The holidays are drawing to a close, leaving only memories of end-of-year parties and hot afternoons nursing a chilled beer or white wine. Traditionally it’s a time for regret, but also resolution, with many Australians casting an eye over their drinking habits and deciding to take a break from the booze in February.
Feb Fast, Dry July, Sober October – whatever you call it, whenever you do it and whatever your drinking habits were leading up to it, one thing is clear: giving up alcohol for a month is a good thing for the mind and the body. Here are some of the benefits.
1. A chance to reassess (even if you’re a moderate drinker)
Assoc Prof Grant Blashki, a GP and lead clinical adviser for Beyond Blue, says a month of abstinence is an opportunity to “reset” drinking habits. “It can enable people to see clearly the problems that they may well have been masking with alcohol,” he says. “It can derail some of the negative automatic habits of drinking that have crept in, and it can prompt people to decide: ‘Maybe I need to make a longer term change with alcohol consumption.’”
Aside from kicking off an important conversation with ourselves, our family and friends, and perhaps our doctor, a month off the grog can also have noticeable physical and psychological effects, depending on how much you were drinking beforehand.
Prof Kate Conigrave, an addiction medicine specialist at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred hospital, says: “If you’re a low-level drinker, a month will give you a sense of what it’s like because your body will start to adapt back to not having alcohol around.”
If you are only drinking very low levels of alcohol – one or two drinks a week, for example – the effects might not be noticeable. “But if you’re drinking two drinks every day for example, you might find that even two weeks on you’re sleeping a bit better, your mood’s a bit better,” she says.
The more alcohol consumed each week, the greater and more noticeable the benefits of stopping will be. But Conigrave sounds a note of caution for people who drink at what are considered harmful levels – six or more standard drinks a day – because stopping suddenly without medical support can cause serious withdrawal symptoms including seizures.
“If you expect to get sick when [you] stop, then [it’s] good to check with a doctor about whether you need treatment for withdrawal,” she says.
2. It’s good for your sleep and mental health
Improved sleep is one of the benefits that comes from stopping drinking because even small amounts of alcohol can affect sleep quality, says Prof Michael Farrell, an addiction specialist and the director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“Any type of sedative-type drug – and alcohol is a sedative-type drug – has some impact on rapid eye movement sleep, which is the sleep in which you actually dream and a lot of the brain processing at night-time goes on,” he says. “For some people [alcohol] may disrupt sleep, and stopping alcohol may settle the pattern of sleep considerably.”
Improved sleep can also help with mental health, but the bigger picture of how alcohol and abstinence affect mental health is slightly more complicated, Blashki says. For example, some people use alcohol to manage their anxiety – particularly social anxiety – and depression.
“In the short-term alcohol can help both those conditions, but in the long-term it makes them worse, because you [have] still got to deal with yourself in the morning,” he says.
He sees patients with what he calls “hangxiety”, where their depression and anxiety is worse in the morning after a night out. Stopping drinking even for a month can force people to confront and hopefully deal with the underlying mental health issues they may have been masking with alcohol, he says.
3. It’s good for your body
The health damage caused by any alcohol consumption – even at or below the limits advised by most guidelines – is extensively studied and documented, ranging from heart palpitations and reflux to cirrhosis and cancer. Even those who consider themselves low or moderate drinkers will see the positive effects of a month off the bottle.
For people with high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes, the benefits will be clearer than for those without. Stopping alcohol is likely to contribute to a small drop in blood pressure and a subtle improvement in insulin sensitivity, which is an indicator of diabetes status. In people prone to indigestion and reflux, alcohol can worsen the symptoms, Conigrave says, so stopping alcohol can lead to improvements within a matter of days.
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it leads to increased production of urine which in turn increases our level of dehydration. Stopping drinking therefore means better hydration.
Alcohol is also high in kilojoules. A bottle of beer contains around the same amount of kilojoules as a Milky Way bar or one-third of a McDonald’s cheeseburger, which can quickly add up even when drinking to the Australian guidelines of no more than 10 standard drinks a week. “People who cut down on alcohol will regularly tell you they find it easier to manage their weight,” Conigrave says.
What about the more serious longer-term effects of alcohol exposure at any level, such as cancer? According to the latest Canadian guidance, three to six standard drinks a week presents a “moderate risk” of developing several different types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer.
But reducing consumption to one or two drinks a week puts individuals in the “low risk” category for all alcohol-related consequences, including cancer.
“I think any reduction in your body’s exposure to the thing that is cancer-causing is obviously a good thing,” Conigrave says.