Whether you’re considering Sober October or just looking to change your booze habits, there are so many benefits of not drinking alcohol - from getting rid of post-wine anxiety to improving your long-term brain health.
While giving up alcohol is a lot easier said than done, with so much social culture in the UK and the US revolving around going to the bar or having a glass of wine with dinner, every year we’re learning more about the effect of alcohol on every part of our body - and it doesn’t look so good.
But what are the benefits of not drinking alcohol for just one month and can it make a difference even if you don't have a drinking problem? Here, woman&home speaks to several experts across the fields of medicine, nutrition, psychology, and more to determine whether Sober October can be the start of a better relationship with alcohol.
What are the benefits of not drinking alcohol?
There are so many benefits of not drinking alcohol or trying mindful drinking, even just for a couple of weeks, says Signe Svanfeldt (opens in new tab), a food scientist and nutrition specialist. In the short term, you'll be saying goodbye to hangovers for good, meaning you'll sleep better, be more productive, enjoy better cognitive function, have more energy throughout the day, and you may naturally lose weight.
"If you usually consume more alcohol than what is considered 'safe', your body will benefit from having a break," Svanfeldt, who also works with the healthy eating app Lifesum (opens in new tab), says. "It can also be a good time to reflect on your consumption."
In the US, the CDC (opens in new tab) recommends that women consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day, while in the UK, the NHS (opens in new tab) suggests that 14 units of alcohol a week is more than enough for any adult. If you find you're one of the 26% of people who regularly exceed the guidelines in the UK, according to Alcohol Change UK (opens in new tab), then it may be time to consider cutting back.
1. Your immune system will function better
Alcohol can be the biggest disruptor of a healthy immune system, making us more susceptible to colds and flu, alongside more serious illnesses. As a newer study by Otto-von-Guericke University (opens in new tab) found, binge drinking creates toxins within the body that can damage cells and reduce the production of essential white blood cells called monocytes, which play an active role in fighting infections.
Worryingly though, as another study by the University of Maryland (opens in new tab) explains, alcohol consumption doesn’t even have to be chronic to have negative health consequences. In this case, researchers found that just one episode of excessive alcohol consumption can kill circulating monocytes in the blood.
It may not entirely remove the possibility of developing flu at the beginning of winter but you’ll give your immune system a fighting chance to see off any passing infections if you reduce the amount you drink or stop drinking altogether.
2. Your gut health will improve
We talk about how to improve our gut health all the time but still, so many of us underplay the importance of looking after your gut for overall health. One of the many benefits of not drinking includes keeping the gut microbiome healthy. These tiny microorganisms live in our digestive tracts and impact so much of the body, including the brain and the heart, and help to regulate vital processes like metabolism and the immune system. They're also partially responsible for the link between gut health and anxiety.
However, excessively drinking alcohol has a significant effect on our gut microbiome, reducing the variety of species and the balance of species in the tract. It has undervalued and systemic effects, explains Natasha Evans (opens in new tab), a registered nutritional therapist and health coach who specializes in gut health and fertility. “These disruptions to the gut-liver axis are associated with cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis,” she explains. “Alcohol also disrupts further up the digestive tract and can cause heartburn, contribute towards gastritis [stomach inflammation], stomach ulcers, and SIBO [small intestine bacterial overgrowth]. It causes damage to the pancreas, which produces insulin and digestive enzymes, and it harms the villi that line our intestines, which reduces our ability to absorb nutrients.”
There may be some relatively good news for those just looking to cut back on their drinking or make healthy alcohol choices though. “The effects of moderate drinking on the gut microbiome are less studied, but from what we can see at the moment, it seems like the type of alcohol makes a difference,” she says. “Moderate consumption of wine, and particularly red wine, and beer may have some positive benefits on the microbiome because of the polyphenol compounds found in them. Moderate consumption of spirits, on the other hand, seems to have a detrimental effect but more research is needed.”
3. You'll lower your risk of life-threatening illnesses
When your overall health improves, you also lessen the risk of nasty diseases like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer down the line. Hundreds of studies have come to this conclusion over the years, with several from the University of Toronto (opens in new tab)and JSS University (opens in new tab) alone. They highlight the particular link between alcohol, illness, disabilty and mortality, given the average risk of death for women increases by up to 40% with excessive alcohol consumption.
