After the hectic holidays and New Year, you might be planning to abstain from alcohol for Dry January — to reset for the year ahead, give your body a break, or simply save a little money. While you can expect various aspects of your health, including your gut composition and your immune system, to change after an entire month of sobriety, experts tell Bustle that just one week without alcohol may change your body in small ways. The extent of those changes, though, depends a lot on how much you were drinking before Dry January — and to see real change, you'll need to stay the course for the rest of the month.
"Some people may find that a week of sobriety affects their body," Dr. George Koob, Ph.D, president of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, tells Bustle. Most studies on sobriety focus on the longer-term effects of going sober, from months to years, so there isn't a firm picture of what sobriety looks like after a single week from a research standpoint. "One week is a very short time period," Koob says. You shouldn't expect to feel completely different in your first week abstaining from alcohol.
Some people may begin to experience some positive effects of sobriety in their first week. Koob tells Bustle that decreased stomach irritation, better sleep, and more exercise are common longer-term reactions to sobriety, and that some people may experience them more quickly than others. "Research shows that alcohol causes you to feel more sedated, but interferes with the quality of sleep, so a week of sobriety can restore standard sleep patterns and help you feel better rested," Dr. Joseph R. Volpicelli M.D. Ph.D., executive director at the Institute of Addiction Medicine, tells Bustle.
Sleep quality can show a particularly marked improvement in just seven days. According to research published in Handbook of Clinical Neurology in 2014, drinking alcohol before bed can change sleep patterns significantly, decreasing REM sleep and increasing night wakefulness by shifting the electrical wavelengths in the brain. That's why you feel so tired even after sleeping for ages after a heavy night out. For most of us, going to bed sober can roll back these effects pretty rapidly and restore a more natural sleep pattern.
Another area that may show change relatively quickly is the liver. "One study reports amelioration of elevated liver enzymes that are associated with drinking," Koob tells Bustle. These enzymes are signals that the liver is under oxidative stress as it tries to process alcohol, and when you're sober, they begin to reduce in number. However, how fast their levels plummet depends on how much you've been drinking over time, and whether you've damaged your liver in any way because of alcohol. For very heavy drinkers, a week of sobriety likely won't produce much change in liver enzyme levels; for lighter drinkers, it might show more results.
Your brain may also recover with the quickness. "Eliminating alcohol for just one week can result in improved mental acuity — the ability to problem solve, make better decisions, learn, concentrate and even be creative," Dr. Lawrence Weinstein M.D., Chief Medical Officer at American Addiction Centers, tells Bustle. Your mood and relationships with others may pick up, too. "A week of sobriety can help improve mood, social relationships, and increased productivity," Dr. Volpicelli says.
Heavier drinkers may also experience a more difficult side effect of Dry January in the first week of sobriety: the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. If, in the first week or two of going sober, you experience shaking, headaches, nausea, increased anxiety, or insomnia, it's possibly a signal that you were ingesting too much alcohol and your body is now struggling to adjust to life without it.
"If you drink a lot and you abruptly stop drinking, that can be dangerous," Koob tells Bustle. "If you’re a moderate to heavy drinker, you may want to consider professional help, rather than suddenly stopping drinking."
To get the full benefits of sobriety in Dry January — including better energy, a healthier gut, and clear skin — one week isn't enough. Four weeks of sobriety is far more effective than just one, Koob tells Bustle. But if you feel at all different during that first week, then you might be on to something. "I think the most important thing is if you feel better in any shape or form, then that’s an opportunity to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol," he says. If one week of sobriety leaves you feeling clearer, happier, and more well-rested, it's worth trying out the rest of the month and seeing what else might result.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
Betrapally, N. S., Gillevet, P. M., & Bajaj, J. S. (2016). Changes in the Intestinal Microbiome and Alcoholic and Nonalcoholic Liver Diseases: Causes or Effects?. Gastroenterology, 150(8), 1745–1755.e3. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2016.02.073
Mehta G, Macdonald S, Cronberg A, et al. (2018) Short-term abstinence from alcohol and changes in cardiovascular risk factors, liver function tests and cancer-related growth factors: a prospective observational study BMJ Open. 8, e020673. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020673
Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155.
Dr. George Koob Ph.D.
Dr. Joseph R. Volpicelli M.D. Ph.D.
Dr. Lawrence Weinstein M.D.
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