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5 Ways Quitting Drinking Affects Your Brain

The physical consequences of heavy alcohol use, such as liver damage and high blood pressure, are well known. Alcohol use at any level, however, is also bad news for the brain and affects men and women in different ways.

Even moderate users or those who have been drinking in excess for a short period of time can experience mental fog, anxiety, and mood changes.

For people who have alcohol use disorder, binge drink, or have been using alcohol for many years, brain changes affecting cognitive function and mood can become severe and debilitating.

The good news is that by quitting alcohol, even those who have spent years throwing off the balance of their brains can begin to heal and restore the brain’s natural function.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol is a widely consumed drug that affects the brain and body in various ways. When consumed, it passes through the bloodstream and reaches the brain, where it can alter neurotransmitter levels and brain chemistry. The consequences of alcohol on the brain can range from mild impairment to severe damage, depending on the frequency and amount of consumption.

Alcohol affects the brain by binding to the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, which are responsible for calming down the brain’s activity. This causes the slowing down of the central nervous system, resulting in symptoms such as impaired judgment, decreased coordination, and slurred speech. Additionally, alcohol also affects the brain’s reward system by increasing dopamine levels, leading to feelings of pleasure and euphoria.

Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to significant changes in the brain, including the loss of brain tissue, and a decrease in overall brain size. This can result in cognitive impairments such as memory loss, difficulty learning new information, and a reduced ability to plan and make decisions.

Statistics show that alcohol consumption is a prevalent issue globally. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is responsible for 3 million deaths globally each year, which accounts for 5.3% of all deaths. Additionally, alcohol consumption is responsible for over 5% of the global burden of disease, with alcohol-related disorders being the leading cause of disability among young people aged 15 to 49.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, roughly 14.5 million persons aged 18 and up had an alcohol use problem in 2019. This translates to approximately 5.8% of the population. Furthermore, excessive alcohol consumption is estimated to cost the United States economy over $249 billion annually in healthcare expenses, lost productivity, and criminal justice costs.

Alcohol consumption can severely affect the brain and body, ranging from short-term impairment to long-term damage. It is critical to understand the consequences of excessive alcohol intake and to get help if necessary. By doing so, individuals can reduce the negative impact of alcohol on their health and overall well-being.

How Fast Does the Brain Recover After Quitting Alcohol?

The human brain has an amazing ability to recuperate and rebuild itself after abstaining from alcohol. The rehabilitation process, however, might differ depending on the intensity and duration of alcohol misuse, age, overall health, and heredity.

The first phase in the rehabilitation process is detoxification, which entails eliminating all remnants of alcohol from the body. This can take several days or weeks, depending on the severity of the addiction. During this time, individuals may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, tremors, and seizures. Medically supervised detoxification can help manage these symptoms and ensure a safe and successful recovery.

Once the body is free of alcohol, the brain can begin to heal itself but long-term recovery from alcoholism requires continued support and lifestyle modifications. This can involve counseling, support groups, and healthy behaviors like regular exercise and a well-balanced diet.

It is important to note that recovery from alcohol addiction is a lifelong process, and the brain may continue to heal and recover for years after quitting. However, the earlier an individual seeks treatment and stops drinking, the greater the likelihood of a successful recovery and improved brain function.

Here Are Five Changes That Will Occur in Your Brain Once You Stop Drinking

1. Regeneration of the Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for many critical functions including reasoning, behavior control, memory, and motor function, takes a heavy hit when you drink in excess.

Years of alcohol abuse can damage this area of the brain extensively, leading to a wide variety of issues including memory loss and the inability to think rationally.

While people in early recovery may still suffer from these symptoms, as well as an inability to process large amounts of information, new cell growth will eventually begin to repair this damage as time passes.

Rational decision-making and impulse control are crucial in fighting addiction, and luckily these powerful functions of the brain will return as you begin to heal.

2. Dopamine Levels Begin to Normalize

Alcohol abuse creates a complex imbalance of dopamine in the brain.

