The first 18 months after you stop using alcohol are the time when your body is recovering from the physical effects of chronic drinking. During this period it’s important to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally to avoid relapse. Know that cravings usually occur in extreme moments, so being prepared for them will help keep your sobriety intact.
In the first phase of recovery, which lasts up to six months after you stop drinking , your body rids itself of all alcohol in the blood as well as its byproducts.
Your liver neutralizes alcohol’s chemical structure through oxidation. Since around one ounce of pure alcohol is produced for every ten ounces of blood, your liver must filter about two quarts of blood per minute to neutralize the alcohol.
During this period your body will also be getting rid of acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct of alcohol’s breakdown process. Acetaldehyde is responsible for some hangover effects like nausea and vomiting, headaches, rapid pulse rate, respiratory problems, flushed face and disorientation with objects that your eyes perceive. In the liver, acetaldehyde builds up when a person drinks too much, especially when liquor is taken on an empty stomach.
In addition to being toxic in its own right, acetaldehyde interferes with how your body breaks down and uses amino acids that are essential for brain function. The interruption causes a shortage of the neurotransmitters that the brain needs for communication with cells. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in your brain that transmit nerve impulses from one cell to another.
In the long term, acetaldehyde also damages liver cells and is believed to increase a person’s risk for mouth cancer, throat cancer and esophageal cancer. Over time a person who drinks a lot may also develop a deficiency in folate or vitamin B12, both of which are needed to produce healthy red blood cells.
In the second phase of recovery that lasts from six months to two years most people see a return to normalcy as their bodies break down acetaldehyde and most of alcohol’s byproducts.
At this time you will experience fewer withdrawal symptoms, though headaches may still occur. Most people also notice that they are sleeping better and have more energy than when they were drinking heavily.
Now you should start to regain your memory and concentration skills that were affected by chronic alcohol use . You’ll probably feel an increased sense of emotional stability during this period as well. Your body will also be producing the enzymes it needs to digest fats again.
As you continue your recovery during phase three, lasting two to five years , your liver restores itself completely and returns to its full functioning capacity. Liver function improves so much that some health care professionals may tell people who had hepatitis C before they quit drinking that their liver is now healthy enough that it’s okay for them to drink in moderation.
You should feel much better emotionally during this phase, though you may still experience some mood swings and feelings of anxiety. You might even find yourself easily irritated by family members or close friends. The good news is that your tolerance for frustration will lessen over time.
At this point you’ll also notice a reduction in any cravings you have for alcohol . For most people this is the longest phase of recovery. However, it’s important to still practice self-care with a healthy diet and exercise to avoid the physical effects that chronic drinking may have had on your body.
In the final stage of recovery, which can last from one to five years , your body returns to normal, healthy functioning.
Phase four is more like pre- drinking days in that you will feel healthier and stronger than ever before . However, it’s important not to overdo things during this stage of recovery as health problems related to long term drinking may take some time to show up.
You should be able to consume small amounts of alcohol without immediately wanting more. You should also find that you don’t need to drink every day or that drinking only becomes enjoyable when you do it occasionally.
Remember that everyone’s path to recovery is different and will vary in length depending on the amount of substance abuse, which substances were abused and how long they were abused for. For most people the first 18 months after quitting drinking are crucial for recovery and it is essential to recognize these stages of recovery to understand what you should expect as you recover from alcoholism.