The surprising benefits of short-term sobriety
Temporarily fasting from alcohol has become such a ubiquitous trend that it's yielded a New Year tradition known as “Dry January" (although in my home of New Orleans, our booze-fast instead comes during Lent, right after Mardi Gras). There are some problems with this fad, namely that it can initiate a sort of reverb effect, in which some people imbibe more after a short-term drinking break rather than less. But there are some real, not insignificant benefits to taking a few weeks off from alcohol, too.
As shown in a 2019 study, giving up drinking for just one month can have a positive impact on your health — and not just in the short-term. Going on an alcohol fast can help you lose weight, get clearer skin, save money, and drink more water, as well as potentially lead to a decrease in your alcohol consumption throughout the rest of the year. Additionally, “Taking a break from alcohol... can get your blood to circulate better and your skin to look better, which is a marker for general overall health," says Arwen Podesta, a New Orleans-based physician who specializes in addiction recovery.
When you’re not drinking alcohol, Podesta notes, you’re also not drinking all the other things that are in alcoholic beverages. “Not only do [cocktails] have alcohol in them,” she says, “but they also have a lot of empty calories and sugars in them. Unless you’re drinking organic wine, you’re getting loads of sugars, loads of carbs, and loads of pesticides.” Alcohol, sugar, and carbs are all linked to inflammation in the body, so cutting back on them is never a bad idea.
Most importantly, a break from drinking can help determine if you have a real issue. “Looking at whether or not you can stop drinking for a month might help you gauge your social and psychological dependence on alcohol,” explains Podesta. Hint: If it’s impossible for you to quit alcohol for a month, you may have a dependency problem and need help.
As an opioid addict who's been in recovery for two years, I practice non-abstinent sobriety, which means that I don't take opioids, but I do drink and take other drugs. Yet as part of my process, I often do months or longer periods of alcohol sobriety, sometimes because I feel I might be at risk of relapse, and sometimes just because I love the way I feel when I'm totally sober. Quitting drinking for awhile doesn't only have physical benefits — as I've learned firsthand, it also teaches you some things about your emotional self.
For one thing, being the sober person at a party can show you a lot about the people that you spend time with when you're drinking (that cute girl you're crushing hard on after three Kentucky Mules? She's actually annoying and definitely not as cute after a soda water with lime, which makes her rejection a lot easier to handle. Ahem). Not drinking has also helped me balance my feelings. I don’t just mean that I get to skip PPD (post-party depression, or what-did-I-do-last-night syndrome) — I actually feel better able to regulate my emotions.
Laura McKowen, author of We Are The Luckiest: The Unexpected Joy of a Sober Life, agrees. “I used to have horrific anxiety and often, panic attacks,” she tells Mic. “Like most people, I thought alcohol helped me relax and soothe my anxiety, but it only made it worse. There’s a proven link.” Indeed, even moderate alcohol consumption can increase anxiety, not just while you’re drinking, but also the next day.
The benefits to taking a break from alcohol are clear, but let's be real — staying sober can be hard, even if you’re not an alcoholic. As a sometimes sober resident of New Orleans, potentially the drinking capital of the universe, I know exactly how difficult it can be. There are cocktail pairings with literally every meal here.
This is why having a support system set up is so important. If you're trying out a period of abstinence for the first time, Podesta suggests having a "feedback" system in place, meaning someone in your life who will note the changes they see in you when you're not drinking and communicate them honestly. This person doesn't have to be sober themselves, but it doesn't hurt. Ask around — you probably know more sober people than you think willing to keep you in check. And having a sober pal comes in handy if you need someone to go with you to a party and not drink. They’ll do it, and show you how to do it, too.
Keep in mind, not drinking doesn't have to be isolating or boring. Anything you think you can do drunk, you can actually do better sober: dancing, singing, writing, having kinky sex. Since I began my own recovery journey, I have heard more live music and seen more performances than I ever did while strung out. Plus, when I’m sober, I’m a lot more likely to be able to hold an interesting conversation about art, so drunk people think I’m a lot smarter than I actually am.
Plus, taking an alcohol vacation can give you time to explore new interests. If you drink regularly, you’re going to be shocked at how energized you feel when you’re not hungover. Plan cool things to do with that energy — take an aerial yoga class, get obsessed with a new musician, or do an activity you haven’t tried before. In other words: try out new forms of a buzz.
You can also use the time to explore your hometown. “The cities that are seen as the best 'drinking' cities,” says McKowen, “are often the best places to be sober. Food, culture, live music, bookstores, yoga classes, coffee shops, history tours (if you’re into that sort of thing), parks, and restaurants. You don’t have to drink when you go out to eat and it’s a hell of a lot less expensive.”
Alcohol-free periods have definitely improved both my health and my relationships, but the biggest perk is really personal. Knowing that I am choosing sobriety and I can stop any time allows me to immerse myself in the sober world without feeling like it’s some kind of joyless life sentence.