I’m fascinated by how our bodies react to different trends like intermittent fasting, or how we can rewire our brains through neuroplasticity. Something that has always intrigued me is the way alcohol, and lack thereof, affects us both physically and mentally.
I came across a video on YouTube called What Happens When You Quit Alcohol?, by Gregory Brown. The video deep-dives into how your brain and body react when you stop drinking alcohol–even temporarily. Brown does an excellent job of breaking down the impact it has, both for casual drinkers and for those with moderate to severe alcohol use disorders (AUD). I decided to take a month off of alcohol myself and juxtapose my own experience with Brown’s findings. (I highly recommend taking just ten minutes out of your day to watch the video, but I’ll summarize his findings below.)
Alcohol has also been proven to contribute to weight-gain. Probably not surprising. Most of us can relate to desperately trying to find food ANYWHERE to satisfy those late nite munchies after a night out on the town. A study found that participants ate around 11% more after an alcoholic drink compared to those who did not drink alcohol. Participants also ate almost 25% more high-fat foods. In addition, since our body can’t store alcohol, it processes the alcohol immediately, causing our fats, carbs and proteins to be pushed aside and stored, but stored as body fat. When this happens, your metabolism hits the breaks. This metabolism slow-down will just increase overtime the more you consume alcohol.
Alcohol also decreases blood pressure for up to 12 hours after ingestion and then increases blood pressure afterwards. “Alcohol consistently increases heart rate at all times within 24 hours of consumption.” You’ll see how much my own resting heart rate spiked after imbibing on New Year’s Eve. As Brown describes how alcohol damages our sleep, which can, in turn, directly affect weight loss by blocking our body’s metabolic process. A study concluded that a low intake of alcohol resulted in a 9% decrease in sleep quality, and a high alcohol intake decreased sleep quality by almost 39%.
12-24 Hours Without Alcohol
The science behind this is that alcohol changes the way your brain and nervous system function. Alcohol is classified as a depressant. In chemistry terms, that means it suppresses excitatory neurons (glutamate) and enhances inhibitory neurons (gaba). Gaba is one of the brain’s chemical messengers that helps you to feel relaxed and less stressed. Booze also increases the level of dopamine in the brain which is a chemical messenger for sending pleasure signals. Thus, the happy feelings you have when you drink are due to the increased gaba and dopamine, which makes information in the brain move more slowly allowing only the largest signals come through. This leads to thought-clarification, which is why we get so excited about simple ideas when we’re intoxicated (I’m sure we can all recall many of those times), and in turn, this leads to serotonin-release. It also leads to a reduction in impulse control which is why many describe alcohol as “liquid courage” when our brain’s become impaired to stop bad decisions.
When you stop drinking, the inhibition from the alcohol stops, and in comes the excitatory overload. (In heavy drinkers, This can lead to shakes, seizures, hallucinations and delirium tremors so talk to your doctor before quitting alcohol, because for some, quitting cold turkey can be dangerous.)
I probably experienced the worst hangover in years on New Year’s Day. My guess is that it was due to the junior varsity move of mixing too many different types of booze, not eating enough and not taking enough water breaks.
The hangover was brutal. I forced myself to work out at 7am to sweat out the poison. I later realized that I was likely still buzzed. While a brutal way to get over a rough night, I did feel slightly better. But, there was still a noticeable feeling of exhaustion, anxiety of stupid things that I likely said and just generally a lethargic feeling. Throughout it all, I felt like I was going to get sick at any given moment. Moreover, my thinking seemed impaired and I had trouble articulating clear thoughts. It wasn’t until 8pm that I barely felt human and then pleaded with my family to let me go to bed.
24-48 Hours Without Alcohol
Most people begin to feel agitated. That serotonin is gone and you, candidly, feel crappy. This leads some people to start drinking again in order to feel the serotonin spike, which we all know never ends up making us feel better long-term.
The Japanese word for hangover is futsukayoi. The literal translation is “two days sick.” As I get older, the hangovers have not only gotten worse, but they actually last longer. So yes, I still felt like crap even two days later. Ironically, knowing that I would take the rest of the month off from drinking booze gave me energy and motivation.
3 Days Without Alcohol
When you drink, you change your brain, says Brown. Therefore when you stop drinking, your brain is trying to navigate regressing back to its original state. By the 3rd day, the brain has an increased corticotropin-releasing hormone, which causes a spike in your cortisol. This leads to a lack of appetite, heightened anxiety and focused but stress-inducing energy. Brown goes on to say, with supporting evidence, that animal studies and post-mortem scans of people with alcohol use disorders show that exposure to alcohol “alters the expression of genes involved in diverse cellular functions.” In addition, your dopamine will be low and potentially drop lower, making it more difficult for you to feel good without booze.