“The health impact of alcohol carries longer-term risks,” agrees Martin Sharp (opens in new tab), a multi-award-winning personal trainer and health coach. “These include increased blood pressure, an impact on heart rhythms, and an increased risk of diabetes through increased insulin secretion and other hormone impacts.”
While you may have heard that there are some types of 'healthy alcohol' like red wine, for instance, as it lowers the risk of coronary heart disease, the actual real-world implications of this are so minimal. As a leading study published in The Lancet (opens in new tab) explains, the small reductions in harm with low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increase of other bigger harms like cancer.
4. You'll sleep better
Studies from Brown Medical School (opens in new tab) have shown that ditching the booze for even just one month can improve your sleep quality immensely, so if you’re looking to learn how to sleep better, this should be first on your priority list. As Dr Sue Peacock (opens in new tab), a consultant health psychologist and sleep specialist explains, “Although you may find that having a few alcoholic drinks before you go to bed helps you fall asleep quicker, the evidence suggests that alcohol negatively affects the quality of your sleep as your body is metabolizing it, which has different effects on your sleep.”
In the first half of the night, she says, you’ll experience deeper sleep than usual because alcohol acts as a sedative and your levels of adenosine, a compound that aids and maintains sleep, increase. “However, as the effect of alcohol wears off, the body realizes it has had too much slow wave sleep and the homeostatic drive compensates by allowing less deep REM sleep in the second half of the night. This is the most important sleep stage and alcohol suppresses this, which can lead to issues with memory consolidation and cognitive processes.”
It’s not just the occasional (very) boozy night that will disrupt your sleep either, she adds, drinking even moderately and regularly will also lower your levels of melatonin, the essential sleep hormone. “This interferes with our body’s core temperature and impacts our sleep quality greatly,” the psychologist says.
5. Your sex life may improve
Having sex under the influence is a real double-sided coin. Alcohol is proven to lower our inhibitions, make us more likely to take the plunge with a partner, or download one of the best sex apps and get swiping. But alongside the real issue of consent, alcohol is more likely to make us fumble as it has a real physiological impact on our ability to perform in the bedroom.
Alcohol targets the central nervous system (CNS), research by the University of Washington explains. The impact of this on the brain means we feel particularly confident after a couple of glasses of wine, but it also dulls nerve-ending sensitivity, which is vital if you want to have an orgasm.
One of the many benefits of not drinking alcohol is that you're taking the source of the problem out of the equation and allowing yourself to experience date night fully, whatever it might entail.
6. Your memory will naturally get better
As well as having better sex, you’ll also be more likely to remember it as one of the many benefits of not drinking is improved short-term memory. Whether you’ve been talking cocktail-in-hand and forgotten what you were saying halfway through a sentence, or experienced a full blackout, most drinkers will have suffered from some kind of memory issue while drinking. That’s because of the impact alcohol has on the hippocampus, the Duke Medical Center (opens in new tab) explains, a part of the brain that renders short-term memories into longer-term ones. Immediately when we stop drinking and recover from any ongoing hangovers, the hippocampus is free to complete this function.
7. You'll lose weight
If you’re dieting but not losing weight then weekend drinking could, unfortunately, be to blame. Not only is alcohol significantly higher in calories at seven calories per gram but if you have a little too much to drink, your decisions at the end of the night could also push you further away from that all-important calorie deficit.
“When under the influence of alcohol, you’re more likely to make poor food decisions. For example, that late-night kebab, burger, or pizza on the way back from the bar because drinking has made you feel hungry as it’s not filling, though it’s full of calories,” says PT Martin Sharp, pointing out one of the most common weight loss mistakes.
In the morning, the headache and stomachache begin, meaning you’re less likely to head out for a walk or to the gym. All the while, Sharp adds, your body is working against you as it tries to metabolize the alcohol in your system. “Scientific studies from Indiana University School of Medicine (opens in new tab) show that alcohol can inhibit protein synthesis and fat oxidization, meaning you won’t build as much muscle and you won’t lose as much body fat,” he says. This is pretty essential, as the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate and the more calories you burn at standstill, meaning the easier your weight loss journey overall.
8. You'll be more hydrated
If you've ever had a dry taste in your mouth the night after drinking and wondered despairingly about how long hangovers last, this could be one of the biggest undervalued benefits of not drinking alcohol for you.
