I used to drink alcohol enthusiastically and pretty much daily. Now, I drink only on rare occasions. It took me a lot of years and a lot of long breaks to get to almost-not-a-drinker. Given what I’ve learned about alcohol and how it impacts me, I can conclude that not drinking at all is the best choice, for me and everyone else. But if you don’t want to be a quitter, why not take a break? A month or two is enough to begin to enjoy some of the benefits of sobriety.
1. Sleep better
Even small quantities of alcohol can disrupt your sleep. That glass of wine to help you relax? It is not really relaxing you, once the buzz wears off. Alcohol is a depressant and can help you fall asleep (or pass out if you have too much), but your body responds to a depressant by pumping out cortisol and adrenaline to keep you awake. If you drink daily, your body will start increasing those stress hormones in anticipation of that first drink, which makes happy hour even more enticing. Generally, the initial depressant effects wear off after a few hours, and you are likely to find yourself awake at 3AM with a racing heart and high anxiety. Even if you don’t wake up, alcohol prevents high quality sleep and leaves you feeling groggy and full of “hangxiety” in the morning. It takes at least a week to fully detox from alcohol, so it may take a couple of weeks for you to start getting really good sleep after you stop.
2. Lose weight
Alcohol is calorific and also makes you want to eat high carb, high fat foods that really do help your liver and digestive system process the poison you just ingested. Alcohol consumption also causes hypoglycemia over time and you will crave sugar to compensate for the low blood sugar after a big night out. When you remove all of these factors even for a short time, you will most likely lose weight. Unless you replace booze with cake. Then you won’t.
3. Give your liver a rest
We all know that chronic, heavy drinking can lead to serious liver disease. But even a little bit of alcohol taxes your liver. Ethanol is highly toxic, and your liver has to remove 90% of the alcohol you drink. It’s a lot of work and takes about an hour per drink for your liver to process. While your liver is busy handling the poison, it ignores its daily trash removal of all of the less dangerous toxins your body produces through normal processes. This means that even when you stop drinking, your liver is still working hard to get caught up. Give it at least a couple of weeks or a month to rejuvenate.
4. Improve your mood
We’ve already established that alcohol is a depressant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that means it makes you depressed. The low mood that goes with a hangover can creep into your whole life if you drink regularly, and you may not even notice. I spent years dragging myself through the sludge of feeling low and not quite functional. I took antidepressants, but they barely helped. What did help? Quitting alcohol for an extended period, fresh air, sunshine, and exercise. When I was drinking, I also struggled with almost daily anxiety. You wouldn’t have noticed it, but every work meeting or dinner with friends felt like a death-defying feat. As soon as the the alcohol was fully out of my system, that chronic anxiety just disappeared.
5. Reduce your cancer risk
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew alcohol was a likely culprit. Alcohol has been known to be a carcinogen since the 1980s, and has a direct link to breast cancer due to the way it changes estrogen processing in the body. It also causes or promotes a whole host of other cancers, so the more you can avoid alcohol the more you can reduce the risk of those cancers. You may be thinking, “no one ever told me alcohol causes cancer,” (and you may be right. The alcohol industry has tried very hard to refute, suppress, and dismiss this information. Their story (and they are sticking to it) is that if you drink as directed (no more than 1-2 drinks!) the increased risk is negligible. Which may well be true. That’s why those oddballs who drink a half glass of wine with dinner don’t have much to worry about. I do not happen to be one of those oddballs.
6. Have real relationships
If you’ve ever been sober in the presence of drunk people, you’ve probably noticed: drunk people are annoying. They repeat themselves, speak too loudly, laugh at things that aren’t at all funny and blurt out rude and hurtful remarks. The conversations you have while drunk seem great at the time, but then you forget everything that was said and have to have the whole conversation over again. If, like me, you have used alcohol as a social lubricant for much of your adult life, you may be forming rather superficial connections built on half-remembered encounters. Or worse, you may be building relationships that only exist in the presence of alcohol and other substances. Once you take the substance away, there may be no relationship there at all. When sober, you can have real conversations and remember them. You can be emotionally honest without being rude or inappropriate. You can decide with whom you like to spend time based on something other than shared intoxication.
7. Grow up
When you start using a substance like alcohol as an emotional crutch at a young age, you tend to get kind of stuck there. Not only can alcohol act as a blocker of emotional growth by numbing emotions, it can actually inhibit normal brain development. If you’ve been drinking regularly since you were a teenager, there’s a chance that you may struggle with some aspects of adulting. You may not have the emotional intelligence required for productive relationships. You may have a slew of unresolved traumas and unhelpful habits. If this is the case, it will take more than a short break from your substance of choice to begin to develop and repair your neural pathways. Therapy, healthy habits, nutritious food, good sleep, and social connections can all help you evolve.
8. Remember your life
A few drinks can impair both your judgment and your brain’s ability to form new memories. That’s why a night with a few too many can often be blurry or even alarmingly blank the next day. I don’t know how many times I’ve started a movie or TV show only to realize halfway through that I’ve already watched it, while drunk. I have plenty of blanks in my memories from my heavy drinking years and leftover embarrassment over things I’m not sure whether or not I said or did. I now enjoy being able to remember most shows I watch and never wonder what I might have said. I don’t have to flinch at exuberant social media posts or blurry photos from the night before.
9. Improve digestion
Alcohol irritates your whole GI tract, messes up your microbiome, and can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, etc. It is also a cause of cancers that occur along the GI tract. It can feel like a cleanse of sorts if you drink enough red wine, but it’s not the gentlest way to clear your bowel. When you drink regularly you can start to have chronic digestive issues, even if you don’t feel sick. Even a short break from drinking can help your digestive system reset, heal and start working normally again. When you are taking a break from alcohol can also be a great time to eliminate other foods that are difficult to process. You might even consider a full reset and detox.
10. Don’t believe the hype
We have been brainwashed into normalizing alcohol. Unlike other toxic and dangerous substances, our culture classifies alcohol—and even over-consumption—as a normal part of adult life. People who choose not to drink for any reason are thought to have a disorder of some kind. If you don’t drink, there must be something wrong with you! The truth is, drinking is fun but very risky and unhealthy. It’s up to each of us to question the norms and reverse the brainwashing when a “normal” behavior is causing harm. Subscribing to the status quo and groupthink can be very bad for your health. Make decisions based on science and self-respect. Not whatever everyone else is doing.