How To Stop Drink
More than 17 million people in the United States suffer from an alcohol use disorder, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that almost 40 million engage in risky, binge-drinking patterns.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite negative health or social consequences. The term is now used to refer to conditions that people might call alcohol dependence, abuse, or addiction.
Long-term alcohol use—particularly when it comes to excessive or binge drinking—can result in an increased risk for a variety of serious physical, mental, and neurological problems. These adverse outcomes include dementia, stroke, cardiovascular problems, various cancers, liver diseases, as well as depression and anxiety, in addition to unintentional injuries such as motor vehicle crashes or falls.
Figures from the CDC show that around 95,000 deaths are attributed to alcohol-related causes every year in the country, making the substance the third-leading cause of preventable death.
The risk of harm increases with the amount of alcohol you drink. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults of legal drinking age should only drink in moderation if they do decide to consume alcohol.
This means limiting intake to two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women, although the guidelines also note that even drinking within these amounts may still increase the overall risk of death from various causes. Research indicates that two in three adult drinkers in the U.S. report drinking above moderate levels at least once a month.
Given the potential harms of alcohol consumption, it is not surprising that many people want to quit altogether.
Recent trends indicate that Americans appear to be cutting back on alcohol. A Gallup survey from 2021 indicated that there had been a 5 percent decrease in the number of U.S. adults who reported drinking alcoholic beverages compared to 2019. The poll also showed that the people who do drink are consuming less on average than they have in the past.
Sales of non-alcoholic beers are spiking and sober-friendly bars are popping up in various locations across the country. Even some celebrities have been getting in on the act. In 2020, Chrissy Teigen announced that she was going sober, for example.
But for people who would like to quit drinking, how can they go about stopping cold turkey?
How to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey
Going “cold turkey” is a phrase that means quitting all use of a substance abruptly rather than gradually tapering off. This method may be very difficult for someone with a serious AUD—and may lead to severe or even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, so may be inappropriate in some cases.
But people with more manageable levels of alcohol consumption may decide that this is an appropriate course of action for them to quit.
For people who feel like they are drinking too much but are not necessarily suffering from an AUD and would like to quit, there are a number of steps you can take that may help you to stop.
Peter Finn, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, who leads the Behavioral Alcohol Research Laboratory at Indiana University, told Newsweek one of the first things you can do if you are thinking about going cold turkey is plan ahead.
“Decide on what types of activities will replace the regular drinking and then initiate that activity before stopping the drinking entirely,” Finn said. “The best options are regular exercise and involvement in activities with a social context and commitment.”
You can also make a list of all of the pros of not drinking and the cons of continuing to drink. Remind yourself regularly of the pros of stopping and all of the cons of continuing.
Altering your environment is also important, Finn said. Reduce exposure to drinking cues or situations and be watchful of the circumstances associated with drinking, such as being stressed.
“These cues and situations will increase your desire to drink and general inclination to drink—don’t have alcohol at home, don’t go to bars,” he said. “Learn stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness meditation. Tell the people close to you that you are stopping drinking. They will probably strongly support you.”
If you are regularly in situations where others are drinking, then it can help to decide what non-alcoholic drink you will drink and stick to it. And it is a good idea not to stay in a drinking environment for too long. “You must be prepared,” Finn said.
Some people who stop drinking may experience cravings, which can occur in many forms and are common in people who quit, even those who do not have a severe problem.
“It may appear to be physical and most often occurs as subtle anxiety combined with thoughts of drinking,” Finn said.
When a craving occurs, you can: distract yourself to focus on something else; do some exercise, such as 10 pushups or go or a walk; or relax and engage in mindfulness meditation.
“Cravings will eventually subside and come and go,” Finn said.
Finally, it is important to recognize that changing habits is difficult, will take effort, and you will experience some success and setbacks, but you should commit to continuing.
“Motivation will vary from day to day and from hour to hour when one first starts to quit. The key is to try to keep motivation high,” Finn said.
Various factors such as how much the person has been drinking, how long they have been drinking, and their age will play a role in how the process of quitting unfolds.
Finn said that anyone who is drinking large quantities of alcohol every day should try to cut down a little each week prior to stopping cold turkey and observe if they experience any withdrawal symptoms or discomfort—such as anxiety, tremors, restlessness, or sweating.
If the individual experiences significant withdrawal symptoms, then formal treatment should be sought. If only minor symptoms are experienced, such as heightened anxiety, then they can proceed with the steps above.
“If the person is experiencing significant withdrawal or significant impairment in cognitive, emotional, relationship, and occupational functioning, or substantial tolerance—key signs of addiction and severe alcohol use disorder—then they should seek formal treatment and get assessed by an addiction treatment professional and a medical doctor,” Finn said.
Is it dangerous to stop drinking cold turkey?
For someone who does not have an AUD, Finn said it is not dangerous at all to stop drinking cold turkey.
“In fact, it is very health enhancing to stop drinking when you don’t have an alcohol use disorder,” he said.
In the first few weeks and months after stopping, you will experience a number of health benefits, according to Finn.
For example, liver function improves when people stop drinking. Even relatively low-volume daily drinking can compromise liver function.
Quitting will also result in improved gastrointestinal function, blood sugar regulation, sleep, mood, and cognitive function—including memory and attention capacity—as well as increased energy.
What Are the Side Effects of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey?
There are no specific negative side effects of quitting if the person does not have an AUD. Negative side effects tend to occur when the individual has some degree of dependence.
“However, if a person drinks to relieve anxiety, improve a low mood, or enhance social interactions, then anxiety might increase, mood might remain low, and social interactions may get more challenging, but only in the case where the alcohol was serving those factors,” Finn said. “In addition, since a person’s overall well-being will significantly improve after stopping, that might outweigh any minor negative side effect.”
“The critical matter is that the person does not have a severe AUD—in such cases, by definition, the person will experience some withdrawal symptoms.”
For those who are suffering from an AUD, stopping cold turkey will result in significant and sometimes severe withdrawal which can be characterized by severe tremors, convulsions, and hallucinations, among other symptoms. Individuals with alcohol addiction and any severe case of AUD should seek medical help and help from addiction specialists.
For people who stop drinking drink every day, but who clearly do not have a severe AUD, they can expect to start feeling better in 48 hours, Finn said. Their mood and well-being will likely continue to improve for around a week to two weeks.
The benefits of quitting alcohol may include improved sleep, better-looking skin, a healthier weight, enhanced mental health, a boost to the immune system, as well as better memory and thinking, not to mention a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease over the long-term.