Healing the Body After Quitting Alcohol

Gillian May

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I’m a former nurse and recovering alcoholic and I write about alcohol and health. My goal is to educate people about the health risks of alcohol use because most of us don’t fully understand the effect that alcohol has on our bodies.

A lot of people ask me if the body actually heals and repairs itself once we quit drinking alcohol. The short answer is yes, absolutely. However, to what extent this repair happens, and how long it takes, depends on how much we drank, how long we drank, and whether we have other health conditions.

Amount and frequency of alcohol use

The degree to which we can physically recover from alcohol abuse depends on how much we drank and for how long. For example, a younger alcoholic who drank heavily for five years may likely recover faster than an older alcoholic who drank for decades. Simply put, the more damage the body receives from alcohol over time, the less it can recover. But that’s not to say recovery doesn’t happen even for the older alcoholic.

I should say that age itself is not a predictor, rather it’s how long and heavy a person drank over the lifespan. Because even younger alcoholics can get into trouble with their health if they drink extreme amounts very frequently.

Medications and other health issues

The degree of damage our bodies sustain from alcohol abuse also depends on our other health issues and the medications we take. As we know, alcohol damages various body systems and organs. But if we have other health problems and take medications, mixing alcohol with these things can be much worse for our health making recovery more strained.

For example, people with diabetes who take medications may sustain more damage from alcohol than other people. This is because diabetes causes damage as well and the medications used to treat diabetes are hard on the organs. So adding another substance like alcohol just adds more fuel to the fire. This is also true for heart disease or cholesterol issues. For example, mixing alcohol with statin medications used to treat cholesterol can cause liver damage.

Sometimes, it’s actually alcohol that can contribute to the development of many health issues. This means that once we quit, many of these issues could actually resolve. However, the damage to the body as a result of mixing alcohol with these health problems and medications can make for a longer physical recovery.

The effects of neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons in the nervous system to adapt to changes. Recent research shows that our neurons have the ability to grow or make new connections, hence they are malleable and have plasticity. This means, our nervous system has the capacity to create different connections based on our behaviors and external stimuli. This is both good news and bad news for alcoholics.

On the one hand, our alcohol habit can become strengthened due to creating new connections in our nervous system that support use. In fact, according to a 2015 review published in Alcohol research, “evidence suggests that chronic, heavy alcohol consumption is related to neuronal changes that target critical central nervous system (CNS) functions governing homeostasis, emotion regulation, and decision-making. These changes, in turn, may make it significantly more challenging for people to stop drinking and may result in various comorbid, psychological, and physiological symptoms.”

But on the other hand, the review also discusses that the act of not drinking can strengthen neuroplastic changes aimed at supporting our recovery. However, the researchers explain that people who have consumed very high amounts of alcohol over a longer period of time may have less ability to abstain from alcohol than others with less severe alcoholism. And this effect is mediated by neuroplastic changes in the brain that are difficult to rewire. Unfortunately, this research shows that the nervous system may be the last to recover once we quit drinking.

Can other organs recover?

Yes, they can. The best news about alcohol recovery is that our organs can and do recover eventually.

Alcohol is notoriously hard on the heart and can cause increased blood pressure and electrical disturbances even in low doses. These issues usually resolve after a few months of sobriety so long as the person is fairly healthy, to begin with.

Alcohol causes a lot of skin issues due to inflammation, swelling, reduced nutritive absorption, and electrolyte issues. These issues are usually resolved within several months of achieving sobriety.

Lastly, I’ve written extensively on the effects of alcohol on the liver. Unfortunately, for some people excessive alcohol use can damage the liver beyond repair once the damage becomes too entrenched. However, for those with a good amount of healthy liver cells left, the liver can regenerate and create new healthy liver cells once the person commits to sobriety. It will take some work and committment to eating well, getting enough rest, and not taking hepatotoxic medications or drugs.

It’s important to know though, that liver damage can cause a cascade of other health problems that may make physical recovery more challenging. This doesn’t mean all is lost, it just means that some people with alcoholic liver damage may need more time to recover than others.

The gastrointestinal system is also connected to liver health in alcoholism. Excessive alcohol use is most certainly hard on the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, liver, and intestines. Alcohol causes slowed metabolism and digestion, reduced nutrient absorption, increased acid production, gastritis, and inflammation. Almost any person who abuses alcohol will have issues with the gastrointestinal system. Thankfully, with sobriety, many of these issues resolve themselves fairly quickly.

However, the liver and pancreas may have sustained permanent damagedepending on the level of alcohol abuse. But as I said above, the liver can regenerate and the healthy cells can make up for the damaged ones so long as the person is relatively healthy otherwise. Unfortunately the pancreas does not regenerate and acute or chronic pancreatitis from alcoholism can eventually be fatal, especially if alcohol use continues. However, with sobriety, the inflammation in the pancreas can resolve.

What do you need to know if you’ve recently quit drinking alcohol?

Before you quit drinking, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to get a full physical and tell your doctor how much you drank, how often, and how many years you kept that pattern. This way, the doctor can have a baseline of your health and can accurately diagnose any health issues that may have surfaced due to the drinking (i.e. liver issues). The doctor can also help you through the withdrawal process safely.

Once you know where your health is at, you can have a better idea of how long it may take to fully recover. As mentioned above, the nervous system may take the longest, and depending on how much you drank and how long, the nervous system may never fully recover.

It’s good to give yourself at least a year of sobriety before you can assess how well your body has recovered from alcohol abuse. Self-care is paramount and this includes eating healthy, sleeping well, reducing stress, and finding a way to maintain your sobriety in whatever way works for you.

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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.


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