol) skyrocketed 50 percent, according to a 2017 study.

According to the Dietary Guidelines, men should limit themselves to no more than two alcoholic drinks a day (a standard drink is approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol, or 12 ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine, or one and one-half ounces of hard alcohol like vodka or rum). Women? No more than one. Preliminary research shows that anything above these limits—even if you only indulge occasionally—can start doing serious damage to your health.

Read on to learn what, exactly, drinking does to your body and whether can you reverse that damage if you dry out.

The Toll Drinking Takes on the Body

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Excessive drinking—which includes binge drinking (4 or more drinks on an occasion for women, 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men), heavy drinking (8 or more drinks a week for women, 15 or more drinks a week for men), and any alcohol use by pregnant women or those under the minimum legal drinking age of 21, according to the CDCdoes all sorts of damage to your body, even beyond what you experience during hangovers.

“Excessive alcohol use is associated with damage to many organs in the body, including the liver, pancreas, and brain,” says Laura Halpin MD, PhD, resident physician in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “It’s also associated with high blood pressure and many cancers, including throat, liver, and esophagus.”

In addition, “alcohol can affect depression and mood, amount and quality of sleep, and anxiety,” says Halpin.  “Long term, it has been shown to be associated with trouble with learning, memory, and social functioning, including employment and relationship status.”

Worst case scenario? Drinking too much can actually kill you. An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making excessive alcohol drinking the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Reverse the Damage

The good news is, most of the damage excessive drinking causes to the body can be reversed once you put down the bottle—and in many cases, the reversal is pretty much immediate.

“[Once you stop drinking, you] would no longer experience alcohol’s short-term effects on sleep, mood, and anxiety, and are likely to feel many of the positive changes right away,” says Halpin. “This would likely lead to improved productivity and overall mental health.”

And giving up alcohol doesn’t just positively affect your health in the immediate-term—it also reaps some serious long-term benefits.

Overall, your body is just able to function better without alcohol. When liver specialist Kevin Moore, PhD, professor of hepatology and head of the alcohol liaison service at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, studied the effects of “Dry January”—a month without booze—on a small group of moderate drinkers, he found that giving up alcohol—even for one month—can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, decrease insulin resistance, and have a regenerative effect on the liver, all of which decreases a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and liver disease.

You’ll also have better immune function, your body will be able to better absorb nutrients, and you’ll get a kickstart to your metabolism, which can result in weight loss. Remember,  “alcohol has a ton of calories!” says Halpin.

Oh yeah, and no more hangovers. #Win

Moral of the story: If you’re the kind of person who likes to unwind with a glass of wine at the end of the day, go for it. But if you want to keep yourself healthy—both in the short and long term—make sure you drink responsibly and stop after one.

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