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Taking a Month Off Alcohol: What Will a Month Booze-Free Do for You?

A trend growing in popularity takes center stage, with clinical studies backing its benefits

Perhaps you’ve seen it proudly announced on social media, “I’m going a month booze-free,” by a friend or acquaintance. Or maybe it has infiltrated your sphere because of news stories on outlets such as NPR, the BBC, Fortune, or the Daily Beast, which each highlighted this growing trend in 2019. Whether you’ve tried it or not, the “booze-free for a month” movement is catching on. First popularized by Ocsober in Australia and Dry January in the UK, there now are campaigns in additional months such as Dry July, Sober September, and Dry November which may spur individuals to go booze-free. Many of these campaigns that motivate sobriety are associated with charitable organizations to direct your “going alcohol-free” saved money to and even have cell phone applications for you to track your savings, both calorically and financially.

“Zero-proof” mocktails are highlighted on restaurant menus in foodie hubs such as Portland, OR, while scene-centric cities such as New York and London, and even proverbial binge-drinking college towns like Madison, WI, have established alcohol-free bars.

In addition to these dry month initiatives, the trend of going booze free is showing up with alcohol-free bars, alcohol-free distilled spirits (yes, you read that right), and even alcohol-free (and calorie-free) hoppy alternatives to non-alcoholic beer. “Zero-proof” mocktails are highlighted on restaurant menus in foodie hubs such as Portland, OR, while scene-centric cities such as New York and London, and even proverbial binge-drinking college towns like Madison, WI, have established alcohol-free bars that maintain business hours similar to your typical after-work cocktail lounge. Seedlip, a UK company with sales in both the US and Canada, produces non-alcoholic spirits using techniques first documented in The Art of Distillation written in 1651. At first taste, these beverages lack the typical warming feel of their alcoholic counterparts, but the three different alternatives easily substitute for alcohols such as gin or whiskey in standard cocktails. Even Lagunitas, a popular West coast brewery, now offers a zero-calorie, alcohol-free, hoppy spritzer that will intrigue even a snobby IPA enthusiast, which they produce not only with hops but also with yeast to capture the complex hop flavors typically found in beers.

Reasons to consider an alcohol-free month

“But what would a month booze-free do for me?” is a question many may wonder. With average prices of a beer at $6.00 and a cocktail of more than $10.00 in most metropolitan pubs, we all know that the cost of alcohol adds up fast (especially when the drinks start a flowing), often, doubling the cost of a meal with just one or two beverages. By being affiliated with charitable organizations that promote youth health education, services for cancer patients, and alcohol-related harm reduction, these different campaigns that promote dry-free months can help channel the dollars saved into something you truly can feel good about. Even if one does not choose to donate to these selected charities, the reduced pocketbook stress would do most of us good – and perhaps even spur a vacation or an alternate form of self-care like a massage or buying oneself flowers.

Surveys assessing mental health and wellbeing found that not only did both improve in those who succeeded and completed an alcohol-free month, they also improved in those who had initiated the challenge but didn’t make a whole month without alcohol use.

There actually are established health benefits to going a month booze-free. The potential opportunity to do a research survey of the benefits that one may experience by engaging in these various alcohol-free initiatives has not been overlooked. In addition to assessing the effectiveness and positioning of some of these campaigns,[1] studies have assessed the impact of a one-month period of abstinence from alcohol on both mental and physical health. Surveys assessing mental health and wellbeing found that not only did both improve in those who succeeded and completed an alcohol-free month, they also improved in those who had initiated the challenge but didn’t make a whole month without alcohol use.[2] AUDIT scores, a standardized questionnaire designed to detect hazardous and potentially harmful alcohol use behaviors, decreased (improved) in both those who succeeded and those who did not – suggesting that even if one embarks on such an initiative for a brief period their behaviors will change, at least short term.

With just a month of abstinence, positive changes also may manifest physically. In a group of moderate to heavy drinkers who abstained from alcohol for a month, there were significant improvements in insulin resistance, cholesterol balance, weight, systolic and diastolic blood pressures, liver function tests, and multiple cancer-related growth factors.[3] None of these changes were seen in the control group who made no changes to their drinking behaviors. Not only were these improvements impressive, in a follow-up AUDIT assessment six to eight months after the intervention it was shown that those who went alcohol-free for a month still had significantly lower AUDIT scores, with only 28.5% having an AUDIT score above 8 (indicative of harmful alcohol use) while 61% had scores greater than this threshold before the intervention. Each of these improvements are noteworthy, not only for individuals interested in taking a month off alcohol, but also for clinicians who are interested in impacting the health of their patients both short and longer term.

Alcohol in excess also has a detrimental effect on gut health – numerous studies point towards increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) with excessive alcohol use.

Besides this, what else do we know about the adverse effects of alcohol consumption that may be alleviated with a month of abstinence? Well, we do know that alcohol in excess has a detrimental effect on gut health – numerous studies point towards increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) with excessive alcohol use; this may even be in part to blame for the damage to the liver we see with excessive alcohol consumption.[4],[5] Alcohol also promotes the growth of Gram-negative bacteria in the intestines[6] – the very bacteria that release endotoxin (also known as lipopolysaccharide or LPS) which, with leaky gut, triggers a systemic immune response and the release of numerous proinflammatory cytokines. So, if you abstain from alcohol for a month, not only may your gut health improve but you also may see a reduction of things like chronic pain.

Need more food for thought? Well, consider this. Not only may you find your waistline smaller and gut complaints resolved, with a month of alcohol abstinence, you might also find yourself feeling more rested. Although people often report that alcohol makes them sleepy, which as a central nervous system depressant it will do, it actually has a negative effect on sleep, particularly with chronic or excessive use.[7],[8] Having more than two drinks a day roughly doubles to triples the likelihood of having a clinically significant amount of periodic leg movements during sleep (aka, qualifying one for the diagnosis of restless leg syndrome).[9] Alcohol use before bed also substantially increases the amount of hypoxic events in individuals with sleep apnea,[10],[11] not only likely to wake a bedtime partner but putting one at risk of daytime sleepiness and on a long term basis, conditions like dementia.[12],[13]

 

So, as the holiday gatherings subside and you find yourself seeking out some sort of “New Year’s Improvement” to embark upon, consider going a month without alcohol. Who knows, you might even find someone who wants to join you and may find yourself with a new favorite non-alcoholic beverage. And, really, what do you have to lose, other than a few ounces around the middle? As it turns out, there is a lot more to gain!

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