What Happens to Your Mood When You Quit Drinking, According to a Neuroscientist

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We turn to alcohol to lift our spirits, quell our anxieties, and make us feel more social. But, we also know that alcohol can have major negative impacts on your mood. When you stop drinking, the impact on your mood can be amazing, but you may have to work through some hurdles to get there, explains neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier, PhD.

"People often choose to drink to modulate their mood, with the goal of temporarily reducing negative emotions and enhancing positive emotions. However, because alcohol impacts multiple neurotransmitter systems it can result in a range of emotions from feeling energized, relaxed, confident, and happy, to feeling tired, aggressive, restless, irritable, and depressed," says Dr. Willeumier. 

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The initial negative impacts of getting sober can vary depending on how much and how often you drink.

"For those who consume mild to moderate amounts of alcohol, one to three drinks per week, when consumption is stopped, the neurotransmitter systems in the brain will attempt to restore equilibrium (i.e. balancing GABA, glycine, and glutamate) which may temporarily adversely impact your sleep patterns and your mood. Ultimately, once the neurotransmitter systems are back in balance, your mood will be restored, and you will sharpen your memory, alertness, and focus," says Dr. Willeumier.

"For those who are heavier drinkers—three-plus drinks per day—when alcohol is abruptly reduced or stopped, a withdrawal syndrome may follow, characterized by seizures, insomnia, and agitation. This is due to the excess activity of the excitatory neurotransmitter systems attempting to balance the inhibitory effects of alcohol."

Quitting drinking comes along with so many side effects because alcohol has a huge impact on your mood.

Quitting drinking comes along with so many side effects because alcohol has a huge impact on your mood. "The consumption of alcohol is linked to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral impairments," says Dr. Willeumier. "Alcohol contains ethanol, a drug that acts to depress brain function. While initially it can relax you and uplift your mood, it may also lead to a hangover, exhaustion, or depression." Alcohol also impacts your cognitive functions.

"Long-term use can lead to neuroadaptations in the brain leading to addiction. From a behavioral standpoint, alcohol impairs information processing, which can result in greater impulsivity (i.e. aggression, violence, risk-taking behaviors) and impairment of motor control (i.e. slurred speech, slowed reflexes, balance, and gait issues)," says Dr. Willeumier. "Alcohol also impacts many aspects involved in cognitive processing—attention, working memory, conflict monitoring, judgment. With long-term use, alcohol abuse can lead to alterations in brain structure and function, shrinking brain volume, and increasing the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia."

Because alcohol is often used to make us feel better, cessation can leave you having to deal with the emotions that you once suppressed with alcohol. "One of the best ways to stabilize your emotions after drinking is to adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle," she says.

This includes adequate hydration (3.7 liters of fluids for men/day, 2.7 liters of fluids for women) and consuming nourishing brain-healthy foods like wild salmon, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, kale, spinach, broccoli, walnuts, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate, and green tea. She also recommends consuming more omega-3 fatty acids through foods like fatty fish, algae, seaweed, walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and olive oil. Supplementation of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids can also help.

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You may want to consider including foods in your diet that help to produce the calming neurotransmitter GABA, says Dr. Willeumier, like cruciferous vegetables, lentils, beans, tomatoes, and bananas, along with foods that contain magnesium like avocados, spinach, yogurt, bananas, and dark chocolate, to ease feelings of anxiousness.

Getting seven to eight hours of continuous sleep and moving daily can also help.

"Engaging in daily physical activity will help to support healthy cerebral circulation and lift your mood by balancing neurotransmitter levels and feel-good endorphins," says Dr. Willeumier. "Even starting a meditative practice that incorporates breath work can ease anxiety and stress, helping to stabilize emotions."

If you find cessation of alcohol to be more difficult than you can manage alone, Dr. Willeumier encourages you to seek out help.

"Chronic alcohol consumption can increase the risk of depression, dementia, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, high blood pressure, seizures, and stroke, so be mindful of your consumption habits," says Dr. Willeumier. "Alcohol is a powerful drug, so if you find yourself unable to control your consumption, please seek help with a qualified therapist or addiction treatment center."

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