I thought it would be useful to set out a timeline so you know what you can expect when you stop drinking, and most importantly when you start feeling human again.
There are four main physiological processes you need to go through before you wake up with that feeling of emerging from a cocoon into a brighter, better world (in fact this is simply how you feel when you stop poisoning yourself and allow your brain to get back on an even keel). Let’s look at these three processes in order.
1. The Alcohol.
The first and most obvious one is the alcohol needs to leave your system. On average it takes one hour for your liver to process one unit of alcohol (one unit being 25ml / 0.85oz of spirits, 76ml / 2.5oz of wine, or 250ml / 8.5oz of beer). So if you’ve drunk 3 bottles of spirits it could take around three and a half days for that alcohol to be processed. Most people probably won’t be drinking to that level, but most people, particularly if they are drinking outside of their home, won’t really have any idea how much they have drunk. A good rule of thumb is that the average person will need about 24 hours to rid themselves of all the alcohol.
2. Excess Stimulants.
The brain has its own supply of drugs, hormones and chemicals that it releases at exactly the right times and in exactly the right quantities to keep us feeling mentally confident, healthy and resilient. Alcohol is a depressant (and when I use the term depressant I am using it in its chemical sense, meaning something that ‘depresses’, or inhibits, nerve activity). This is why one of the short-term effects of drinking is to leave us feeling more relaxed than we did previously.
The problem is that the brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing its own naturally occurring stimulants (like cortisol). When the alcohol has been processed these excess stimulants will remain for some time after. This is the period after drinking where we feel anxious, troubled, upset, shaky, and even depressed. It is simply caused by the fact that we have excess stimulants in our system leaving our brains in disarray; in introducing alcohol into our system we have upset the delicate chemical balance going on in our brains and body.
More detail on this process and its effects can be found in Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can find here.
One of the key parts of this process is that over time our brains create and secrete more and more of these stimulants to counter the ever-increasing amounts of alcohol that we drink (this is how we can drink more and more as the years go by). How long these stimulants will take to leave your body will depend on both the individual (long-term heavier drinkers will have more of these than lighter drinkers) and the amount drunk in the previous session. For this reason, it is not possible to put a firm time frame on it but the majority of people with be through this stage within 24 hours, the worst case being around 72 hours (so 1 to 3 days).
3. The Final Balancing.
The above 2 stages will be the end of the process for intermittent, binge drinkers. However, for people who drink regularly (ie every day or most days) there is a final stage to go through. As you can see from the above, if you are drinking every day you are simply yo-yo-ing between the ‘excess stimulant’ phase and the drinking phase. They never actually rid themselves of the stimulants (they are drinking and causing the brain to secrete more stimulants before the last lot has been processed). So after 2 to six days of not drinking the stimulants are finally processed and are not replaced. Because the individual will have become used to having these excess stimulants inside of them virtually all the time, and because these excess stimulants are now gone, they will feel very tired and lethargic. It is much the same process as if they were drinking 8 or 9 cups of strong coffee every day and suddenly cut it out. It can take up to 3 weeks for the brain to acclimatise to this.
Whether you are going through the first two phases only, or all three of them, there is one final stage you also need to go through before you go back to feeling positive and confident again. This is to get a good night’s sleep. Alcohol has an extremely detrimental effect on our sleep. More detail on this can be found here.
So the short answer is that it can take a few weeks to start to really feel the benefits of not drinking, but this is dependent on your being able to get the sleep you need. The best advice for this period is eat what you like, get plenty of fluids, exercise if you can, and sleep as much as you need to.