You may associate the need to curtail your alcohol consumption as an after-the-holidays idea, but the "sober curious" movement has spread beyond January. Now there's "Dry July" and "Sober September," NPR points out, with people sharing their alcohol-free experiences on social media year-round.
Giving up alcohol for a full month might be a way to shed extra pounds or just a way to accrue 31 days of health benefits ranging from better sleep and a more upbeat mood to giving your liver and cholesterol a much-needed break. John Ore, who's credited with coining the "Dry January" phrase and popularizing the idea in the U.S., hasn't had a drink in January for about a decade. Starting in January 2007, he and his then-girlfriend, now wife decided to try a "post-holiday cleanse," he wrote in Slate, daring themselves to abstain from alcohol for a month. It's an idea that has been catching on every since — and so far, the science says taking a breather is a very good idea.
Some refer to the habit as mindful drinking.
“Mindful drinking is a nice catchall term for anyone who might be thinking about their drinking in some way,” Laura Willoughby, co-author of "How to Be a Mindful Drinker: Cut Down, Stop for a Bit, or Quit," tells Vox.
“They either don’t drink for religious reasons, they’re not drinking because they’re pregnant, they’re cutting down, they never drank very much, they’ve never drunk, … any of those things.”
The benefits of going dry
There have been studies touting the benefits of indulging in an occasional glass of red wine. But taking a break from alcohol can deliver a range of positive results, too.
"Dry January" started in 2012 in the United Kingdom as a fundraising campaign targeting social drinkers. The money raised went (and continues to go to) people affected by alcoholism. Of the 2 million or so people who pledged to go dry in 2016, 62% said they slept better and had more energy, 49% lost weight and 79% saved money.
In fact, researchers from the University of Sussex surveyed over 800 people who participated in Dry January in 2018 and found that the positive results lasted well beyond the month. By August, the average number of drinking days, units consumed and frequency of being drunk were all lower. Most of the participants also reported sleeping better and losing weight. But the benefits didn't end there. The participants also reaped many mental health benefits.
The research showed that:
- 93% had a sense of achievement
- 88% saved money
- 82% thought more deeply about their relationship with drink
- 80% felt more in control of their drinking
- 76% learned more about when and why they drink
- 71% realized they don’t need a drink to enjoy themselves
- 70% had generally improved health
- 67% had more energy
- 57% had better concentration
Results like that are why this topic keeps researchers coming back for more, looking at specific health factors and specific groups.
More recently, scientists analyzed the results of more than 10,000 people in Hong Kong and roughly 30,000 in the U.S. hoping to understand how moderate alcohol consumption affects quality of life versus those who quit and those who have always abstained. They looked at changes in physical and mental well-being across populations, including moderate drinkers, lifetime abstainers and serious drinkers. The winners were surprising, with moderate-drinking women who gave it up getting more mental health benefits than even lifetime abstainers. Those results were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Researchers also compared people who gave up drinking for one month to people who continued to drink, specifically looking at cardiovascular and cancer risks. In a study published in BMJ Open, they found those who abstained lost some weight, had lower blood pressure, had improvements in their insulin resistance and a drop in cancer-related growth factors. Other research has looked at how food consumption changes when we drink. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition of more than 1,800 drinkers found significant differences in food intake and nutrition on drinking versus non-drinking days. In general, participants' diets were poorer on days they drank than on days they didn't.
And in a very small but memorable study, 14 staff members at New Scientist (all self-proclaimed moderate drinkers) decided to put a month-long alcohol fast to the test. Ten of them gave up drinking for five weeks, while four continued to imbibe. They had blood tests and liver ultrasounds done before and after the experiment. The sample was small, but the results were interesting. There were no changes after five weeks for those who kept on drinking. But for those who gave up alcohol, their cholesterol, weight, blood glucose levels and liver fat levels dropped. Their self-reported assessments of how well they were able to sleep, concentrate and perform at work improved.
"What you have is a pretty average group of British people who would not consider themselves heavy drinkers, yet stopping drinking for a month alters liver fat, cholesterol and blood sugar, and helps them lose weight," said Kevin Moore, consultant in liver health services at University College London Medical School (UCLMS). "If someone had a health product that did all that in one month, they would be raking it in."
Tips to succeed
If you normally drink, whether occasionally or on a regular basis, it might be tough to go cold turkey, even with the promise of all those health benefits. Experts offer some ideas of what to expect:
When you don't have alcohol, you may crave sugar. "Don't be surprised if you try to get that same enjoyment or rush you used to get after a drink from something sweet," Los Angeles-based physician Damon Raskin, M.D., who is board-certified in addiction medicine, told Prevention.
Beware of peer pressure. Social influence doesn't end in high school. When you're out with friends, they may not understand why you're not drinking and may try to give you grief.
It can be challenging and fulfilling. The first week is easy, says Ore. But after a while, there's only so much that's exciting about seltzer ... until you make it to the end of the month. "If you can get this done," Ore tells The New York Times, "there is this sense of accomplishment."
Derek Brown writes about his own experience with mindful drinking in Vox:
"I don’t think banning or swearing off alcohol works for everyone. Alcohol may not be good for you, but it can be a force for good. A couple of drinks have preceded some of my most meaningful moments," he says. "It may be the ritual itself, but alcohol has a way of fostering connections. Its rewards rival its dangers, which I believe is what makes alcohol so ubiquitous in human history — at least my history. You must adapt to your own circumstances. And, if amid trying to figure it all out, you find yourself lost, stop. There’s absolutely not one reason why you should be compelled to drink."
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in January 2017.