The Medical Reason for Why You Feel Worse After Quitting Drinking

Gillian May
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So you’ve quit drinking and are awaiting the rush of health, vitality, and all things nice. Most of us quit because we want to feel better, or else why bother stopping, right? Except that now you feel a bit worse and can’t figure out why. You’re beginning to question your decision and can’t figure out why you would feel worse than ever.

I’m five and half years sober and a former nurse who knows about alcohol and addiction medicine. Let me help you understand what’s happening in that first year of sobriety. There are actual medical reasons why you feel worse, especially at first. Most people know that there is a withdrawal period, But many don’t realize how serious it can be.

Withdrawal lasts for a few days, sometimes longer, depending on the circumstances. Alcohol withdrawal is a medically complicated condition and can cause severe, even life-threatening symptoms. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how someone will react to withdrawal. It depends on:

  • Their state of health
  • Other medical conditions
  • Amount of alcohol consumed daily
  • Length of alcohol abuse
  • Abruptness of withdrawal
  • How many complicated withdrawals the person has had in the past

In alcohol withdrawal, the nervous system becomes overexcited. This happens because of how alcohol affects the inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters in the nervous system. During alcohol use, inhibitory receptors are less sensitive, and excitatory receptors increase in numbers; this is to counteract the effect of alcohol on the nervous system, which is always trying to find equilibrium. Unfortunately, the nervous system becomes primed for excitation.

When alcohol consumption stops, the body goes into an over-excited state, causing symptoms like:

  • Tremors and shakes
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Headache
  • Increased body temperature
  • Pins and needles
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sometimes seizures and delirium tremens

Not all withdrawal becomes severe, but nonetheless, it’s very unpleasant. Many people have said they’ve felt withdrawal symptoms even up to a week after quitting drinking. However, some say they still don’t feel well for quite a while longer.

It may take the body some time to regulate the nervous system again. This means some people feel agitated, anxious, and have trouble sleeping for a while.

However, some of these issues can be explained through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, which is when the neural pathways have been trained to do the same thing day after day. Think of it as taking the same route to work every day. In some ways, your body is so used to the route that you may not even be conscious of it. You blindly follow the route each day as if it’s written on your brain. And in some ways, it is. Over time, your nervous system is so trained to follow the route that it becomes a habit. This exact mechanism happens in addiction.

However, what happens if you change your route? For the first little while, it will feel strange and out of place. You may be nervous or anxious as you keep your eyes open to find your way around. However, over time, your body will get used to the new route as it did for the old route. This is how neuroplasticity works. New pathways in the nervous system need some time to solidify and become normal.

Research shows that some aspects of addiction have to do with this neuroplasticity. Once a specific habit has been formed it’s hard to get rid of it. Many alcohol use behaviors help solidify the habit through a rush of dopamine in anticipation of using. Some people associate certain habits or physical conditions with alcohol use, such as using a special glass or drinking at a particular hour of the day. These habits cause dopamine levels to increase, giving a sense of reward and reinforcing the neurological route. However, just as neuroplasticity may promote addiction, it can also be used to recover from it.

Many prolonged alcohol addiction recovery symptoms may be due to the many habits that are hard to break on a neurological level. Which may explain why many people still feel awful once they quit. But if they can practice new habits, it can help re-wire the neurological routes associated with alcohol use. For instance, if sunset is a strong trigger for drinking, a person may want to find a different activity during that time. Or perhaps they want to form a new habit of getting up early with the sunrise.

Over time, new neurological routes will be formed which take over the old ones. However, this can take some time, and one can feel a little lost at first. But the good news is that new neural pathways can be created that may give hope to anyone struggling with alcohol addiction recovery.

Both withdrawal and neuroplasticity are medical reasons for why a person feels worse after quitting alcohol. If this speaks to you, know that you’re not alone, and this state will pass. Actual withdrawal should be complete within a week of abstaining from alcohol, but the neurological habit of drinking may persist.

It’s important to give it some time and focus on forming new behaviors and habits. It’s essential to get support and brainstorm which new habits will help you succeed. For some, it’s getting back into art, and some may take up a new sport; others may need to get rid of anything in their life that reminds them of alcohol. This process will be unique to each person and their individual life situation.

It may be advisable to plan out some new activities and habits you’d like to form before you plan on getting sober. This can help support your process. But know that it will take some time, and you’ll need a good amount of patience.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.


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