- Nancy Boudreau, RYT, CHHC
Thinking about cutting down on drinking? Here’s what you need to know
NOTE: The information in this article is presented for informational purposes only and is intended for casual drinkers, not those with alcohol dependency. If you suspect that you have an alcohol use disorder, you should work with your doctor to find the appropriate treatment or visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
A glass of wine after a stressful workday. Pre-dinner cocktail at your favorite restaurant. Craft beers at the local brewery. From birthday parties to funerals, alcohol seems to be everywhere and a part of every event. Scroll through social media, and you’ll find memes for “wine o’clock” and “mommy juice.”
There are lots of reasons people choose to drink. Some drink to relax or celebrate special occasions. Others use it as a ‘social tonic’ so they feel less anxious in social situations. Others drink as a way to cope with stress, as demonstrated by the nearly 3% increase in alcohol sales—the largest increase in almost 50 years—during the pandemic.
How alcohol affects your body
Enjoying a drink with friends can be a relaxing ritual with some positive psychological benefits. Unfortunately, there are more negative effects to drinking than positive ones. Besides hangovers, disturbed sleep, and weight gain, alcohol can also contribute to the following:
Type 2 diabetes
High blood pressure
Increased risk of depression and anxiety
Damage to unborn child
Increase LDL or “bad” cholesterol
Increased risk of getting certain types of cancer
Dangerous or fatal interacts with certain medications.
Violent crime and domestic violence
Half of all fatal traffic accidents
Additionally, alcohol affects women more than men. You’ve come a long way, baby, but drinking is one area we women don’t want to excel in. Women’s bodies absorb more alcohol than men’s and take longer to metabolize it, making the effects come on more quickly and last longer. Women also have a higher risk of alcohol-related brain and heart damage, liver disease, and breast cancer.
Bottom line: Ethanol (drinking alcohol) is a neurotoxin that can damage or destroy the structure or function of your nervous system. While previous studies have touted the benefits of moderate drinking or drinking red wine for heart health, recent studies have debunked those findings saying it was likely other lifestyle factors, not drinking, that contributed to heart health benefits.
I know—What a buzz kill.
In the end, how your body reacts to alcohol will depend on how often you drink, how many drinks you consume per sitting, your overall health, the medications you take, and your risk factors for alcohol-related conditions.
How much is too much?
Ask anyone about their drinking habits, and most consider themselves light or moderate drinkers. What’s considered light or moderate drinking? According to the CDC, a light drinker has three or fewer drinks per week. Moderate drinking is one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men.
So, you’re a moderate drinker—That’s okay, right? Not so fast. You’re probably drinking more than you think. Let’s look at what constitutes a drink.
12 ounces of beer 5% ABV (alcohol by volume): Beer is typically served in a 12-ounce can, bottle, or pour, but some beers come in 16-ounce containers. If you have two 16 ounces beers, that’s almost three servings. Also, if you’re drinking a stout or IPA, the ABV can be as high as 6 – 10+%
5 ounces of wine 12% ABV: You may think you’re only having a glass or two of wine, but depending on the size of your wine glass, you’re probably drinking closer to two to four servings. Next time you have wine, measure out 5 ounces and then pour that into your wine glass. You may be surprised at what you see.
1 ½ ounces of distilled spirits (gin, rum, whiskey, and vodka) 40% ABV or 80 proof: One cocktail typically contains 1 ½ - 2 ounces of liquor (i.e. rum and coke, gin and tonic, or whiskey and soda). Some cocktails contain multiple types of spirits and/or include an additional ounce or more of flavored liqueurs and aperitifs like Cointreau or Campari which also contain alcohol. Depending on who’s mixing your cocktail, that one drink can be the equivalent of two or three cocktails.
Benefits of cutting back or quitting drinking
More people are starting to examine their relationship with alcohol. They’re abstaining from alcohol for short periods of time to lose weight, improve sleep, or feel clearer-headed. Others want to moderate how much they drink and become more mindful of their alcohol consumption, or ultimately quit drinking altogether.
Whatever the reason, if you’re thinking about cutting back on drinking or stopping altogether, you’re not alone. Dry January and the Sober Curious movement have been gaining traction over the last few years. An initiative started in 2012 by Alcohol Change UK, Dry January was introduced as a way for people to reset after a holiday season of overindulging. It also serves as a way to educate people on the physical, mental, and societal effects of alcohol and help change attitudes and habits around drinking.