"It's true that alcohol is more metabolically active than carbohydrates or fats, meaning that you use slightly more energy in processing it compared to fats and carbs, this is the thermic effect of food," explains Sharp. "This may mean that you find your body temperature increases and your start sweating more. When you add this to the diuretic effects of alcohol, you are more likely to become dehydrated."
9. Your mental health will improve
One of the most common reasons people try Sober October, Dry January, or cut out drinking for a couple of months after a particularly heavy period, is the effect that alcohol has on their mental health.
It’s a statistic that psychologist Becky Spelman (opens in new tab) isn’t surprised by. “In the middle of a social occasion where you’re drinking alcohol, you may find it more difficult to focus on the conversation you’re having with the other person, even if you haven’t had that much to drink. You may struggle to effectively communicate, which can exacerbate social anxiety if that’s something you suffer from,” she explains. “Some people, if they’re uncomfortable in social situations do feel like they need a drink to be more confident before interacting with others but this can make matters worse.”
Then comes the hangover, and even if it's only a minor one, it can still have a big impact on your mind. “The morning after, even without a raging hangover, alcohol can have a physiological effect on the body which can induce anxiety. It’s a depressant and amplifies the emotions you’re feeling at the time so it can have a negative effect on your emotional stability.”
Luckily, taking a break for a couple of weeks can help, as Spelman herself discovered. “It helps to reassess your thoughts about alcohol and whether you need it as much as you think you do. I now drink non-alcoholic beers, wines, and spirits that taste the same as they would normally. And that taste, along with having that glass in your hand, tricks your brain into thinking you are drinking alcohol. Social situations are easier but you are never under the influence.”
10. If you workout, you'll get even fitter
Ditching alcohol won't immediately mean you'll be able to run a marathon - but if you've been training, you'll find your fitness levels rise the less you drink. This is simply because you'll be heading out to the gym more, you'll be doing the cardio and strength training, and you'll be more likely to actually stick to your workout plan.
Even the smallest hangover can keep us in bed or away from the gym after drinking, notes Sharp. "Impaired judgment, hand-eye coordination, and reaction times can last for days due to the hypersensitivity to light, sound, and other stimuli during a hangover or headache phase, lowering performance and recovery due to the impact on your sleep."
11. Your social life will stay the same - or get better
When people consider giving up drinking, social situations are often the biggest prevention. What will I drink at the bar? What will my friends say? Will my Friday nights be quite as fun? It’s a fair assumption, says Ruari Fairbairns (opens in new tab), who founded One Year No Beer (opens in new tab) after his own journey into sobriety - but the benefits almost always outweigh what you may (or may not) be missing out on.
“For many people, social occasions and alcohol go hand in hand. Whether it’s to calm first date nerves or just because it’s a convenient option to head to the bar after work, alcohol is woven into our social culture to alleviate pressure and nerves surrounding social situations,” he explains. “However, as well as being expensive, alcohol can cause you to lose inhibitions that are all too important for setting boundaries. Hangovers can cause post-event embarrassment and anxiety as you mentally replay what you said or how you acted over and over.”
It’s a feeling we know all too well but it can also have a long-term impact on your social life. “Consuming too much alcohol could lead to memory loss, blackouts, and increased anxiety as you build up a tolerance to alcohol as well,” he adds, all of which don't exactly make for a good night out.
Nowadays, there are also plenty of tasty options to choose from, like mocktails, non-alcoholic drinks in a can, and no- and low-alcohol drinks to replace your favorites with. “There’s never been so much choice, so experiment and explore what’s available with an open mind,” Ruari says.
How long does it take to benefit from no alcohol?
You should notice changes in your sleeping pattern, productivity, and energy levels, within five to seven days - long before the end of Sober October. “When people decide to stop drinking, depending on how much they’ve been drinking before, sleep starts to become more regulated within five to seven days,” says Dr Sue Peacock. “Then after two weeks, most people notice a great improvement in their sleep and daily functioning. After a month, our sleep becomes regulated and we feel well rested in the morning.”
If you're avoiding a hangover by not drinking on a night you'd normally have a couple of glasses though, you'll be able to experience benefits as soon as you wake up in the morning free of a hangover. Just beware of reverting back to old habits when the month is up, nutritionist Svanfeldt says. "It's important to avoid overconsumption of alcohol once you're 'allowed' to start drinking again after Sober October."
A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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