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What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Drinking?

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on 9/11/2023

When you quit long-term drinking, your brain chemistry and mental functioning undergo drastic changes, causing difficult withdrawal symptoms and cravings. 

But there’s good news: our alcohol addiction treatment program offers medical support, therapy, and comprehensive aftercare to help you through the recovery journey. 

Table of Contents

Long-term alcohol abuse damages the brain. It can lead to impaired memory, judgment, and emotional control. Luckily, our brain is plastic, and when given the chance, it can heal and recover

Curious to learn what exactly happens inside your brain when you call it quits with drinking? 

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Alcohol has many negative effects on the brain. It impacts both structure and function, causing long-term damage that undermines cognitive abilities, mood, and behavior. 

Several brain regions seem particularly vulnerable to excessive amounts of alcohol.

  • The frontal lobe controls judgment, planning, and impulses. When you drink, alcohol clouds your judgment, reduces inhibitions, and increases impulsive behaviors.
  • The cerebellum coordinates movements and balance. Alcohol tends to disrupt the critical function of the cerebellum, causing clumsiness, a lack of coordination, and slurred speech. 
  • The hippocampus is responsible for forming memories, both short-term and long-term. Too much drinking on a regular basis inhibits the hippocampus, leading to blackouts. That’s why you often don’t remember doing or saying something when drunk. 
  • The hypothalamus regulates many important bodily processes and emotions. By suppressing the hypothalamus, alcohol disrupts chemical signaling and impairs the body’s control over body temperature, hunger, sex drive, and mood.

Because alcohol affects these critical brain regions and their functions, heavy drinking can have a wide range of negative effects on your brain. 

Alcohol Impairs Emotional Regulation

Alcohol dependance can significantly interfere with your emotional regulation. This is the consequence of its adverse effects on the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that helps us regulate emotions. 

According to research, alcohol suppresses prefrontal activity and executive functioning. This makes it harder for people to manage strong emotional responses appropriately. 

Alcohol Brain Fog and Memory Loss

Chronic alcohol use negatively impacts memory and causes “brain fog.” The hippocampus—the part of the brain where we form memories—suffers under heavy alcohol use and can’t perform its basic function. 

The way alcohol impacts memory may also have something to do with glutamate. Glutamate is a major excitatory neurotransmitter involved in learning, memory, and brain plasticity. Alcohol has inhibitory effects on glutamate, impairing cognitive functions and making it difficult to form memories. 

Acute alcohol exposure functionally antagonizes glutamatergic activity and its receptors. Chronic alcohol exposure downregulates glutamate transporters, which leads to excessive glutamate levels and activity. Excessive glutamate activity, in turn, can lead to excitotoxicity/neurotoxicity. In addition, this excessive [central nervous system] glutamate activity alters synaptic plasticity, learning, memory, and stimulus conditioning associated with the development of alcohol and substance use disorders. (Bell, et. al.)

Glutamate isn’t the only neurotransmitter alcohol affects. 

How Does Alcohol Affect Dopamine?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow neurons to signal each other. They play important roles in cognition, movement, mood, reward, and other brain functions. According to research, alcohol hijacks the brain’s reward and stress pathways by altering neurotransmitter activity, which drives addictive behaviors that can eventually lead to alcoholism.

Short-term alcohol consumption depresses brain function by altering the balance between inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmission. Specifically, alcohol can act as a depressant by increasing inhibitory neurotransmission, by decreasing excitatory neurotransmission, or through a combination of both. 

Dopamine is critical for motivation, reward, pleasure, and motor functions. Apart from these vital functions, dopamine also seems to be critical for several aspects of brain function. 

  • It helps us regulate emotional responses.
  • It plays a crucial role in memory, focus, and attention. 
  • Dopamine release is linked to positive mood and cognitive enhancement.
  • Dopamine helps control smooth, purposeful muscle movements and coordination. Disruption in the activity of dopamine receptors can lead to tremors or difficulty initiating movement.

When consumed, alcohol artificially increases dopamine levels in the brain’s reward system. This provides a temporarily pleasurable “high” and reinforces drinking behaviors. 