Can taking a month off from drinking really make a difference? According to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), moderate to heavy drinkers who laid off the sauce for one month improved insulin resistance, and reduced their weight, blood pressure, and cancer-related growth factors. Other benefits included:
Less anxiety and depression
Abstaining for a short period of time or trying to moderate drinking is a very polarizing topic. Some wonder what’s the point of abstaining for a month if you’re just going to start drinking again. It’s a valid question. The hope is that by committing to an alcohol-free month, you’ll learn new ways to relax and socialize without alcohol. If you do decide to continue drinking, you’ll be more conscious about when and how much you drink.
Tips for a successful alcohol-free month
Here are a few tips to help make it easier to go alcohol-free when everyone else is drinking.
Recruit some friends: If you’re thinking about changing your drinking habits, some of your friends might be thinking the same thing. Get them to join you on this dry journey. It’s easier to do this when you’ve got other people holding you accountable.
Find a replacement: Just because you’re not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you have to drink plain water, diet coke, or club soda with lime. There are lots of alcohol-free spirits, wine, beer, and beverages on the market. No, you won’t get the alcohol buzz, but you will feel like you’re having something special. Restaurants and bars are starting to offer more tasty alcohol-free alternatives. For entertaining at home, there are some delicious ‘social tonics’ like Aplos and Hiyo (two of my favorites) that include herbs and adaptogens to help you relax and unwind without the calories and hangover.
Change your routine: Shake things up a bit. If you normally meet your friends at the local watering hole every Friday for happy hour, you might find it difficult not to drink. Suggest another activity like meeting for a walk, bike ride, or bowling. You may find it easier to bow out of some activities for a week or two while you get your bearings.
Just for today: Instead of saying you’re not going to drink for a month (or ever again), approach it one day at a time. Decide that you’re not going to drink today, that’s it. Tomorrow is another day.
Go for a dryish or damp instead: If you tried to go alcohol-free, but ended up having a drink, don’t give up! Consider it a “dryish” month and get back on the wagon. This doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Track your progress: If you’re trying to be more mindful and moderate how much you drink, there are apps to help you track your progress. AlcoholChangeUK.org’s free app allows you can set a goal like going dry for a certain period of time or reducing the amount you drink. You check off daily whether you’ve met the goal or not and can earn badges for “dry streaks.”
As committed as you are to cut back on drinking, going alcohol-free when everyone else is drinking can be challenging. Nobody gives you a second glance if you’re drinking, but refuse a drink, and the questions start coming. Some people will be genuinely interested in what you’re doing, want to learn more about it, and support you.
Be prepared for other people to feel uncomfortable and drill you with questions like “Are you sick?” “Are you pregnant?” “Do you have a drinking problem?” No matter how you answer those questions, they will inevitably be followed by, “Come on, you can have just one!” Have a plan, rehearse what you’ll say, and stick with it. A simple “I’m not drinking tonight” or “Just trying something different” will suffice. For more tips on navigating the social scene without alcohol, visit Dry January and Sober Curious.
Take the challenge
The last few years have been tough, and drinking habits changed. I know mine did. This article isn’t to try to convince you to quit drinking or make you feel bad about drinking. It’s to provide you with information and an invitation to become more aware of how much you’re drinking and how it’s affecting you.
Personally, taking a month off from drinking has been an eye-opener for me. I generally feel better, lighter, more clear-headed, and sleep better. I also found tracking the dry days very motivating--I wanted to keep the streak up!. While I haven’t quit drinking completely, I am more conscious of when and how much I’m drinking. I’ve also replaced some of my happy hour beverages with tasty mocktails and non-alcoholic beer. This works for me—As long as I’m having a delicious beverage in a nice glass, I still feel like I’m still part of the party.
If you’re not feeling your best or feel like alcohol has become a bigger part of your life than you’d like, take a break and see how you feel. At the very least you’ll save some money and probably lose a few pounds. You may also learn new ways to cope with stress and anxiety, feel better, and have more energy to pursue creative outlets, try new things, or get back to doing the things you love.