Substance Use

Brain Recovery Timeline From Alcohol Abuse

alcohol and brain

Table of Contents

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Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is more than a mere habit; it’s a brain disorder with far-reaching consequences. From mild to severe cases, the effects of excessive alcohol consumption leave a lasting impact on the brain. (1)

Recognizing the importance of seeking help for alcohol addiction is key. It’s not just about the immediate health consequences but the enduring effects on the brain. Getting alcohol treatment for your alcohol addiction is vital.

As you’ll learn, drinking excessive alcohol can lead to short-term and long-term damage to the brain. In addition, because of how alcohol affects the brain, it can be hard to stop drinking and remain sober throughout your life. (2)  We offer a range of treatment programs, so search for a treatment center near you.

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Alcohol Recovery Timeline

There’s never a better time to stop drinking than now. While it’s possible to reverse the damage and regenerate brain function, some areas of the brain could sustain permanent damage due to excessive drinking. In any case, you can expect to see signs of recovery in as little as a couple of weeks. 

However, making a full recovery can take many months to years. (4)

1. Within the First Two Weeks

During the first two weeks after refraining from drinking, you may experience deficits in your ability to think. Your brain and body are trying to adjust, which can also lead to depression and anxiety.

This is the stage where many people relapse, so it’s common for treatment programs to involve 30-day stays in a facility.

2. After Two Months

The first few months involve going through alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can make this a point of highest risk of relapsing. You may become confused, distracted, and irritable. Eventually, these symptoms will start to disappear so that you’re more clear-headed and calm. 

3. After About Five Years

It could take anywhere from a couple of months to several years before you see cognitive improvements and added cognitive abilities following abstinence. During this time, you may still have issues with abstract reasoning, short-term memory, and visual-spatial ability while other functions return to normal.

4. After Seven Years and More

On average, it could take you as much as seven years or more to fully recover from alcohol. At this point, your body should be back to normal functioning, even though some areas may have sustained irreversible damage. 

Keep in mind alcoholism is a life-long struggle. It’s important to get treatment and begin the recovery process for AUD whenever you or a loved one are having a difficult time avoiding alcohol.

How Alcohol Affects Different Parts of Your Brain

While the occasional drink may not pose significant risks, it’s crucial to grasp the perils associated with excessive alcohol consumption. A recent report by the CDC concerning alcohol-related deaths unveiled alarming statistics. (5)

Between 2015 and 2019, over 140,000 individuals in the United States lost their lives due to alcohol-related issues, cutting short their average lifespan by 26 years. (5

Beyond mortality, this report highlighted a multitude of detrimental consequences linked to alcohol abuse. These include the following most common chronic and acute conditions from drinking too much alcohol: 

  1. Chronic Effects of Alcohol  (6)
    • Cancer (breast, colorectal, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, stomach, prostate)  
    • Heart disease (atrial fibrillation, hypertension, cardiomyopathy)
    • Liver disease (cirrhosis) 
    • Psychosis 
    • Stroke (hemorrhagic, ischemic) 
  2. Acute Effects of Alcohol (7)
    • Motor vehicle accidents
    • Poisoning (alcohol and non-alcohol)
    • Suicide
    • Mood swings
    • Drowning
    • Loss of cognitive functions
    • Fall injuries
    • Fire injuries
    • Brain Damaged
    • Homicide 

In addition to these health risks, alcohol can lead to risky sexual behavior (e.g., unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners), learning and memory problems (dementia, poor performance at school), mental health issues (depression, anxiety), and social problems (at work or home). (8)

Many of these problems are due to the way alcohol affects the brain. 

How Each Stage of Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Brain

Drinking excessive alcohol regularly can affect the components of the brain. (9) Depending on the part affected, you’ll experience various physical and mental health issues or impairments. 

  • Cerebral Cortex – The cerebral cortex (“gray matter”) is part of the brain responsible for the highest level of mental abilities, including motor, sensory, and association. Alcohol can affect how you perceive things and the way information reaches your brain. When drinking, you’ll experience a loss of judgment, and your inhibitions will be lower. (10)
  • Frontal Lobe – The frontal lobe is the largest portion of the brain and one of four parts of the cerebral cortex. This part helps you with planning, decision-making, and maintaining self-control. (11) Drinking keeps the brain from functioning properly and can lead to permanent damage in this area.  
  • Hippocampus – This part is often described as the “flash drive” of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. When you drink too much, you may have a “blackout,” where you can’t remember what happened. (12) With long-term drinking, you could cause permanent damage to this area of the brain as well.  
  • Cerebellum – The cerebellum is important for thinking and moving. When you drink too much alcohol, this is the part of the brain that’s affected and causes you to stumble around because you’ve lost your ability to maintain coordination and balance. (13)
  • Hypothalamus – This area of the brain regulates the endocrine system (controls the hormones), the autonomic nervous system (controls major organs and glands), body temperature, and appetite. (14)  That’s why drinking alcohol can decrease your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, lower your temperature, and make you more hungry and thirsty. 
  • Medulla Oblongata – The medulla is the part that controls the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. When drinking alcohol, damage to this area leads to slow breathing, decreased heart rate, and the inability to maintain a normal body temperature. If excessive drinking causes the medulla to shut down, you could go into a coma.  (15)

Treatment Options for Alcohol Dependency

The type of treatment you receive for alcohol use disorder depends on several factors. Most people think about community 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or month-long stays in a rehab center. (16)

There are many different treatment programs available, which are customized for the individual seeking help.

