Alcohol Addiction: How to Quit Drinking for Good
By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
- Quitting drinking involves staying away from alcoholic beverages and creating a life and environment that keeps temptation to a minimum.
- Changing your behavior is only one part of eliminating your alcohol dependence, but it is an important one, and there is a difference between quitting alcohol and avoiding alcohol.
- Controlling stress, decisions, and even your diet can remove day-to-day obstacles that keep you free from alcohol dependence.
- Not everyone experiences alcohol withdrawal in the same way. Plus, there are things you can do to move it along quickly.
For some people, kicking back with a glass or two of wine is just that. You’re out with friends, you pour, you sip, you get that warm, relaxed feeling, and that’s it.
For others, one glass becomes many, one night out becomes every night, and drinking starts taking up major mental space that becomes a focal point of your life.
How alcohol addiction works
If you’re addicted to something, it doesn’t mean you’re weak or bad at willpower. Addiction lives in your brain circuitry — it’s not a personal shortcoming.
Addictive substances like alcohol activate pleasure receptors in your brain. The more often you switch on your pleasure pathways, the less pleasure you feel over time. So, your brain will crave stronger and stronger stimuli to get those happy chemicals. Your brain grows accustomed to the stimulus after so much repetition, and over time you’re so used to it that you have to have your fix to function.
How to form good habits & quit undesirable ones
Whether you’re starting a new habit or breaking an old one, success hinges upon three things:
- Changing your behavior – either starting a new behavior or stopping one
- Willpower – being physically and mentally resilient against weak moments and temptation
- Often you must change the way you see yourself in the world
Alcohol addiction recovery is a whole different animal, but there is some overlap. Quitting drinking, specifically, has three distinct phases:
- Detox – get all of the nasty stuff that built up from years of drinking out of your system
- Become abstinent
- Start the path of holistic recovery
With the understanding that you need all of these to work together, you can put together your plan to drop the bottle.
Is willpower enough to make you quit drinking?
When you hear stories of how people quit drinking, you hear a range of experiences. Some alcoholics just decide they want to stop drinking and stop, and never look back. Others go through a series of stopping and relapsing until they decide to check into a residential rehabilitation center.
Alcoholism isn’t just an issue of willpower. Marvin Ventrell, Executive Director of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers explains, “the brain choice mechanisms are actually damaged during addiction. While behavioral disorders do involve an element of discipline and choice and practice, it would really be erroneous to not acknowledge that alcoholism is a brain disease and the choice mechanisms of the frontal lobes are actually broken.”
In short, alcoholism is a hardware problem. When you feel that you couldn’t help yourself in a situation, you probably couldn’t.
How to increase your chances of success
When quitting drinking, you have to both change your environment to remove the temptation, and set yourself up to be resilient when temptation hits.
The reason for this is you have different levels of thinking that are involved in decision-making. Think of high-level thinking as the more evolved human brain. When you’re relaxed, you can think things through, weigh pros and cons, predict outcomes in your mind, and arrive at the best possible decision.
High-level thinking allows you to stop before taking that first sip of alcohol, and rationally decide it’s not worth it.
Think of lower-level thinking as your inner labrador brain. When you let your labrador think for you, you’re more impulsive — labradors chase moving cars and eat roadkill without a shred of thought about what happens after that. You shift to this lower level of thinking when your survival instincts kick in — when you’re feeling hungry, stressed, or fearful. That’s because the labrador brain makes decisions based on your brain’s reward system.
When you’re using lower-level thinking, you see a frosty mug of beer and your brain says, “go get that.” And you do.
Alcohol makes your brain’s reward system think you need it to survive. If you do everything you can to keep your human brain doing the thinking, you can process it thoroughly and consider the consequences. By keeping the labrador brain quiet, you will be much more able to turn off those alcohol-seeking behaviors.