A 2021 study on dopamine and alcohol use disorder found that chronic alcohol use can disrupt dopamine signaling in the brain. This may contribute to inflexible alcohol consumption behaviors and potentially affect learning and cognitive flexibility. 

Quitting is challenging, but the brain’s amazing plasticity allows it to form new, healthy connections over time. With the right help, you or your loved one can regain control and heal the brain from alcoholism. Contact us today to start your recovery.

Let’s see what happens when alcohol is removed and the brain starts its recovery process.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Quit Drinking?

Heavy drinking for years can do a number on your brain. Alcohol impacts how you think, feel, and act in some pretty damaging ways. Luckily, the brain can bounce back if you stop drinking, but not without going through some changes as it adjusts. 

Withdrawal Symptoms

In the first few weeks after quitting daily drinking, alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur. Your brain’s chemistry tries to adjust to the lack of alcohol. The adjustment isn’t easy, though. It can cause symptoms like:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Cravings 
  • Disorientation
  • In severe cases, hallucinations and seizures
  • Impaired cognition (e.g., issues with attention, memory, verbal fluency, and problem-solving)

Alcohol withdrawal can be serious and potentially life-threatening, especially for individuals with a history of heavy and prolonged alcohol consumption.

Structural Brain Changes

As your brain tries to adjust to the lack of alcohol, it undergoes structural changes. This means that certain brain areas affected by heavy drinking can repair and recover volume.

Alcohol can actually damage and shrink certain areas of your brain that are key for good thinking and self-control. A 2022 study found that “heavy alcohol consumption has been associated with brain atrophy, neuronal loss, and poorer white matter fiber integrity.”

Here are some key structural brain changes that occur when someone stops drinking alcohol:

  1. Prolonged alcohol abuse can result in hippocampal shrinkage, which can lead to memory deficits. When alcohol consumption is discontinued, the hippocampus can begin to repair and regenerate, leading to a partial recovery of its volume and function. The recovery of the hippocampus means improved memory and cognitive abilities.
  2. Chronic alcohol abuse can disrupt white matter integrity and reduce the coherence and efficiency of information processing. White matter in the brain consists of myelinated nerve fibers that facilitate communication between different brain regions. When alcohol is no longer consumed, the brain has the potential to undergo remyelination, repairing the damaged white matter tracts and improving communication between brain regions.
  3. Another drastic change that occurs after quitting drinking is the reduction in the size of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order cognitive functions such as impulse control, decision-making, and judgment. The shrinkage of this region can result in decreased cognitive abilities and emotional regulation. With sobriety, the brain has the potential to undergo structural remodeling (partial recovery of the prefrontal cortex’s size and functionality) and neurogenesis (creation of new neurons). 
  4. The prefrontal cortex belongs to a larger brain region called the frontal lobe. Excessive drinking can cause shrinkage and loss of tissue in these frontal regions, resulting in impaired executive functions. According to a team of Japanese researchers, “heavy drinkers were at a higher risk [of frontal lobe shrinkage] compared with abstainers. The contributory rate of alcohol consumption for frontal lobe shrinkage was 11.3%.” However, the frontal lobe has the capacity to regenerate and regrow when alcohol is no longer consumed. Through a process called neurogenesis, new neurons can form in the prefrontal cortex after sobriety begins. This structural rebuilding helps restore volume and function that were lost due to alcohol.
  5. Alcohol abuse has been associated with an enlargement of the brain’s ventricles, the fluid-filled spaces within the brain. Following discontinuation, a process called “brain volume recovery” may occur. Brain volume recovery refers to a gradual normalization of ventricular size as brain tissue regains its normal hydration levels.

It may be difficult to understand what your brain is going through when you decide to put your alcohol addiction behind you. Our compassionate, skilled professionals are ready to help you every step of the way at our drug and alcohol rehab center.

Changes in Cognition

With proper support, the brain demonstrates a remarkable ability to recover cognitive functions diminished by alcoholism. Two main things that happen when you ditch the bottle are the restoration of your cognitive function and your brain’s neuroplasticity. 