Alcohol-specific treatment programs address both physical discomforts and uncontrollable cravings. You may only need talk therapy, which a licensed therapist can conduct.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Many people benefit from psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps you understand how your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together, many of which can influence excessive drinking. (17)

You’ll learn about your triggers, cognitive abilities, and ways to cope with them by: 

  • Identifying and challenging negative thoughts  
  • Changing how you react to certain events 
  • Learning how to control your impulses 
  • Practicing exercises to help you relax 

Family Therapy

One of the most significant aspects of alcohol recovery is the support you have from those you spend the most time with, including loved ones.

Family therapy involves the following four parts: 

  • Family Engagement – helps loved ones understand rather than exhibit shame  
  • Relational Reframing – emphasizes the importance of focusing on relationships rather than the causes of addiction  
  • Family Behavior Change – encourages family members to learn better ways to communicate 
  • Family Restructuring – shifts toxic, destructive family dynamics into those that are more conducive to recovery 

Medication-Assisted Treatments (MAT)

Medical-assisted treatments are programs that make use of various types of drugs. Researchers reported excellent success rates for MAT. More than 90% of patients remain sober after two years. (18)

The following medications are commonly prescribed for AUD: 

  • Naltrexone – reduces excessive drinking 
  • Acamprosate (also called Campral) – helps eliminate drinking  
  • Disulfiram – causes unpleasant symptoms to curb drinking 

Holistic and Wellness-Focused Therapy

Holistic approaches to therapy are other ways to help you recover from alcohol addiction. These vary widely but offer something for everyone because many can be tied to a person’s particular interest. 

  • Yoga Therapy, Meditation, and Other Exercises – This type of therapy offers plenty of options and is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety and boost your mood while recovering. 
  • Exercise – Exercise is a proven stress reliever and mood booster. What’s more, exercise can help shed the extra weight that recovery can sometimes bring. 
  • Nature Therapy – Spending time outdoors helps people become more grounded in the earth, which can leave you with a feeling of connection rather than isolation. Nature therapy can be done as a group, involving animals, gardening, and conservation. 
  • Music Therapy – Nobody can deny that music has healing power, whether creating, singing, playing, listening, moving to, or discussing music. 

The 5 Steps of the Alcohol Addiction Treatment Process

When you seek treatment for your alcohol dependence, you’ll go through a multi-step and seemingly complex process. The treatment process may vary depending on your needs and where you seek treatment.

Many people with alcohol addiction have underlying conditions that have led them to drink. Therefore, everything must be uncovered during the process, including depression, anxiety, and trauma.  

The treatment process and alcohol detox includes the following steps from alcohol dependency and excessive alcohol use to recovery: 

1. Intervention

An intervention is simply a conversation that takes place to help a person recognize the harmful effects of drinking alcohol. A professional from the Department of health can help guide this conversation and provide valuable resources.  

2. Admissions 

The first step to recovery is to be admitted into a treatment program. This frequently includes making that initial call, completing paperwork, working out insurance or other payment options, and arriving at the treatment facility. 

3. Detox 

This step is one of the most difficult yet important steps to take when overcoming alcohol addiction and heavy drinking. Detox helps you deal with alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings so that you’re more comfortable as you recover. 

4. Rehab 

Rehab is the part of therapy in which you work towards developing skills to maintain your sobriety. This includes inpatient treatment or outpatient treatment based on your unique needs. In addition, you may be given the option to participate in group therapy, experiential therapy, and behavioral therapy. 

5. Recovery 

Recovery doesn’t end when you get out of rehab — it’s a lifelong journey. Alcohol cravings may continue to tug at you even while you’re sober. Your treatment process includes support every step of the way, from daily reminders to follow-ups, to help you maintain sobriety. 

According to the NIAAA, research has shown that after a year of treatment, one-third of people with AUD experience no more symptoms. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to treatment programs for substance abuse disorders.

What works for one person may not be suitable for you, so people take different recovery routes. It’s essential to work closely with a therapist or counselor to find the approach that will be most effective for your recovery and long-term sobriety.

Are You At Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder?

Based on the results of SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 40 million Americans (about the population of the entire state of California) reported having an SUD in 2020, including 28 million with alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

While an occasional drink at dinner or during social outings may not be harmful, even binge drinking can put you at risk of becoming dependent on alcohol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is most common and costly when it comes to excessive drinking.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages for men or four or more for women on occasion. Those who regularly indulge in alcohol might be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Addiction
  • Dependence
  • Alcoholism

AUD is characterized as a medical condition where individuals struggle to control their alcohol consumption despite adverse consequences in their social, occupational, or health aspects, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Several factors can elevate the risk of developing AUD, such as:

  • Early-age drinking
  • Genetics
  • Family history of alcoholism
  • Childhood trauma
  • Mental illness 

In essence, the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence hinges on the quantity, frequency, and speed of alcohol consumption. This spectrum encompasses both binge drinkers and heavy drinkers.

Keep Your Brain Healthy and Seek Treatment Today

It’s very important to get treated for alcohol use disorder anytime you suspect you or a loved one is drinking too much. Frequent, excessive, and long-term use of alcohol has a wide range of physical and mental effects.

Some of these are a result of changes in your brain, which can increase alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings, making it all the more difficult to stop drinking.  

As easy as it is for someone to say, “Just stop drinking,” the alcohol-affected brain actually has a mind of its own. That’s why it’s essential to get help with your alcohol addiction through rehab programs such as those we offer and seek support from alcohol hotlines.

Help is just a phone call away — we’re available 24/7 — so don’t hesitate to reach out to us at (855) 430-9439.


Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us