Of all your body’s organs, your liver takes the biggest hit when it comes to alcohol. Even if your relationship with drinking consists of occasional social drinking with friends or occasionally over-indulging in wine and cocktails during the holiday season, alcohol can still leave its mark. And it’s a mark that can be hard to reverse.
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That’s why many of us wonder if a month of avoiding drinking is enough to “reset” your liver back to normal. It’s true that taking a break from alcohol for any amount of time will be beneficial overall, with some research showing that liver function begins to improve in as little as two to three weeks. But a full detox is needed for the most benefit, and how much time that takes depends on a variety of personal factors.
“It depends on how much damage has already been done,” explains liver specialist Christina Lindenmeyer, MD. “And if there are any complications related to the damage.”
Dr. Lindenmeyer explains what happens to your liver from prolonged and moderate alcohol use, and what a detox process would look like.
How alcohol impacts your liver
Your liver has enzymes that work like special tools to help metabolize (break down) different toxins that enter your body, such as alcohol.
In the short term, alcohol is processed through your liver in about an hour. Essentially, feeling “drunk” is when your liver becomes too overwhelmed to properly process alcohol, so it overflows temporarily into your bloodstream. This is what causes you to feel light-headed or tipsy after multiple alcoholic drinks.
In the long term, prolonged alcohol use can cause severe damage to your liver. Your liver has a specific pathway that the toxins follow to be broken down, so if over time, this pathway becomes overwhelmed by too many toxins, it can affect the efficiency of your liver’s work. In other words: It can’t keep up.
Certain health concerns and diseases can arise in your liver due to long-term alcohol use, including:
How do you detox your liver?
If your liver has taken a hit from prolonged alcohol use, there are ways to give it — and the rest of your body — a break.
You can make the move toward detoxing your liver through these steps:
The first and most important line of defense? You guessed it: Abstain from drinking. “Abstinence is the most critical intervention and treatment,” notes Dr. Lindenmeyer.
This is sometimes easier said than done, of course. If you’re a heavy drinker, you may need to wean off alcohol to let your body adjust. If you’re experiencing severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider.
If you’re more of a moderate to occasional drinker, you may find the hardest part of stopping drinking to be the social pressures. Try replacing your usual cocktail or beer with a nonalcoholic option, including many of the now popular mocktails available so you can still enjoy social time with friends without having alcohol in the mix.
Maintain a healthy diet
Another thing that will help your liver’s journey in recovery is good nutrition. There’s no miracle diet by any means, but the Mediterranean diet, for example, can help fill some of the nutritional gaps you may have due to alcohol use.
“Nutrition optimization is actually the most evidence-based and most important intervention aside from stopping drinking,” points out Dr. Lindenmeyer. This is because, for a lot of people who experience some kind of liver dysfunction, it makes them at risk of not getting enough proteins, calories or vitamins.
There are also certain foods like tea, fish and nuts that can benefit the liver’s function in many ways. Think of it as giving your liver a little boost in the right direction. “Nutrition therapy is very important in terms of feeding the liver and giving it the building blocks it needs to restore itself,” says Dr. Lindenmeyer.
How long until your liver detoxes from alcohol?
Of course, we all want a simple, achievable number for how long we should abstain from alcohol in order for our bodies to fully heal from its effects.
But the truth is, the timeline of your liver detoxing is going to depend on different factors like:
- The amount of alcohol you consume.
- The frequency of your drinking.
- Any other health conditions you may have.
- Your age.
- Your weight.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer,” states Dr. Lindenmeyer. “It depends on how much damage has already been done and any possible complications.”
There has been some research conducted on how abstaining from alcohol detoxifies your liver over time. A 2021 review of research notes that several studies determined that two to four weeks of abstinence from alcohol by heavy-alcohol users helped reduce inflammation and bring down elevated serum levels in the liver.
In short: A few weeks off will help. But the longer you can abstain from alcohol, the better. And if your liver has experienced long-term effects, your healthcare provider would probably recommend lifelong abstinence from alcohol to allow it to fully detox and recover.
“For patients who are left with cirrhosis after severe injury to the liver from alcohol, even one drink of alcohol is toxic to the liver,” cautions Dr. Lindenmeyer.
Should you take a break?
For many of us, alcohol becomes a casual routine associated with going out and spending time with loved ones. But if you’re drinking alcohol in excess of the recommended guidelines, you may be doing damage to your liver. It can be hard to notice at first if your body is sending you any warning signs that it’s overwhelmed.
Here are some common signs that your liver is taking a serious hit from alcohol:
- Leg and ankle swelling.
- Dark urine.
- Abdominal pain.
- Chronic nausea or fatigue.
- Itchy skin.
- Constant feelings of confusion.
- Gastrointestinal bleeding.
What to know if you’re a casual drinker
It can be hard to find (or even know) the balance of how much alcohol your body is able to handle. If you’re not sure if your drinking crosses a certain line or not, try measuring your alcohol intake.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol should be consumed in moderation, which means one drink a day for women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB), and two for men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) — unless your doctor says otherwise. If you’re keeping up with this average (or less), the damage from alcohol is most likely minimal.
On the other hand, binge drinking is generally defined as four drinks for women and five drinks for men within a two-hour period. And even occasional binge drinking episodes can have profound effects on your liver’s health over time.
Overall, a small break from drinking like a Dry January won’t necessarily fully “detox” your liver, but if you’re prone to overindulging in alcohol, you can see small health boosts such as decreasing inflammation of the liver and increasing your energy levels with such a break.
The bottom line
Just like a broken bone or infection needs time to heal, so does an overworked liver. While this depends on the amount of alcohol you have had over the years, your liver can see partial healing within two to three weeks, but this will depend on your health history.
Depending on the extent of liver damage you have, you may need to completely abstain from alcohol in order to give your liver the best chance for recovery. Talk to a doctor about your personal history and what’s right for you.