You may have heard before that our brains are plastic. That means it has a superpower to reorganize and form new neural connections. The brain’s plasticity is crucial for learning, memory, and adapting to changes. However, when alcohol consumption is stopped, the brain can slowly recover and regain its plasticity, allowing for improved cognitive function and the restoration of damaged neural pathways.

Prolonged alcohol abuse can significantly impair cognitive function. Common cognitive deficits associated with heavy alcohol consumption include: 

  • Memory problems
  • Difficulties with attention and concentration
  • Decreased information processing speed
  • Impaired executive functions

With abstinence from alcohol, many of these cognitive deficits can improve as the brain undergoes repair and begins to function more optimally.

Changes in Mental Health

Alcohol abuse can disrupt emotional regulation, leading to mood swings and poor mental health. After quitting alcohol, individuals often have better control over their emotions and moods. This may be linked to the brain’s restoration of neurotransmitter balance and the normalization of emotional processing centers.

Here’s what happens to your mental health when you stop drinking:

  • You experience psychological difficulties as your brain adjusts to abstinence. 
  • Your mood elevates.
  • You feel less stressed and anxious. 
  • You start to sleep better. 
  • You reach emotional stability. 
  • You have a lower risk of developing mental health issues. 

Neurotransmitters Restore to Balance

Remember neurotransmitters? These chemical messengers are heavily affected by excessive amounts of alcohol. But quitting alcohol may restore balance in the levels and functions of neurotransmitters. 

  1. First and foremost, levels of dopamine are restored. Drinking increases the release of dopamine, which boosts your reward system and intensifies feelings of happiness. However, the more you drink, the less regulated levels of dopamine become. When you stop drinking altogether, the dopaminergic system readjusts. 
  2. The second neurotransmitter that restores its levels and function after you stop drinking is gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter: it has soothing effects on the brain. With chronic alcohol consumption, the brain adapts by reducing its own production of GABA and becoming less responsive to its effects. When alcohol is no longer in the picture, GABA levels drop significantly, leading to increased excitability in the brain. 
  3. Alcohol inhibits the activity of glutamate, the polar opposite of GABA. As an excitatory neurotransmitter involved in brain arousal and cognitive function, glutamate’s main job is to facilitate and promote brain arousal, cognitive function, and information transmission between nerve cells. Heavy drinking disrupts the balance between GABA and glutamate, but when alcohol is stopped, the brain attempts to restore the balance and increase glutamate activity. 
  4. Alcohol also affects serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. While alcohol consumption initially increases serotonin release, contributing to a temporary mood elevation, chronic alcohol use can have the opposite effect over time. When you cease alcohol consumption, the brain naturally seeks to restore serotonin levels, which may contribute to mood fluctuations, anxiety, and depression during alcohol withdrawal.

The good news is that, when alcohol is removed, your brain experiences recovery, as the levels of neurotransmitters return to balance. Ending alcohol dependence may be extremely difficult, but with proper treatment and hard work, you can restore the neurochemical balance and give your brain the chance to recover. 

We’re here to facilitate your restoration to well-being. The recovery process begins with alcohol detox. Detox is an essential first step, where we safely and comfortably help your body cleanse from alcohol toxins and bring harmony to your brain’s chemical wiring. The medical professionals at our detox center closely monitor your progress to ensure a smooth and safe detox experience.

How Do You Feel When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?

When you first decide to stop drinking alcohol, it’s quite normal to encounter a range of physical and emotional challenges. Each person who quits drinking may experience mild or severe withdrawal symptoms. These depend on factors like how long they’ve been drinking, their genetics, and their overall health.

But there may be some shared symptoms of quitting alcohol. 

What Happens to Your Brain One Week After You Stop Drinking?

The first one to two weeks are known as withdrawal. The abrupt absence of alcohol, especially if you’ve been a heavy drinker, can lead to heightened anxiety, restlessness, and irritability. 

Your brain’s balance of neurotransmitters is disrupted. GABA, which has a calming effect, is no longer suppressed by alcohol, leading to increased anxiety and restlessness. This makes you feel more irritable and on edge.

