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What does alcohol do to your body – and what happens when you cut down?

Last updated:
Wed, Dec 22, 2021
Dr Nikki Ramskill, a Livi GP, explains the effects of alcohol on the body and what really happens when you cut down

It’s no secret that alcohol has a detrimental effect on your body. As well as the hangover that shows up the next morning, alcohol can affect both your physical and mental health.

In the long term, it can increase your risk of cancer, dementia, heart disease and stroke. There’s also evidence that alcohol can impair your memory and reduce fertility.

The good news is that cutting back or giving up alcohol comes with clear benefits to your health – often within just 1 week. And with more of us considering going sober than ever before, now’s a great time to be more conscious of your drinking.

How do I know if my drinking is causing damage to my health?

‘We might not realise that our drinking is problematic because aside from a hangover, you can’t tell what’s going on under the surface until it becomes a problem,’ explains Dr Nikki Ramskill, a Livi GP. ‘If you’re regularly drinking above the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week, the negative effects will reveal themselves over time.

‘Fortunately, there are lots of ways to reduce your alcohol consumption, including having some drink-free days and reducing your glass size to stay within the advice on safe drinking.’

How long does alcohol stay in my system?

When you drink alcohol, it passes rapidly into your bloodstream through the stomach and travels to every part of your body – affecting your brain, liver, kidneys and lungs.

‘Alcohol will stay in the body for different lengths of time depending on your gender, size, age, how regularly you drink and whether you’ve eaten,’ explains Dr Ramskill.

‘It takes approximately 1 hour for 1 unit of alcohol to leave your body. So, if you’ve had 8 pints of ordinary strength beer (which constitutes 2 units of alcohol), and stopped drinking at midnight, the alcohol won’t be out of your body until about 4pm the next day.

‘Once alcohol is in your system, your liver breaks it down, or metabolises it, by producing a special enzyme.’

What happens if I cut down on alcohol?

If you cut back or stop drinking alcohol, there are plenty of short- and long-term benefits.

After 1 week:

Your sleep will improve

‘There’s a common misconception that alcohol improves sleep,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘It may help you drift off, but the effects of alcohol mean you’ll get less restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is essential for your health.’

After just 1 week of no alcohol, your REM cycle will likely return to normal. You can expect to feel more rested and notice an improvement in your mood and cognitive function. ‘You may notice that your dreams are more vivid or that you're starting to dream again,’ says Dr Ramskill.

Your skin may appear healthier

‘When the body metabolises alcohol, it releases a by-product called acetaldehyde before it is broken down to a less toxic product and removed from the body,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘Acetaldehyde is toxic to your bodily tissues. It causes you to become dehydrated and increases your chance of skin breakouts.’

By cutting down on alcohol, you may notice your skin improves, including any issues with redness like rosacea. One study found that increased consumption of alcohol is associated with a higher risk of rosacea in women.

After 1 month:

You’ll find it easier to maintain a healthy weight

Alcohol has a high calorie count. Just 1 standard glass of wine has 133 calories, while a pint of beer has 239 – about the same as a Mars bar. ‘Alcohol contains lots of calories that don’t offer any nutritional value. These “empty calories” are converted into fat stores, which you'll notice on your waistline,’ explains Dr Ramskill.

After 1 month of not drinking as much, your body may start to shed excess fat due to all the calories you save.

The damage to your liver will be reversed

The effects of alcohol can lead to alcohol-related fatty liver disease. ‘The liver works hard at eliminating toxins from the body. It also performs lots of other really useful functions to help our body function,’ explains Dr Ramskill.

‘Your liver needs to work harder to break down alcohol. A fatty liver can reduce its ability to perform vital functions, leading you to feel sluggish.’

After only 2 weeks of abstaining from alcohol, your liver starts to regenerate. ‘Within 4-8 weeks your liver may be fully recovered,’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘It just depends on how much you drink and what state it was in to begin with.’

Your mental health may improve

While alcohol may initially make you feel more confident and less anxious, in the long term it can make you more vulnerable to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Alcohol can disrupt the balance of chemicals and processes in your brain and affect your thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

‘Alcohol is a depressant, so people who already have mental health problems may find that this gets worse,’ says Dr Ramskill.

After 4 weeks, your mood will start to improve and you may notice that you have more resilience to cope with life in general.

After 1 year:

Your blood pressure will lower

Regularly drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. ‘Having high blood pressure puts you at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease because it puts strain on the heart muscle,’ says Dr Ramskill. One large genetic study found that even light-to-moderate drinking increases blood pressure and the chances of having a stroke.

‘Across a year, abstaining from alcohol will lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke or having a heart attack,’ explains Dr Ramskill.

Your memory will improve

Alcohol can affect the function of your hippocampus – the part of your brain that forms and stores memory. ‘Drinking too much can also lead to brain damage and may increase your risk of developing dementia,’ says Dr Ramskill.

However, research suggests that when you stop drinking, some of the brain damage that long-time alcohol can cause may reverse.

How can I cut down on alcohol?

Giving up alcohol can be difficult, but the benefits can make it worth the effort. If you’re finding it challenging, here are some ways to help:

  • Stay hydrated by swapping every second drink for water or a soft drink
  • Have several drink-free days a week
  • Let your family and friends know that you want to cut down to encourage their support
  • Go for a drink that’s lower in strength (ABV in %) and opt for a smaller wine glass than usual
  • When you’re going out, take a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you’re struggling to reduce your drinking, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor. It’s also worth booking an appointment if you experience any of the following:

  • You’re worried about your relationship with alcohol
  • Your drinking is causing arguments with family, friends or colleagues
  • You can’t say no to alcohol
  • You need to drink more to achieve the same effects
  • You’re struggling with sleep

This article has been medically approved by Livi GP, Dr Nikki Ramskill.

See a GP for alcohol advice

If you’d like to cut down on alcohol but need some personal support, book an appointment to speak to a doctor.
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