Eat a healthier diet to help you avoid cravings
The idea of changing the way you eat at the same time you’re trying to quit drinking might seem overwhelming. However, stable blood sugar helps you make better decisions all day long. When your blood sugar drops and you feel hungry, the labrador brain starts barking for food, and anything else that crosses into its field of vision. Cutting out sugary and starchy foods prevents energy crashes that lead to cranky, impulsive behavior. Instead, focus on high-quality fats that will keep you full for longer.
Related: How to Eat for a Stronger Brain
Reduce the number of decisions you make throughout the day
All the little decisions you make throughout the day add up. Why? Your mind gets tired, just like your muscles do. You have a limited number of decisions you can make in any given time before you need to replenish your mental reserves. That’s why willpower is weakest at the end of a long day.
To save your brain power for the decisions that really matter, set up systems that take care of the small stuff for you:
- Automate bills so you don’t have to think about them
- Meal prep lunches for the week so you’re not deciding what to pack every morning
- Plan outfits for the week or use a capsule wardrobe so you can get dressed without thinking
- Make a schedule with your gym buddy so you don’t have to decide whether to exercise on any given day
If you can keep your decision-making gears clear of all the day’s gunk, you can make decisions that line up with your goals. It’s super helpful to be free of decision fatigue when faced with the important ones like whether or not to take that drink.
When you’re paying attention to what you’re doing, you can assess your impulse to act before you actually act. It keeps that human brain in control and the labrador brain quiet.
On an episode of Bulletproof Radio, best-selling author of The Art of Stopping Time, Pedram Shojai recommends small steps like going outside and listening to the birds and setting a timer to check in with yourself every 25 minutes or so. You can get more detail on incorporating mindfulness into your day here.
Just a few minutes of daily meditation not only raises your awareness, it also strengthens your brain’s pre-frontal cortex. This matters because researchers link weaknesses in the pre-frontal cortex to addiction. Meditation is a way to increase your resilience that you can do anywhere, no equipment necessary.
Manage your stress
When you’re stressed out, it’s not as easy to resist impulses. One study showed that when relaxed, exposure to alcohol cues had no effect on desire for alcohol. But when people were stressed or in a bad mood, the alcohol-dependent study participants wanted a drink.
To keep stress to a minimum, you can try:
- Breathing techniques
Keeping your stress down will also keep your labrador brain quiet, making it easier to keep that glass of wine out of your hand.
Withdrawal and detoxing your system
When you quit drinking, you can experience a number of withdrawal symptoms, like:
- Mood problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Shakiness, twitchiness
- Unease or feeling of impending doom
- Seizures (heavy drinkers)
- Hallucinations (heavy drinkers)
The severity of your withdrawal symptoms and how long they last depends on how much alcohol your body is used to. They typically begin eight hours after your last drink and peak after 24 to 72 hours, though symptoms may last for a couple of weeks if you were a very heavy drinker.
Alcohol withdrawal can range from significantly uncomfortable to severe and life-threatening, depending on how much your body has adapted to the effects of alcohol. Lighter habitual drinkers may just need to power through some aspects of it. Heavy drinkers should detox in a medically-controlled setting. Sometimes it’s hard to be honest with yourself about how much you’ve been drinking, so it’s probably wise to let a professional make this call. Involve your doctor in the process.
You can do things that help move along the milder aspects of alcohol withdrawal. Here are some ways to make the withdrawal process easier and get through that detox period as quickly as you can.
When withdrawing from alcohol, you want to get the compounds that make it difficult out of your body as quickly as possible. Your body makes a powerful antioxidant, glutathione, in the liver that helps your body detox. If you make sure your body has all of the building blocks, your liver will have the best chance at making the right amount of glutathione to help you along. Two to four tablespoons of whey protein have all of the precursors you need to make it on board.
Or, you can choose to supplement with liposomal glutathione capsules to support your detox.
