New Year’s Eve may be associated with too-much imbibing, but for a growing number people, that brings on a reevaluation of their relationship with alcohol.
In 2022, in fact, 19% of drinkers participated in Dry January, according to one poll — up from 13% in 2021, although, according to the data, not all who participated chose to cut out alcohol entirely. That choice — to cut back rather than out — reflects a new health trend referred to as being “sober curious.” And it could be surprisingly beneficial to one’s overall health, say some experts.
There is mixed research on whether cutting alcohol out entirely is significantly more beneficial than imbibing on occasion. The official dietary guidelines for Americans prompt adults to cut out drinking — or “drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed,” noting that “drinking less is better for health than drinking more.”
Dr. Sarah Andrews, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that the sober-curious movement works best for people who want to “better understand the ways that alcohol affects them and their relationship with alcohol.” That’s because, by cutting back on alcohol, it can allow you to see the "side effects" you may not have otherwise noticed, she says, whether that be a worsened mood, anxiety or difficulty concentrating.
Likewise, abstaining for even a month, says Andrews, can highlight the benefits, which can include "weight loss, [more] energy, and improvement in mood and anxiety."
Long-term risks of alcohol use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, a variety of cancers and a general weakening of the immune system. Yet for many people who drink often, but would not categorize themselves as having alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, it’s these more immediate effects that encourage cutting back.
Much of this is due to alcohol being a big sleep disruptor, Andrews adds, as it can cause wake-ups as in is metabolized — some of which people may not even realize occur the next morning. Over time, interrupted sleep can lead to a lower ability to concentrate and negatively impact mood, in addition to physical health issues like higher blood pressure.
Plus, adds Dr. O. Trent Hall, an addiction medicine specialist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, “alcohol is a central nervous system depressant,” meaning it can “make depression worse” in people who are already struggling.
“Alcohol is also known to increase anxiety over time,” he says, adding that this is why "cutting back on alcohol can help us feel happier and more secure."
That was certainly the case for Amanda Maxwell, a 34-year-old event coordinator and entrepreneur based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who initially cut out all alcohol when she became pregnant with her youngest child, now 2. But once she was able to drink one to two glasses of wine a night again, she realized she didn’t want alcohol to have the same place in her life as it did before her pregnancy, and she’s cut back. Now her "sleep has regulated" and her “mood is significantly better,” Maxwell tells Yahoo Life.
Similarly, LeeNor Dikel, 24, a marketing consultant in Florida, tells Yahoo Life she went from having an average of eight drinks every weekend to imbibing only on “special occasions,” and quickly noticed she was “less bloated,” caught colds less often and felt “more relaxed and confident” and “motivated.”
When Washington-based stay-at-home mom Megan Hildebrand, 24, cut back on regular drinking, she felt a “fog” lifted from her mind, she tells Yahoo Life, noting that she had more energy to work out, and "didn't end up binge-eating at the end of the night, because I wasn't drunk." Further, Missouri resident Mark Joseph, 32, reports that he appreciates the "improved sleep quality" that’s come with less drinking.
But, warns Hall, the sober curious movement is not ideal, or enough, for everyone — specifically for people who find themselves “drinking alcohol in a way that feels out of control to them.” Seeking professional help in this case is a more ideal option than trying to drink less excessively.
“If your alcohol use feels out of control to you or if you are worried alcohol might be harming your health, damaging your emotions or preventing you from enjoying life to its fullest,” Hall notes, “you might want to stop drinking completely.”
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