Dopamine release is triggered when you engage in activities you find pleasurable, such as eating chocolate or playing sports, and it teaches your brain what actions to repeat, and eventually, to crave.

Alcohol use overloads the brain with dopamine, while also reducing the brain’s dopamine receptors in the process. When you first quit drinking, the lack of dopamine and diminished receptors can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Both excessively high and abnormally low levels of dopamine can have adverse effects, but over time your brain will begin to normalize dopamine levels as well as your brain’s response to the chemical without the intrusion of alcohol.

3. Motivation Returns

As mentioned above, early recovery might mean struggling with mood and overall mental wellness, but as your body and brain begin to heal, you will experience renewed motivation towards healthy habits in your life.

This means you will be able to take up new activities that boost your mood and stimulate cell growth in the brain, such as daily exercise.

The early days of sobriety can be draining and challenging for anyone recovering from addiction, but a balanced and healthy brain will return, and with it, a sense of heightened motivation towards positive goals.

4. Serotonin Production Increases

While the short-term effect of alcohol may boost serotonin, a chemical that increases feelings of happiness and wellbeing, the long-term repercussions of heavy alcohol use often include a decrease in serotonin production, leading to an increased chance of depression.

Once you quit drinking, serotonin production can eventually return to normal. If you continue to struggle with depressive symptoms during recovery, you may require medication.

By eliminating alcohol from the equation, you can better understand your mental health and determine what it is you need to feel your best.

5. Healthy Activity Returns as You Learn New Skills

For many chronic drinkers, alcohol becomes a crutch to handle many situations and emotions in daily life.  You may have used alcohol to become more outgoing, manage stress, or combat depression.

While alcohol isn’t a cure for any of these problems, it can numb your natural response to life’s circumstances and make it hard to function without it.  While early sobriety can be challenging, for this reason, experiencing life without alcohol means that you must learn new coping mechanisms and social skills.

This is an opportunity for your brain power to grow and evolve as you begin to participate in the same activities as you have before, but while sober.

Depending on how long you have been a heavy drinker, entering recovery may mean you are socializing and emotion-managing sober for the first time.

With the acquisition of each new coping skill and the evolution of emotional maturity, your brain builds new connections and creates pathways for healthy interactions in the future.

While the damage you can inflict on your brain with heavy alcohol use is disturbing, it is entirely possible to experience recovery from addiction and begin to heal from the inside out.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder at Renewal Lodge

Renewal Lodge by Burning Tree is a residential treatment center in Texas that offers a holistic approach to treating alcohol use disorder. Our program includes evidence-based therapies, 12-step philosophy, and physical fitness activities that address addiction’s physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects. With a focus on individualized treatment and support, Renewal Lodge can provide a path toward long-term recovery for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder.

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Dear Renewal Lodge Visitors,

My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

My journey of recovery brought this once homeless, shame-based, traumatized, insecure young man to a life far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered self-worth, the joy of helping others, the gifts of parenting and grandparenting, and most importantly the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life with integrity.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery is that I have the opportunity to give back and help others discover their self-worth, dignity, and the skills to fully live lives that they find truly meaningful. This is the inspiration for developing the skills of Mindfulness in Recovery® (MIR) to meet the needs of new generations struggling with alcohol and other substance use disorders. MIR is a set of evidence-based skills designed to help people fully integrate their tools of recovery in ways that are personalized, practical, and in alignment with their deepest values.

While we train counselors and therapists throughout the United States and abroad, I personally have chosen to work directly with the amazing team and clients at Renewal Lodge to develop the model MIR 12-step program for the nation. I choose Renewal Lodge because of the vision of its mission and the dedication of its team. Renewal Lodge is an extremely rare environment in which the staff embodies the very mindfulness and 12-step practices and skills they offer their clients. The results have been beyond my expectations. It is an honor to be here and I treasure my personal time with every client I meet.

With Gratitude,

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