With health trends such as Dry January, Veganuary and Stoptober circulating on social media, more and more of us are vowing to ditch our bad habits for the better and take control of our health and wellbeing, particularly now it’s the New Year.
From taking up yoga to going vegan and indulging in spa retreats, there are lots of different ideas of what it means to be healthy, one of which is to give up alcohol. Alcohol has been a core part of society for as far back as time can tell, from helping us unwind after a long day to boosting our mood and self-confidence. It’s also a staple part of business culture as well as a way to mark a special occasion, but as we all know, too much of it can be seriously unhealthy and even lead to liver problems, addiction, obesity and more.
To encourage us to bounce back from the over-indulgence during Christmas or generally reboot our health throughout the year, alcohol-free months such as Dry January and Sober October have been increasing in popularity over the last few years, but do these sober months actually have an impact on our health? We spoke to several bloggers as well as charity Alcohol Change UK to find out whether giving up the booze for 30 days is worth the hype.
Alcohol Change UK is the driving force behind Dry January in the UK, and they believe taking a month-long break from the booze can not only give your health a boost, but also save lives.
Dr Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Change UK, told us: “Many of us know about the health risks of alcohol – seven forms of cancer, liver disease, mental health problems – but we are often unaware that drinking less has more immediate benefits too. Sleeping better, feeling more energetic, saving money, better skin, losing weight - the list goes on.
“Dry January helps millions to experience those benefits and to make a longer-lasting change to drink more healthily.”
The full list of benefits of giving up alcohol can include:
•Better relationship with alcohol
•Better sleep quality
•Stronger immune system
•Better performance at the gym
•Better mental health
Lowered risk of developing breast cancer, mouth cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and sexual dysfunction.
Blogger Rox-Anne from Celebrating This Life gave Dry January a go in 2018. Rox-Anne used the time to redefine her relationship with alcohol, all the while enjoying all the benefits that come from going alcohol-free.
“Having a nightly drink (or two) had become such a daily habit but it was one that wasn't doing me any favours. From the first day without alcohol I noticed that I finally slept well and woke feeling rested. I was plagued with late-night heartburn, which went away almost immediately. With the alcohol no longer interfering with my sleep, I found myself able to focus better during the day. I also started to look better! Dark circles and a generally tired look were replaced with bright eyes and a healthy flush.”
From just having a month off, Rox-Anne felt like she had regained control over her alcohol consumption, learning how to enjoy a drink in moderation or even saying ‘no’ to having a drink at all. “Abstaining from alcohol for the entire month made me realise just how much a few simple drinks was robbing from me. I was always tired and feeling unwell in the few mornings after imbibing a bit too much. While I did start drinking again after the month was over, everything changed. Nightly drinks have turned into weekend sips and special occasions.
“I fully believe in the benefits of limiting how much a person drinks and January is such a great time to try it. It's just after the holidays and it's a fresh new start to the year - the perfect time to focus on your health.”
Rather than give up alcohol for a month, Dawn from Soberfish decided to take her challenge to the next level and go a whole year free from alcohol (and cigarettes!) in 2016. Since taking on the challenge, Dawn has remained sober.
“Initially, my plan was for a year but I’ve subsequently decided to remain sober for life,” says Dawn. “My life had become a merry-go-round of drinking alcohol which lead to poor sleep followed by excruciating hangovers compounded by crippling anxiety and quite simply, I’d had enough.
“I was morbidly overweight, a smoker who desperately wanted to stop and an emotional wreck. I wasn’t physically dependent but felt alcohol was stealing my life from me; a life that could be used in far better ways than hungover and sick.”
Since giving up the bottle, Dawn feels like a new person. “Since quitting alcohol, I’ve stopped smoking, lost just under four stone in weight and changed my eating habits so I don’t crave unhealthy foods such as takeaways. My eczema has almost completely disappeared with no major flare-ups in the last two years, my emotions are (mostly) stable and I walk an average of 5 miles a day.”
If you’re planning on taking a month off from alcohol, Dawn recommends “avoiding social occasions that centre around alcohol, reading lots of ‘quit-lit’ books, listening to podcasts and exercising to combat cravings. You will crave sugar – that’s perfectly normal - so don’t expect the weight to fall off quickly. One thing at a time!”
