If going out for drinks feels more like a mandatory event and less like a fun occasion, you might be considering taking a break from alcohol—at least for a little while. We all have that friend who took a timeout from booze, and just swears they look better, feel better, and suddenly have the boundless energy of a baby gazelle. So maybe it’s time to see for yourself what happens when you stop drinking.
The fact is that drinking too much or too frequently can have an impact on your health, not to mention your bank account. The catch is in how much you drink, and the recommended amount is difficult for most people to stick with—drinking moderately is defined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as having up to one drink a day for people assigned female at birth and up to two drinks a day for people assigned male at birth.1
While that amount is generally thought to be okay for your health, having more than that on a regular basis isn’t. The thing is, it’s easy to go above moderate levels of drinking is a mainstay of your social life. After all, a serving of alcohol is a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.1 Most people have more than that at happy hour or on the weekend. Or on a particularly stressful Tuesday.
“Alcohol certainly presents the quandary that a little may be fine, but too much can cause serious problems,” Marc Leavey, M.D., an internist at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF.
Whether it feels like you’re tipping the scales into unhealthy alcohol consumption or you’re firmly in the one-drink-at-dinner camp, it can be tough to cut out alcohol for a bit if all of your friends are still asking you to meet up at the bar. So, SELF connected with experts to find out what actually happens to your body when you go sober. Here’s what they had to say about what to expect and when.
What happens in the first week without alcohol?
So you’ve decided to ditch the booze for the foreseeable future, now what? Since it can be tough to change drinking habits at first—like having that much-needed glass of wine after work—what can you look forward to healthwise in the first week of abstinence?You might end up taking in way fewer calories.
Remember, calories are not the enemy. Calories give us energy and feed our bodies. But alcohol can contain a lot of unexpected calories—some drinks more than others. For instance, a beer can have about 150 calories, a glass of pinot noir would have about 120 calories, and a frozen pina colada can have about 245 calories. So, depending on how much you typically drink on a daily basis, cutting that out might simply mean you’re taking in fewer calories.
For that reason, “some people might lose weight when they stop drinking,” James J. Galligan, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the neuroscience program at Michigan State University, tells SELF. How fast you’d potentially lose weight ultimately depends on how much you were drinking beforehand.
“Someone who averages one boozy drink per day could definitely see weight loss within a week if they’re not making up those calories with other caloric beverages,” New York–based registered dietitian Jessica Cording tells SELF.You’ll sleep better.
Alcohol is a sedative, so you’d think it would help you sleep better. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While drinking could help you fall asleep, it suppresses REM sleep, the restorative part of your sleep cycle, Dr. Leavey says. That might explain why you can have a fitful night of tossing and turning after you’ve been out drinking.
Alcohol is also a diuretic, Dr. Leavey points out, which is why you often get up to pee a lot after you drink—and that can mess with your sleep quality too. Ditching alcohol cuts out these factors, helping you to stay in bed and get sound shut-eye at night.2
One thing to note: If you have an alcohol use disorder, it could take longer for your sleep cycle and sleep quality to normalize. For some people, the full process takes up to a year.3
What can you expect within two to three weeks?
So you’ve made it through the first week without a drink. Maybe you’re already feeling lighter and more rested. So what positive changes can you anticipate next?Your brain will function better.
It’s hardly a secret that having a few drinks alters the way your brain works. More emotion. Less motor-control. Some gaps in memory. And maybe a few highly questionable decisions. These are hallmark short-term effects of drinking, according to a 2015 study published in BioMed Research International.4 What you may not know is that regular drinking, especially heavy drinking, can change the actual structure of your brain, making it a less effective thinking machine.
Even a short period of abstinence can help your brain bounce back. In a 2012 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers measured the volume of grey matter in the brains of people with alcohol use disorder. Their brains recovered a lot of volume in just two weeks. That extra gray matter—well, it matters. The first burst of volume recovery affects parts of the brain that influence how you process emotion, predict the consequences of your decisions, and pay attention.5
Another 2017 brain study published in PLOS One found that two to three weeks of alcohol detox can boost your working memory.6 This type of memory helps you temporarily retain important information, like a digital code or phone number. Basically, it’ll help you remember the little things.Your G.I. system will thank you.
Alcohol has some pretty profound effects on your gastrointestinal tract. This will come as no shock to you if you’re familiar with hangover diarrhea (so fun, right?). In fact, 2021 research published in the journal Alcohol Research shows that your gut barrier, the lining that keeps nasty pathogens from passing into your system, is almost completely restored within three weeks of cutting out alcohol in some people.
Another bonus: The microflora in your intestines regain much of their diversity in the same time period. Those good bacteria help keep you healthy. While a complete recovery of your gut microbiome may occur more than a month from your last drink, this initial rebound is good for your immune system. Which brings us to the next benefit….Your immune system will hopefully improve.
In general, alcohol hampers your immune system, making you more likely to get sick than if you weren’t drinking, says George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Abuse and Alcoholism.
“Viruses won’t be caused by alcohol, but you can be more vulnerable to them if you’re drinking,” he says. So, it’s not that sober living will give you a super-powered immune system—it’s just that it will get you back to your baseline, i.e. the efficient immune system you should have had before you started drinking. If you’re an otherwise healthy person, Dr. Galligan says it should take your immune system just a few weeks to bounce back.Abstaining could also positively impact your metabolism.
If you weren’t drinking much before you cut it out entirely, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a difference, but it’s still worth mentioning here. Drinking heavily could make it tough for your liver and pancreas to work well—both of which are essential for your metabolism, Dr. Galligan says. So if you were drinking enough to mess with these processes, your metabolism could start to work more efficiently within a few weeks of going sober.
