Quitting drinking may sound extreme—but these legit health benefits of going sober may convince you to put down your beer.
Photo: Dazeley / Getty Images
Seeing more people sipping water at the bar, or noticing more mocktails on the menu than usual? There's a reason: Sobriety is trending—especially among people who care about living an overall healthy lifestyle.
This is partially thanks to an increased awareness around unhealthy alcohol consumption: "Alcohol use disorder" is on the rise among young women, and the number of young adults dying from alcohol-driven liver disease and cirrhosis has been skyrocketing. The United States Preventive Services Task Force just announced that all adults, including pregnant women, should be screened for unhealthy alcohol use by their primary care physicians during check-ups, according to a new task force statement published in the medical journal JAMA. And, well, more and more research is showing that even moderate alcohol use isn't great for your health—nevermind the really serious health consequences of binge drinking.
While it might sound a bit extremist, there are actually a lot of benefits to giving up alcohol (temporarily or otherwise). Here, seven perks that may convince you to swap your Friyay-night wine for a mocktail. (If the benefits convince you to ditch booze—even for a little while—follow these tips for how to stop drinking alcohol without feeling all the FOMO.)
Better Control Over Your Drinking Habits
If you give up drinking just for a short period of time—say, via a Dry January-style challenge—you may impact your drinking habits long after. New research by the University of Sussex followed over 800 people who took part in Dry January in 2018 and found that participants were still drinking less in August. The number of average drinking days fell from 4.3 to 3.3 per week, the average frequency of being drunk dropped from 3.4 per month to 2.1 per month, and 80 of participants reported feeling more in control of their drinking.
"The brilliant thing about Dry January is that it’s not really about January," said psychologist Richard de Visser, who led the research team, in a release. "Being alcohol-free for 31 days shows us that we don’t need alcohol to have fun, to relax, to socialise. That means that for the rest of the year we are better able to make decisions about our drinking, and to avoid slipping into drinking more than we really want to."
Better Health Overall
"Not only does alcohol contain a lot of empty calories, but when people drink too much they tend to make other unhealthy nutritional choices, so giving up alcohol can have a far-reaching impact on weight and overall cardiovascular health," says Carlene MacMillan, M.D., a psychiatrist and a member of the Alma mental health co-practice community in NYC. Proof: After giving up alcohol for just one month, 58 percent of participants in the University of Essex's Dry January study reported losing weight.
"Being hungover also gets in the way of things like going for a morning run or to the gym. By giving it up, people are better able to stick to exercise routines," she says. "There are, of course, long-term benefits with respect to reducing the risk of many cancers, improving heart health, helping the immune system, and not damaging the liver." (For example, just one serving of alcohol a day can increase your breast cancer risk.) You can find a full breakdown of alcohol-associated disease risks on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website.
"As a psychiatrist, I have so many of my patients reporting difficulty sleeping," says Dr. MacMillan. "Alcohol is like pouring salt on a wound when it comes to poor sleep. It decreases REM sleep (the most restorative phase of sleep) and wreaks havoc on circadian rhythms. When people give up alcohol, their sleep can benefit tremendously which, in turn, helps their overall mental health." (Here's more on how alcohol messes with your sleep.) By the end of Dry January, more than 70 percent of participants in the University of Sussex study reported having slept better when they ditched alcohol.
More Energy and Better Moods
If you're sleeping better, you're probably going to feel more energized—but that's not the only reason that quitting alcohol can boost your energy. "Taking a break from booze can elevate your energy levels," says Kristin Koskinen, R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist. Drinking depletes your supply of B vitamins (which are crucial for sustained energy). "Like most nutrients, the B vitamins don't only have one purpose, so you may notice an impact on both your energy and mood with alcohol consumption," she says. That's likely one reason why 67 percent of Dry January participants in the University of Sussex study reported having more energy.
"Removing alcohol from your diet can improve the way you look," notes Koskinen. "We've all heard that alcohol is dehydrating, which causes skin cells to lose their plumpness, and that leads to tired, older-looking skin." Indeed, the University of Sussex study found that 54 percent of Dry January participants reported having better skin. (Proof: J.Lo doesn't drink alcohol and looks half her age.)
Better Fitness Performance and Faster Recovery
"From an athletic performance standpoint, alcohol can impact hydration status, motor skills, and muscle recovery," notes Angie Asche, R.D., a sports dietitian and clinical exercise physiologist. "Research has shown that consuming alcohol after strenuous workouts can actually magnify delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) by slowing the recovery process and increasing soreness. Alcohol can make it challenging for athletes to see the progress they'd like in their training with such negative impacts on both body composition and muscle recovery." (This is exactly how alcohol affects your fitness performance.)
Better Chances of Dealing with Your ~Issues~
"Turning to alcohol to cope with difficult or painful emotions means people do not learn healthier coping strategies or take steps to process those emotions," says Dr. MacMillan. "When alcohol is removed as an option, people can take the reins back on their own mental health and learn more adaptive ways to get through their days." (And when you start binge drinking at a young age, it can further damage your ability to deal with emotions in a healthy way.)
Even ditching alcohol for a short period of time can shed some light on how you may use alcohol to cope: the University of Sussex research found that, after Dry January, 82 percent of participants think more deeply about their relationship with drinking and 76 percent reported learning more about when and why they drink.
More Confidence In Social Situations
Yes, really. Many people lean on alcohol to help them get through social situations that make them uncomfortable. (Holler if you're one of the many who suffer from social anxiety.) "When alcohol is no longer there as a crutch, it can be difficult to adjust at first. But in the long run, people can gain skills and confidence that they can, in fact, connect with others in meaningful and enjoyable ways without it," says Dr. MacMillan. "That can feel very empowering and lead to more authentic connections with others without so-called 'beer goggles' in place to distort interactions." Trust: In the University of Sussex study, 71 percent of Dry January participants reported realizing they don’t need a drink to enjoy themselves.