I went an entire month without drinking -- here's what I learned

Christina New Year's EveMy last night of drinking, New Year’s Eve.My last night of drinking, New Year’s Eve.

First of all, let me say that “hard” doesn’t begin to describe forbidding myself to drink alcohol for four full weeks.

I wish I could say I don’t sometimes need alcohol to socialise, relax after a long day, etc. — but I do, at least in moderate amounts. (Remember: Some studies suggest red wine can help fight the effects of ageing, not unlike unicorn blood.)

In reality, my wine, beer, and spirit-free January, more widely known as Dry January or Drynuary, was boring, alienating, and made eating less enjoyable. (There’s nothing like a glass of malbec with a juicy steak.) I almost fell off the wagon multiple times … every night.

Regardless of the struggle, I’d recommend it — if only for the affirmation of self-control. As it turns out, the health benefits aren’t as steadfast as everyone thinks.

‘Why?!’

The first question to arise when I refused a beer or bourbon in favour of water was usually “why?”

I’d respond by rambling off some explanation about the scientific and medical benefits of an alcohol-free month, but upon studying the literature now, I’ve found the jury’s still out.

In 2014, 14 members of the British science magazine New Scientist decided to conduct a little experiment where they stopped or cut back on drinking. For the 10 who stopped drinking alcohol entirely, benefits included weight loss, improved sleep, improved liver health, reduced cholesterol — a lot of good stuff.

Because of its minuscule sample size, though — not to mention several dozen other variables they failed to control for — the staff admitted the results didn’t offer many takeaways aside from a “hugely encouraging start.”

Another oft-repeated benefit of not drinking hinges on sleep quality — people say they sleep better when they don’t drink. While alcohol can help people fall asleep more quickly, it also reduces rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep, widely considered the most restful and important stage of sleep.

HypnogramWikimedia CommonsAn example of sleep patterns.

“If you drink alcohol before bed, it actually makes you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper, but then your body starts to metabolize that alcohol, and you’ll go through withdrawal,” Thomas Roth, director of the Henry Ford Sleep Research Center, told Business Insider. “Your sleep will be terribly disrupted.”

In typical studies looking at the relationship between alcohol and sleep, participants drink alcohol 30-to-60 minutes before bed. As a result, blood-alcohol level, or BAC, usually peaks at “lights out.” Thus, the negative effects observed likely stem from imbibing so soon before sleep, not necessarily from drinking alcohol in general.

“I don’t know of anybody that’s done studies looking at alcohol consumption, let’s say, in the afternoon and its effects on sleep,” Roth said. “If you drink two drinks a day, that’s not going to make your sleep better or worse.”

Personally, my sleep fluctuated, as it usually does. Some nights, I drifted off just a few minutes after my head hit the pillow. While others, I tossed and turned for hours. I also noticed myself craving sweets more often, potentially to offset the sugar I lost by giving up alcohol.

Large-scale studies have shown one benefit of Drynuary though: After successfully abstaining from alcohol for at least a month, a majority of people continued to drink less often as well as fewer drinks, even six months later. Most also described having an easier time refusing alcohol and showed lower dependence scores on the 10-item Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT).

Regardless of the murky science, multitudes of people say they feel better after laying off the sauce. “More energy, more cash in the pocket and dropped over half a stone! What’s not to like about this?” writes Patrick, one of the more than two million participants who pledged a Dry January last year.

While I didn’t keep track of my weight or finances, alcohol does cost money and have calories. (And I did feel comfortable enough — with my bank account and my weight — to take an impromptu trip to Miami and don a bikini on the beach.)

Next year, a new generation of dry-seekers will undertake the challenge. I don’t know if I’ll count myself among them, but I can say experimenting with 1/12 of my year booze-free paid off in the end — knowing you hate failing more than you love drinking feels pretty good.

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