What happens to the body after you stop drinking alcohol?

Normally, the body processes alcohol with enzymes. But if you drink heavily over time, the body reacts differently. We explain basic alcohol withdrawal AND alcohol metabolism here. Learn what happens after you stop drinking so that you know what’s going on in the body.

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What happens when heavy drinkers stop drinking?

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are caused by an acute over activity of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that helps manage the body’s response to stress. When you drink excessive amounts of alcohol, the central nervous system (CNS) has self-adjusted to the constant presence of alcohol in the body. The CNS learns to compensates for alcohol’s depressive effects on both brain function and the communication among nerve cells by acting in a hyperactive state. This is why when you stop drinking alcohol, and blood-alcohol level suddenly lowers, the brain remains in a hyperactive, or hyper-excited, state, causing alcohol withdrawal.

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal manifests when regular, heavy drinkers stop drinking or cut down on drinking. Withdrawal occurs only in people who are physically dependent on alcohol and whose bodies are accustomed to regular alcohol intake.

Symptoms of withdrawal after you stop drinking

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal usually appear in regular, high-dose drinkers as soon as blood alcohol level decreases significantly. Withdrawal from alcohol usually occurs within 5 – 10 hours after you take your last drink, but withdrawal symptoms have also been known to occur several days after the last drink.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to severe. Withdrawal can even threaten lives.  Alcohol withdrawal symptoms and how long alcohol withdrawal lasts vary by individual, but will generally be more intense the longer and harder you drink. If you keep reading, we explain how the body processes alcohol, and what happens during alcohol metabolism. Read on to learn how alcohol metabolism varies and why it is important for drinkers.

What is alcohol metabolism?

Alcohol metabolism is the way the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol from the body. Because each of our bodies is different, the way that we break down alcohol is different. But more importantly, individual variations in alcohol metabolism influence drinking related problems. The better your body can break down ethanol (the chemical name for alcohol), the more you are prone to drink, and to develop alcohol problems.

Alcohol metabolism 101

Alcohol is broken down and eliminated from the body in separate steps. The liver is the main organ used in the metabolism of alcohol. However, the brain, pancreas, and stomach also metabolize alcohol.

1. During step 1, chemicals called enzymes break ethanol (the chemical name for alcohol) into smaller compounds. Specifically, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) breaks down ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde (CH3CHO) in the liver.

2. In step 2, another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) breaks down the acetaldehyde into a less toxic compound called acetate (CH3COO-), also in the liver.

3. Acetate then is broken down to carbon dioxide and water and eliminated from the body.

4. Small amounts of alcohol also are removed by interacting with fatty acids to form compounds called fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEEs).

More on what causes hangovers here.

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Why is alcohol metabolism important?

The body can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol every hour. However, the amount of alcohol you can process varies widely between people and depends on a range of factors including body mass, environmental factors, liver size, and genetic differences in metabolizing enzymes. In other words, if you metabolize alcohol efficiently, you may be at higher risk for drinking problems.

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Reference sources: An update on alcohol metabolism
Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal and Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal publications from the NIAAA
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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