Like Dawn, Laurie from Girl & Tonic’s sober lifestyle started with taking part in an alcohol-free challenge. “My sober journey started with Dry January, which I’d do every year. In that month, I saw and felt how good I could feel in my body and mind without alcohol, and I wanted more of that.
“After a month off, I noticed a difference to my bank balance, my skin, my waistline and my happiness.
“Not drinking gives you the gift of time. With no hangovers, you wake up and have the chance to make the most of your day – and that’s a benefit that starts straight away! Have a think about what you’d love to do but always say you don’t have time. Could you fit that activity in now you’re not drinking? Try to think of an alcohol-free month as an invitation to do more things you enjoy, rather than as a month of deprivation from having your ‘fun juice’ taken away.”
Whether you’re giving up alcohol for a month or for life, Laurie has some advice for not falling off the wagon. “When you’re tempted by a drink, remember how much you’ve gained from not drinking so far. Notice how much more energy you have, the extra money in your bank account and the time you’ve spent doing more things you enjoy – and then choose an alcohol-free alternative instead (elderflower and soda, Seedlip and tonic and alcohol-free Heineken are my favourites!).
Kate from The Sober School always felt she had a bad relationship with alcohol, and after challenging herself to go 100 days alcohol-free, she decided to keep her new lease of life and remain alcohol-free.
“I spent my twenties locked in a cycle of heavy drinking, blackouts and monster hangovers. I hated the way alcohol made me feel, but I couldn't imagine never drinking again. Sobriety always sounded so dull and boring - like a punishment for bad behaviour. I'd grown up watching Sex And The City and Bridget Jones... drinking was normal, right? My social life revolved around it.
“Eventually, the hangovers just became too much. I didn't have a 'rock bottom' moment like you see in the movies - I was exhausted, tired and fed up. I was bored of always thinking about drinking, wrestling with myself over what I'd drink, when, where, how much etc. I was bored of waking up regretting the night before.
“So in April 2013, I decided to take a break from drinking for 100 days. To my surprise, I've never looked back.”
When it comes to the immediate benefits, Kate noticed a wealth of changes to her physical and mental health. “Alcohol contains so many calories - cutting it out makes it so much easier to lose weight. When I first quit drinking I lost half a stone without thinking about it or being careful about my diet. My skin improved too - I was prone to breakouts before and drinking often made my face look puffy and bloated. I got fitter too - when I was drinking I didn't get to the gym that often and when I did, I wasn't exactly giving it my all!
“In the long term, I've seen many other benefits too, such as increased confidence. Once you realise that you can handle parties and networking events without a glass of wine as a comfort blanket, it's a real confidence boost.”
To avoid temptation, Kate recommends trying to understand what it is you hope to gain from drinking alcohol. “My top tip is to get clear on why you drink and then look at what else you can do to achieve that. If for example, you drink to unwind at the end of the day, what could you do instead? From going on a long walk to having a spa day, think about what is it that genuinely relaxes you. Plan in advance with plenty of sober treats to keep you going - you need those rewards! And remember, cravings are often worse when you're thirsty, tired or hungry, so stay on top of those triggers.”
If you’re toying with becoming sober rather just having a 30-day break, Kate says having a month off is a great way to test the waters. “If you’re curious about an alcohol-free lifestyle, but right now you're only stopping from Monday to Thursday each week, then you’re not really experiencing sobriety at all. In fact, what you’re doing is giving yourself a pretty rough deal - those first few days are some of the hardest and you’re forcing yourself to repeat them again and again! You're making yourself do the worst bit, without sticking around to reap the benefits that come in with a longer term, hangover-free lifestyle. No one ever regrets taking a month off booze.”
From having more energy and sleeping better to having clear skin and a smaller waistline, it seems there are a wealth of benefits that come with having a break from the bottle. But as well as noticing the immediate benefits, there are some considerable long-term benefits too.
“The brilliant thing about Dry January is that it’s not really about January,” says Dr Piper from Alcohol Change UK. “Being alcohol-free for a month 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.”
Although looking and feeling better are desirable benefits when it comes to a 30-day challenge, Dr Piper believes there is so much more to these alcohol-free challenges than that, with being able to reset and create a new relationship with alcohol being the best benefit of all.
“Put simply, Dry January can change lives,” says Dr Piper. “We hear every day from people who took charge of their drinking using Dry January, and who feel healthier and happier as a result.”
If you’re looking to find out more information about Dry January or alcohol-free months, you can find out more information here.