I thought it would be useful to set out a time line 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 a 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 then 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 along 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-yoing 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 for 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 nights 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.
Thanks so much, I find these emails so informative and reinforces why I don’t drink. I’m curious about why I found towards the end of my drinking I didn’t experience being able to drink more and tolerate more, quite the opposite. I found my tolerance was less and I also seemed to loose the ability to notice my intoxication level hence blacked out a lot more than I did when I was younger when I felt like I could drink all night and still have my wits about me to a degree.
Yes I experienced exactly the same things. Blackout on same amounts of alcohol that would not have stole my memory 12 months ago, and at an alarmingly fast rate of progression. I would like to know the reasons.
Thank you !
Both my husband and I stopped drinking nearly 8 weeks ago. I think for a lighter drinker (we were weekend bingers) it takes a little while longer to truly feel the benefits. We’d spent years teaching our bodies to fluctuate through a week of drinking and withdrawing. The last 2 weeks we have both felt a more balanced sense of calm come over us and the quality of sleep really has improved significantly just recently. Obviously it’s different for everyone but the benefits may take a little while to show through.
Thank you William,
This message serves as a great reminder that I never want to go back to this poison. I keep you in my ear for when the fantasy comes ( just one drink) although it comes less and less.
However, my goal of 8 hours sleep is not there yet after 4 mos plus of AF. I get 6-7 straight through most nights. Thank you for taking the time to address some of these elements of the process, so helpful and life saving for some.
I finally stopped drinking a year ago. I’d drunk nearly every day for 40 of my 55 years. Physiologically, I settled down after a week – even though my final session involved three litres of vodka, two bottles of cherry brandy and a half bottle of gin in just three days.
I consider myself exceptionally lucky. All my blood levels taken a month after my last drink were in the normal range. I’m only 5ft, and as a woman, my excesses should have inflicted some significant damage on me. I stopped only when it sank in – for once – that my adored stepchildren would eventually give me up as a lost cause.
So I went to AA. For me, to my astonishment, it works. I don’t feel the need to go anymore, but I do because I love the people in my group.
But what compels me to write here is that it’s taken a solid year for the triggers to begin fading. Now, at moments when I’d have craved a drink previously, I find that now I would actually prefer ice cream. I didn’t realise that my brain needed time to reroute itself. Unbroken, solid time for those old neural pathways to fade and become overgrown while I forged new paths. In the past I used to stop for a while and then start again because I was convinced I’d never be able to prioritise anything over alcohol… in fact, I just hadn’t stopped for long enough to grasp that I needed to give my brain a chance.
So when I saw your post, I thought you were talking about the long term. And I think it’s crucial to take this into account if you’re a heavy drinker like I was, just in case you end up see-sawing between drinking and not drinking because (as I did) you think coming through the physical/mental withdrawal is the end of the problem.
Thanks for sharing your story and your experience. Today is day 1 for me as its Feb and Im doing Feb Free but really deep down I think my relationship with alcohol needs to stop. How are you going? You still winning? How do you feel?
Thank you for this very timely info. Today I’m starting at day 1 again but it’s the 1st day of spring here in Australia so I’m hopeful the new season will also spur me on in a chapter of life.
Such great insights in your book, and a wonderful resource for those who struggle with this without understanding what they are struggling with. Thank you.
As a binger drinker who drank themselves into unconsciousness every friday (and occasionally a Saturday aswell) for 10 years aged 12 to 22 it took me roughly two months to begin feeling human again, the worst aspect was mainly anxiety though, my God it was brutal! However the rewards were well worth it as feelings you haven’t felt in years re-emerge. The body truly is a remarkable creation in the way it is able to recover from the damage inflicted on it by a deceptive poison, good luck to everyone on their journay to sobriety.
Hi I am on my fifth day now and it is 4:24 a.m. I have to go to work now and I have not slept a wink. I did not get extremely sick yet, I am still waiting for it to sneak up on me. I just can’t sleep at all. I feel dissociated with reality and confused a lot. Gee I guess I am feeling sick. Well I was expecting to get the shakes and feel absolutely terrible. I easily have been drinking at least 8 beers a day for the past year. I was on opiates and quit them… only to turn to alcohol even stronger then when I was on the opiates. I really want to give myself the respect on knowing what it is like to be substance free for the first time in my life. This is a big breakthrough for me. I am taking it one day at a time. Wish me luck, because I wish nothing but happiness and healthiness to everyone. May God give us all strength to live again.
Odd that it said 9:39 am. It is 4:36 am. Strange
I had two years and 7 months off and went back to drinking during the pandemic. After an epic binge at a wedding this past weekend, I’m ready to go back to being alcohol free this time I hope for good. Still feeling lethargic and have brain fog 4 days later…. I wanted to die on Sunday I was so hungover.. I can’t believe that happened again. It’s madness and that stuff is just literally poison. You can dress it up in pretty bottles but at the end of the day it doesn’t offer us anything good.
This is exactly what happened to me!
I am a 61 year old male who was a life long heavy drinker. I have quit numerous times over the years, but I currently am 90 days in and I’m totally committed to remaining sober. Discovering William’s book was clearly the difference for me, as I found it incredibly powerful to finally understand what was happening to me and why. Even after 90 days in, I am still struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, mostly at night. At times, it has been horrific. I continue to have faith that my mind will eventually get used to the absence of alcohol and I will find peace. It gives me strength and hope to read about others who continue to march forward in the face of these demons. Thank you all.