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What happens to your body when you stop drinking alcohol?

By Anna Sayburn
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

'Dry January' has become a regular reaction to December excess over the last few years. What happens to your body if you stop drinking alcohol, even just for a month? Research suggests it could have quite an effect - but we don't know how long that lasts.

What does alcohol do?

Alcohol is a toxin, and acute alcohol poisoning can kill. The body uses enzymes to break alcohol (known as ethanol) down into acetaldehyde, a highly toxic compound, which is then broken down further into acetate, and finally into water and carbon dioxide. The organ that does the bulk of this work is the liver.

For light to moderate drinking, the liver can handle this work. It can process around one unit of alcohol an hour, although this varies a lot from person to person. However, alcohol does not just affect the liver. Drinking too much alcohol can disrupt your sleep, make you feel anxious and shaky, upset your stomach and even cause memory loss or blackouts. Alcohol is a diuretic, which is one reason why you have a dry mouth the morning after drinking too much alcohol. Dehydration may also contribute to the headache that tends to accompany a hangover.

Drink too much over a period of time, and you may put on weight from the empty calories in alcohol, and your skin may suffer from dehydration. If you are drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, your liver has a harder time keeping up. The first signs of this are fatty liver disease. The liver turns glucose into fat for storage. Alcohol interferes with the way the liver stores fat, and the liver cells get too full of fat. You may feel bloated and sick, and your abdomen may feel tender or sore.

Fatty liver is reversible, if you stop drinking and then keep to safer drinking guidelines, but fatty liver is the first step towards alcoholic liver disease. This happens when the liver becomes inflamed and scarred, and can no longer deal with the workload of breaking down the toxins in alcohol.

And, says Kevin Moore, professor of hepatology at London's Royal Free Hospital, that can happen to people who would not think of themselves as having a drink problem. "The majority of people who develop alcoholic liver disease are not alcoholic," he says. "They just drink too much." The eventual effect of liver disease, if it isn't halted or reversed, is severe cirrhosis (scarring) and death.

What happens when you stop?

There isn't a lot of research into how the body reacts when someone who regularly drinks alcohol just stops. Some of the best indicators come from research led by Professor Moore and the Royal Free team. They looked at the effects of a 'dry January' on 102 moderate drinkers. The full results of the study have yet to be published, but early results were presented at the 2015 American Association for the Study of Liver Disease conference.

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