Toxic substances and heavy metals (alcohol included) have a positive charge, and charcoal binds to positively charged ions and helps your body eliminate them them. Alcohol contains yeast, which leaves behind tons of chemicals like aldehydes and ammonia when it dies off in your body. Between yeast by-products and impurities from the manufacturing process, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do after long-term drinking. Toxic substances and heavy metals (alcohol included) have a positive charge, and charcoal binds to positively charged ions and helps your body eliminate them them. In fact, emergency room doctors regularly administer charcoal to deal with overdoses.
You can take charcoal to help you through the detox process. It also binds nutrients from the food you eat, so take it only when you need it.
Charcoal can bind the active ingredients in prescriptions, so if you’re taking medications, a quick chat with your pharmacist will help you do it right. It’s also a good idea to choose a charcoal capsule that’s manufactured in the USA and made out of finely-ground coconuts, rather than from cow bones from who knows where.
Quitting alcohol vs. avoiding alcohol
Most alcoholics find that reducing alcohol or weaning down doesn’t work, especially during early-stage recovery. They need to quit alcohol entirely to prevent relapses.
Quitting alcohol is one thing. Avoiding alcohol is another beast. You need to avoid the temptation because alcoholics have a different physical and emotional response than regular drinkers do when presented with an alcoholic beverage or other drinking cues. 
Keep alcohol and influence to drink out of your house
The most impactful thing you can do to avoid alcohol is to get it out of your house. When you live alone, it’s easy enough to dump it down the drain and not wander over to the booze aisle at the store, once you’ve made the decision.
However, if you have housemates who drink and don’t want to remove it from the house, it might be time to consider a new living situation.
Ventrell points out, “In early recovery, it’s very hard to stay in recovery if you’re in the same environment in which you used. That’s why a period of residential treatment is a very good idea, because you’re removed from a very poisonous environment.”
Family situations can be just as much of an obstacle as friend and roommate situations can be.
“Don’t assume families are healthy. Family systems are often very sick, and alcoholism is a family disease. It’s frequently passed on. If your home is sick, it’s not a good place to return,” says Ventrell.
“People who have been sober for a long time really don’t have any trouble. They go to a party, they go to a holiday event, they even go to a bar. It’s fine. But not in early recovery. You really have to have safety. So following initial intensive treatment, sober living is recommended. Live with other people who are similarly situated who are trying to support that healthy lifestyle for a period of time. We think of it as step-down care.
“And maybe you don’t go back to your original environment. It depends on how sick it was.”
Some people have to avoid tempting situations forever. Others never look back. Be aware of your inclinations and be honest with yourself about what you can handle.
For example, if you like to go fishing and that usually means drinking all day, you may need to avoid fishing for a while. Some people may need to replace fishing with an entirely new hobby. If you and your friends do Sunday brunch with mimosas, the intent to skip the mimosas is not enough during early recovery. You may need to skip brunch altogether.
To maintain your social life, arrange gatherings yourself with something else at the epicenter. Go kayaking, skiing, play board games, whatever you enjoy doing, do it with friends.
Lifestyle change and peer support
After the intensive period, success hinges on having peer support in place.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a highly spiritual program, and hinges on belief that a higher power will help you through the hard times. This is great news if you have a religious practice in place — any practice at all, because it’s a non-specific deity.
If the idea of a higher power doesn’t speak to you, that’s perfectly okay. Programs like the SMART Recovery provide a secular approach using a lot of the same principles. Ventrell advises that programs like equine therapy and Phoenix Multi-sport give peer support while helping people connect with the world in new ways.
Understand that it’s never “kicked”
Ventrell points out that you’re never completely past alcoholism. The possibility of relapse is always there. Instead of thinking of it as something you did that you can un-do, consider recovery a journey, a commitment to a new way of life. Know that there are ways to get to the other side. Your days will be happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life once alcohol no longer has hold of you.
You don’t have take on everything on this list. Instead, think of these as ways to arrange your life to remove some of the obstacles around quitting alcohol. It’s not easy, and the first few days will be the hardest. You will do whatever it takes to become free from alcohol dependence, and believing that you will do it will take you a long way.
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