Dry January and Sober September are more popular than ever. Mental health and nutrition pros explain why.

By Julia Malacoff
November 15, 2018
Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

Getting sober isn't exactly a *new* thing. Those with substance abuse issues have been doing it-and sharing their experiences-for ages. Meanwhile, celebs like Demi Lovato have been open about the fact that, for them, getting sober is a necessity.

But for young women, drinking alcohol is often seen as a big part of having a social life. Happy hour, boozy brunches, bachelorette parties, etc., typically involve having a few (or more) drinks. (BTW, here's why your brain always says yes to a second drink.) So why is it becoming more and more popular among younger women to stop drinking? Whether it's a monthlong challenge or a permanent change, experts say the choice is usually health-related. Here's why.

Why Is Sobriety Trending?

One of the biggest reasons more people are experimenting with sobriety is the increasing popularity of challenges like "Dry January." The search term "Dry January" actually spikes in Google each year around New Year's Day-and that spike is getting bigger and bigger each year.

"Certainly, things like Whole30 have become popular with health-conscious young people and have made it socially acceptable and even admirable to abstain from alcohol," explains Carlene MacMillan, M.D., a psychiatrist and a member of the Alma mental health co-practice community in NYC.

"While happy-hour culture is still alive and well for folks after work, due to the rise of mocktails and an emphasis on fun appetizers, drinking alcohol is no longer expected," says Dr. MacMillan. "I think we're also seeing social pressure to not drink to the point of excess, given how image- and selfie-conscious we have become as a society." In other words: Being obviously intoxicated is no longer seen as "cool."

There's also the scary fact that alcohol use disorder is on the rise among young women. "Younger women that I see take a break from alcohol typically do so to assure themselves that they don't have a drinking problem, or to lose weight," says Kristin Koskinen, R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist.

Even some who don't show signs of addictive behavior are choosing to skip out on alcohol for other health-related reasons. For one, "younger women who are considering getting pregnant also take measured breaks from alcohol," says Koskinen. "And beginning around age 40, some clients are taking a wine-cation because they know from experience it's not only a contributor to unwanted weight, but it also disrupts their sleep."

As people spend more time working out, eating well, and doing other things to take care of their bodies, it makes sense that they'll also think about how alcohol plays into health. That's only reinforced by the fact that there's now more clarity around how alcohol is actually affecting your body: Recent research shows that, well, alcohol isn't as healthy as we once thought.

"For a while, we were being fed this message that one glass of wine a day was 'healthy,'" explains Whitney Hawkins Goodman, L.M.F.T., a licensed psychotherapist. "New evidence shows this just really isn't true."

Turns out, you don't have to drink a lot to incur negative health consequences. (For women, three or more drinks in one day counts as binge drinking. Crazy, right?) That's not to say no one should ever drink. "But saying that it's healthy is like calling a chicken nugget healthy," says Goodman. "You can have some, but it's not going to make you live longer or necessarily improve your functioning."

There's also the mental and emotional health factor. "I also see more awareness among my patients that alcohol is a depressant, that it has a lot of empty calories, and that, especially for women, it can lead to unsafe and vulnerable situations," says Dr. MacMillan.

She practices in Brooklyn, where she's seen huge strides in sober-friendly activities. "For example, the Daybreaker parties in major cities are oriented around dancing, not drinking. With the emphasis on artisanal beverages, many of the high-end restaurants in our neighborhood have extensive 'mocktail' menus, and often they taste better than the alcoholic drinks." (See: The Mocktail Might Just Be the Trendiest New Cocktail)

The Perks of Going Sober-and How to Do It

There are a lot of health benefits to giving up alcohol (temporarily or otherwise). Drop drinking, and you'll likely have better health overall (including reduced risk for certain cancers and easier weight management) and get better sleep, says Dr. MacMillan. You can also add better skin, more energy, and more balanced moods (yes, even when you're not hungover) to the list, says Koskinen. You'll likely have better fitness performance too, notes Angie Asche, R.D., a sports dietitian and clinical exercise physiologist, considering this is how alcohol affects your fitness performance. To top if off, you're likely to be more confident in social situations (yes, even minus the "liquid courage") and be more emotionally equipped to deal with your "issues," according to Dr. MacMillan.

How do you go from nightly happy hours and weekend brunching to being a mocktail queen? Asche recommends first reducing your intake before quitting cold turkey. If you do want to go zero to 100 (er, 100 to zero?) committing to a challenge like Dry January, Sober October, No-Booze November, etc., can be a great way to start, because it gives you a time-bound and specific goal, she says. Replace your cocktail with a flavorful mocktail, sparkling water, or other soft beverage that gives you the same #treatyoself experience as a glass of wine, and see if it does the trick. (That's just the beginning. Here's a full guide to how to stop drinking alcohol without feeling FOMO.)

If, at any point, you're noticing addictive behaviors (such as hiding your alcohol consumption from others or feeling like you need a drink in order to get through a specific task or experience) or if you're having significant trouble quitting, your best course of action is to seek help from a mental health pro, says Goodman.