During this phase, alcohol cravings can be intense, making it difficult to resist the urge to drink. Your body works to eliminate the remaining alcohol, which may manifest as physical symptoms like nausea, sweating, and even tremors. 

Don’t be surprised if you start having trouble falling or staying asleep. 

What Happens to Your Brain Three Weeks After You Stop Drinking?

While three weeks may not seem like a huge chunk of time, your brain may actually begin to show signs of recovery.

  • Your sleep improves. Sleep disturbances may persist, yet many people experience better sleep quality compared to the initial days of withdrawal.
  • You may feel less stressed or anxious. The heightened anxiety and restlessness you felt in the early days may start to subside as your brain chemistry gradually stabilizes.
  • Your cognitive function and mental clarity often improve. The impact of alcohol on those vital neurotransmitters begins to diminish.
  • Cravings may still be present, but they tend to be less overwhelming as your body slowly adapts.

What Happens to Your Brain Three Months After You Stop Drinking?

Around the three-month mark of your alcohol abstinence, you may notice more positive changes in your brain and overall health. 

Many people report enhanced moods and reduced symptoms of depression. Your memory, concentration, and mental agility continue to improve as the brain heals from alcohol’s influence. This means no more brain fog. 

Your emotional resilience strengthens, equipping you to cope with stress more effectively without resorting to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

What Happens to Your Brain 6-12 Months After You Stop Drinking?

By the time you reach the six- to twelve-month milestone of sobriety, your brain has undergone significant positive transformations. 

  • Your brain’s neuroplasticity enhances your recovery and cognitive function. 
  • Memory recall and cognitive flexibility continue to improve, supporting overall mental sharpness. 
  • Emotional stability and resilience become more pronounced, reducing the likelihood of mood swings and emotional upheaval. 
  • Cravings for alcohol tend to become less frequent and less intense (although occasional triggers may still prompt them).

Can Alcohol Damage Your Brain Permanently?

The brains of chronic drinkers may be permanently damaged. Based on everything we know about the effects of alcohol on the brain, here’s what you need to know about how dangerous excessive alcohol consumption is:

  • Alcohol can permanently damage the brain through neurotoxicity. It acts as a neurotoxin, damaging and killing brain cells. Over time, this can lead to a decrease in overall brain volume and disrupt the normal functioning of brain regions. These neurotoxic effects can contribute to dementia and exacerbate conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Excessive drinking can shrink brain tissue by impairing neuron development and damaging white matter connectivity. This can impair cognitive skills even with abstinence.
  • Chronic heavy alcohol use can damage the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum, regions involved in executive functions.
  • Alcohol abuse is linked to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which causes permanent brain damage and memory loss due to vitamin B1 deficiency.
  • Even moderate drinking may increase brain shrinkage and reduce volume in areas like the hippocampus.

Do you want to stop drinking? Our residential treatment health care team can help you get sober and maintain your sobriety.

Ardu Recovery Center Can Help You End Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol-related brain damage can be difficult to recover from, but your brain has remarkable plasticity to repair itself when you stop drinking. Our treatment center helps people heal their brains as they embark on sobriety.

We take a multifaceted approach to nursing your neural pathways back to health. This involves therapy to enhance neuroplasticity—both group sessions to empower the healing social brain and individual psychotherapy to nurture areas like the prefrontal cortex.

Some of our patients prefer our holistic treatment methods. We help them delve into the underlying factors that contribute to their alcohol addiction. Practices like meditation, yoga and art therapy quiet stress pathways so new neurons can grow. 

Remember, you don’t have to face this alone. We are here to support you every step of the way. If you’re ready to take the first step toward a healthier, alcohol-free life, reach out to us today.

Alcohol FAQ

What happens to your brain when you drink every day and then stop?

When you suddenly stop drinking, it may cause some depressive effects, as the brain is left in an overactive, hyperexcitable state. 