What will happen to your body after a month without alcohol?
If you’ve come this far without alcohol, you probably can’t wait to hear about all the good things you’ve done for yourself. And honestly, there are some pretty great benefits at this point:Your heart will begin to recover.
The more you drink, the more likely it is that you’ll damage parts of your heart that you really, really need. If you drink a lot, you might notice heart symptoms that seem to be worse—like palpitations and higher blood pressure—when you first stop drinking. Those initial disturbances should calm within two weeks.
Studies show that around a month after your last drink, irregular heart rates, rapid heartbeat, and blood pressure usually return to healthier levels. There’s some evidence that the left ventricle of your heart—the super-muscle that shoots blood to the rest of your body—may recover a lot of its pumping ability.7
For some people, heart damage from alcohol overuse isn’t reversible after any amount of time. The good news is that the sooner you lower your intake, the better it will be for the health of your heart.You could potentially slow the signs of aging and see healthier skin.
Alcohol saps your body’s hydration—and it’s widely known that your skin needs hydration to stay plump and healthy. Josep Genebriera, M.D., a dermatologist at North Florida Dermatology Associates, points out that drinking causes both short-term flushing and long-term changes to your skin. When your body breaks down alcohol, it triggers the release of hormones like estrogen and histamine. It can also enlarge or damage blood vessels—all of which have the ability to impact your skin’s appearance.
Drinking also accelerates other signs of facial aging. In a 2019 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, which involved women of multiple races and nationalities, researchers found that women who had roughly one drink a day reported eye puffiness and loss of volume in their faces. Women who had around eight drinks a week also had more noticeable broken blood vessels on their cheeks—which makes sense, because alcohol aggravates skin disorders like rosacea, psoriasis, and seborrheic dermatitis.8
“Most of the dermatological conditions that are worsened by heavy drinking will slowly normalize over time after cutting out alcohol,” Dr. Genebriera says. Exactly how much time may vary according to the condition and the individual.
“Some conditions might improve right away after the drinking stops—if they’re triggered by alcohol,” Dr. Genebriera says. “Others, like spider telangiectasias, a condition in which tiny blood vessels radiate in all directions from a larger blood vessel, will stay permanently unless they’re treated with laser or cauterized.” It’s always best to check in with a dermatologist if you have a persistent skin issue that doesn’t seem to be improving with lifestyle or skin-care changes—they can help you ID the next best steps.
What might you see a few months down the line?
Now that alcohol has become a thing of the past for you, maybe you’ve forgotten to even look for added health benefits. Even so, you may notice that:If you have periods, they could be shorter.
Drinking regularly has powerful effects on your hormones. Researchers know, for example, that drinking raises your estrogen levels, which plays a key role in your menstrual cycle. One 2015 study published in Breast Cancer Research showed that women who drank more than 10 grams of alcohol in a week had 18% higher estradiol levels (one of the estrogens in your body) than women who drank less than that. Estrogen levels for drinkers stayed higher right through the menstrual cycle.9
While you shouldn’t expect miraculously pain-free periods just because you’re skipping the Chardonnay, one 2014 study published in Human Reproduction, found that abstaining from alcohol could shorten your period.10Your liver will be able to function more smoothly.
Alcohol is a direct toxin to your liver. When your body breaks down alcohol, your liver has to clear the metabolic byproducts, Dr. Leavey says. “As a result, the liver has to work harder and longer to recover from the effects of alcohol,” he says. Alcohol can also cause inflammation in your liver, which keeps it from doing its job well—which is clearing out toxins from your body and turning fat into energy to keep you fueled, Dr. Galligan says.
If you’re a heavy drinker, alcohol can interfere with the way that your liver stores fat, leading to fatty liver disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. The good news? This condition may be reversible. Cutting out alcohol should help your liver to function better, Dr. Galligan says. But liver function doesn’t improve as fast as, say, your G.I. system: Dr. Galligan says this will likely take months to fully recover, even if you don’t have a fatty liver.
What are the long-term health benefits of not drinking alcohol?
Now that abstaining from alcohol has become a lifestyle, here are some health benefits you’ll enjoy well into the future:You’ll probably lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
Stopping drinking, especially if you currently have more alcohol than the recommended amount, can lower your risk of some cancers, including breast, colorectal, head and neck, liver, and esophageal cancers, among others, according to the American Cancer Society.
Sobriety can also cut your risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke, possibly because abstaining lowers your blood pressure. In a 2018 study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers tracked key health indicators in a small group of moderate-to-heavy drinkers and found that after one month, they had lowered blood pressure, body weight, and insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that plays a huge role in the development of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes.12
Researchers have yet to uncover the specific ways that drinking raises your risk of developing these health conditions. And the benefits of sobriety might be years, not months, down the road. Still, it’s good to know that the protective effects can be both fast-acting and long-lasting.
Just note that you might overdo it if you start drinking again.
If your vacation from alcohol is temporary, proceed with caution when you start drinking again. “Even moderate drinkers who stop drinking for two months tend to overdrink when they start again,” Dr. Koob says. Nobody really knows why, he says, but it seems to be some kind of overcompensation for the time you lost. It may be that your drinking habits calm down after the novelty of celebrating a month or two of sobriety wears off, but Dr. Koob says it’s important to keep it on your radar so you can avoid overdoing it.
So if you’re thinking of taking a break from alcohol—whether it’s Dry January or not—factor these benefits into your decision—your body will clearly thank you!