At this point, I must admit the gag reflex of the thought of booze was gone and I even considered having a glass of vino with dinner. But I quickly reminded myself that I was taking the month off and to lay off the sauce. The sneaky way alcohol can affect behavior was playing itself out.
4 Days Without Alcohol
Lower dopamine transporters begin to return to baseline. Your brain is starting to change so that it positively benefits your health. In long-term, heavy drinkers, this process can take up to a year to fully complete.
3 Weeks Without Alcohol
AUD leads to leaky gut issues due to bacteria-interference. This can lead to depression during those three weeks after you quit. But by the time you hit that three-week mark, your gut begins to heal itself. By 4-8 weeks after quitting, your gut will start to level out.
4 Weeks Without Alcohol
Your sleep-quality will improve. Though we may fall asleep faster when we drink, our brains actually increase alpha wave patterns, which cause our brains to be more active than they should be while we sleep. People with AUD commonly experience sleep disorders like prolonged rapid eye movement and lack of deep sleep. These issues can take up to four weeks to begin to subside.
“Sleep-related regions of your brain vastly overlap with parts of the brain where people with AUD have decreased grey matter,” Brown says. “It can take up to three months to change in the brain… so it may take three months to have the best quality of sleep you could get.”
5 Weeks Without Alcohol
Your skin will improve. Drinking causes dehydration due to alcohol binding to your body’s protein that helps reabsorb water back into the body. This means you urinate excess water while you’re drinking, which typically would have been retained by your body to stay hydrated.
6 Weeks Without Alcohol
You may have higher thinking and problem-solving skills, memory and attention than those who are still drinking alcohol. Several studies show that if you stop drinking, your chances of getting cancer, having a stroke and early death will decrease.
Because I was a casual drinker, my experience in abstaining was much less severe, however, there were notable, documented changes I noticed through my Apple Watch and my Fitbit scale when I was drinking versus not drinking.
The main physical differences I experienced was a drop in my resting heart rate and a noticeable decrease in my weight when I abstained. My weight went from 167 and got as low as 157 in the month I didn’t drink alcohol. I purposely did not change anything around my diet or exercise so I could remove any other factors. For my resting heart rate, I just used the standard Apple Health app that comes with my phone that is automatically paired with my Apple Watch.
You can see the stats and impact on my resting heart rate and weight below. While my experience isn’t as monumental as the experiences Brown described above, there’s clear evidence both through clinical trials and my own amateur trials that alcohol does have an adverse effect on our weight and heart rate.
End of December 2021 to Mid-January 2022
I realize this looks a bit backward at first glance. In the first screenshot on the left, the less recent date starts at the bottom. I weighed in at around 166 pounds in late December. Also notice how my resting heart rate was in the low 50s.
When New Years Eve rolled around, I drank. My resting heart rate spiked on January 1st to an average of 61 BPM. My weight was at 168.1 lbs and few days after. My guess is that I didn’t want to hop on the scale and see the horrors on January 1. A few days later my weight decreased to 164 lbs by January 7th. Also, note that my weight fluctuates dramatically based on the amount of water I’m retaining. That’s why it’s important to see the week-over-week change as opposed to fluctuations in just a few days.
Mid-January to End of January
By the middle of January, my resting heart rate dropped to an average of 47 beats per minute. In addition, my weight started to drop and got as low as 159.
Again, to be clear, I did not change anything about my diet or exercise. I wanted to keep as many factors constant as possible so the effects of not drinking would be isolated.
Beginning of February
At the beginning of February, I was drinking a good number of non-alcoholic beverages, which contain small amounts of alcohol. Interestingly enough, my weight spiked (likely water retention) 161.2 lbs and my resting heart rate average increased to 48 BPM –– not a huge increase, but a sure increase. The spike that took place at the end of the period was due to being a bit under the weather. Interestingly enough, though I didn’t have any symptoms, my resting heart rate rising was likely a reaction of my body’s attempts to stave off illness.
In conclusion, taking the month of January off from booze had positive impacts on my resting heart rate and weight as I was able to share from the screenshots. However, while it is difficult to quantitatively track, I felt better about myself, more rested and generally less anxious and stressed about things. In fact, because I felt so good, I extended the total time to 6 weeks. There’s no question in my mind that I will be doing Dry January for the foreseeable future. Maybe, I’ll even try another dry month mid year. You should give it a try too – please share and compare your findings!