While alcohol was consumed daily, the brain adapted to the constant intrusion of alcohol. It tried to counterbalance the depressive effects by increasing excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine while decreasing inhibitory ones like GABA. The abrupt lack of alcohol depresses dopamine production, slowing reaction times. Nerve cell death during drinking also reduces brain volume, impairing functions like memory.

With continued abstinence and healthy behaviors, the brain can exhibit significant self-healing. But some consequences like nerve cell death can linger. Supporting the brain’s natural recovery process with nutrition, exercise, sleep and treatment aids the return to wellness.

Does your brain heal when you quit drinking?

Your brain has the remarkable capacity to heal when you cease alcohol consumption. Alcohol misuse can lead to various cognitive impairments and mental health issues. However, research findings have shown that when you stop drinking, even for relatively short periods, your brain experiences the initial recovery process.

One critical aspect of this recovery is the restoration of brain volume. Extended periods of heavy drinking can lead to a reduction in brain matter, particularly in regions responsible for cognitive functions, memory, and emotional control. Over time, these areas may return to their normal volume, resulting in improvements in motor skills, behavior control, and rational decision-making.

Is six months sober good?

Six months of sobriety are a significant achievement in the journey of alcohol recovery. It’s a period during which the body and mind can undergo substantial positive changes.

Not drinking alcohol for six months can significantly benefit your physical health. Liver function returns to a more regular state, which means a reduced risk of liver diseases. As heavy alcohol intake is a known contributor to cardiovascular problems, heart disease risk may also decrease. 

Emotionally, you may start to experience a greater sense of well-being and emotional stability. Sobriety allows the brain’s dopamine systems to normalize, potentially alleviating feelings of sadness and anxiety. 

Overall, six months of sobriety is a commendable milestone that marks progress towards a healthier, happier life.

How long does it take for your brain to recover when you stop drinking?

The recovery of the brain after you cease alcohol consumption is a longer-lasting process and varies from person to person. For the majority of people, positive changes often become evident within months of sobriety.

After a year without alcohol, people typically experience a recovery of brain volume, particularly in areas responsible for cognitive function and memory. This recovery contributes to better motor skills, improved cognitive abilities, and more rational decision-making.

Notable improvements can also be seen in the neurological pathways. Having been disrupted by alcohol misuse, the neurological and neurochemical pathways start to rebalance, leading to better behavior control and emotional stability. 

What happens after a year of no alcohol?

After a year of abstaining from alcohol, individuals can expect significant positive changes in various aspects of their physical and mental health. One of the most noteworthy improvements is in the brain’s functionality and emotional well-being.

Neurologically, the brain continues to recover from the negative impacts of alcohol misuse. This can lead to better behavior control, more rational decision-making, and improved emotional stability. The influence of alcohol on dopamine, the brain’s pleasure neurotransmitter, begins to normalize, reducing feelings of sadness and anxiety.

Overall, a year of abstinence from alcohol marks a significant milestone in alcohol recovery, offering improved brain functionality, emotional stability, and physical well-being. 

What is considered heavy drinking?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking includes:

  • For women, consuming more than 3 alcoholic drinks on any day or more than 7 per week. 
  • For men, heavy drinking is defined as more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 per week.

A standard alcoholic drink is equivalent to about 175 ml of wine or 350 ml of beer. These amounts put both genders at increased risk for both short and long term physical consequences. Heavy drinking can also speed the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms when someone abruptly stops.

Other organizations, like the CDC, define heavy drinking as 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more for men. Binge drinking of 4 or more drinks within 2 hours also crosses the threshold for heavy intake.


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Alcohol and Central Glutamate Activity: What Goes Up Must Come Down? (2019, March 22). ScienceDirect. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-813125-1.00047-7

Valenzuela, C. F. (n.d.). Alcohol and Neurotransmitter Interactions. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826822/

Salinas, A. G., Mateo, Y., Cuzon Carlson, V. C., Stinnett, G. S., Luo, G., Seasholtz, A. F., Grant, K. A., & Lovinger, D. M. (2021, January 15). Long-term alcohol consumption alters dorsal striatal dopamine release and regulation by D2 dopamine receptors in rhesus macaques – Neuropsychopharmacology. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-00938-8

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