The benefits of a sober month
A lot can happen in a month, it turns out!
image Tom Holland, 2022, photo by Xavi Torrent/Getty Images
words Rhys Thomas
So you’re doing it. You’ve decided, this October, as the summer comes to an end and the pumpkins come out and people start ringing out trick or treat and the pirates get particularly freaky, you’re going to go without alcohol. You’re going to raw-dog life by partaking in sober October.
At the core of ‘Sober October’ is actually charity, the name was coined by MacMillan Cancer Support, and every year many people go sober in order to raise money for them, you can learn more about that here. It was then further popularised three years ago when Joe Rogan announced he was going to participate. But there’s many reasons why people choose to take the month off drinking. This ranges from a bit of a reset for people who have had a heavy Summer, to those financially recuperating from festival season, to those who see it as a great excuse to not go out.
There’s also, of course, just the people who figure it’s a convenient time to cut back alcohol because friends are aware of, if not also participating in the challenge. Being able to practise temporary abstinence becomes less nerve-wrecking if it’s disguised as a game, too. There’s also the health benefits of reducing alcohol intake, of course.
Whatever your reason, you’re probably here wondering what exactly a month of sobriety can do for a human, and we’ll get into that shortly. Initially, and with some regret, we’ve got to point out that the consensus among health professionals and scientists is that a month isn’t enough time to create a new habit (or to get rid of a former habit).
Mindpath Health, an independent provider of outpatient behavioural health services, says it can take as much as 60 days to break a habit, and that this is the same for good and bad habits: “there isn’t a differentiation between good or bad— just how many times you’ve used the pattern. This can make it difficult to break or change unwanted habits.” Kiana Shelton says on behalf of the health service. Addiction can take longer, and is different to a habit. A standard stay at a rehab is between 28 and 90 days, for instance, but on the shorter duration of this scale generally there is also extensive aftercare provided by the rehab clinic.
So those hoping the month of not drinking can unlock a lifetime of sobriety might find it can take more time than this. That being said, a 30 day break is reported to be “the best way to start” according to the University of Notre Dame. It does take you at least half way there, after all and can help you to view how you could change your habits if you gave yourself more time. For example, if during sober October, you learned how to have a night out sober, even if you did go to bed earlier, that information is there for you to try and use in future. It may even confirm to you that you prefer to live sober and give your willpower the push it needs.
But anyway, for those simply keeping it dry until November, here’s what can be expected in the health department, according to Dr Ross Perry GP & Medical Director of Cosmedics.
“After your last drink the liver starts working overtime and the pancreas starts producing extra insulin, so it’s important to drink lots of water” he says. Adding that from there, “energy levels, sleep quality, and dark circles will all improve. Dry mouth and dull headaches should also go.”
After a couple days, the body goes into “detox mode, meaning headaches and grogginess will have subsided and you will start to feel more refreshed in general.” It takes 72 hours before you mentally and physically feel back to normal on average, he adds.
After a week
“After one week of not drinking, your sleep pattern becomes more regulated, you wake up with more energy and your skin looks clearer.” He says. Though it’s important to note that for people who drink more heavily, sleep can be impaired initially, as alcohol negatively affects our sleep, especially Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is deep sleep. Eventually though, you will generally sleep better.
Toward the end of the month
“If you don’t drink any alcohol for a month, the liver fat reduces up to 15 percent, increasing our ability to flush out toxins. You’ll often notice a flatter stomach and much clearer skin. Mild liver disease, like fatty liver can be reversed completely if a person stops drinking alcohol.” If you were to stop drinking for longer, Dr Perry says damaged liver cells “can return to normal after several months”.
Generally speaking, Dr Perry adds that giving up alcohol will “strengthen your immune system and make it easier for your body to fight off infection should you get ill.” GP and skincare Doctor Dr Johanna Ward, sheds more light on how alcohol impacts the skin:
“Alcohol is believed to be the second biggest cause of skin ageing after sun damage. The high sugar content in many alcoholic beverages also triggers breakouts, reduces skin plumpness, and dulls the complexion. Alcohol can also escalate inflammation and alter the skin's hormonal balance thereby worsening conditions like acne and rosacea, too.”
A month off drinking, she says, can have “incredible results”.
Finally, there’s the more holistic aspects. Mentally, alcohol is a depressant to the extent that the Mental Health Foundation says “Regular heavy drinking is linked to symptoms of depression” and that people with depression who stop drinking and feel better can find that “alcohol was causing” the depression. They also mention that while alcohol can reduce anxious feelings in the moment, people with anxiety can quickly find themselves “drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence.” The foundation recommends other methods of anxiety reduction, such as meditation, exercise, and “making time for things you enjoy”.
Another benefit of alcohol (or a concern initially if you’re a bit scared of the idea) is that you’ll have far more time on your hands when sober, given you won’t be drunk. This can lead people to finding other things to do which would provide further health benefits like eating well and exercising. Though of course it’s not guaranteed you will suddenly start running marathons and making your own poke bowls just because you’ve ditched the eight pints and cheesy chips, the newfound space can help us to find other habits, and some of these can contribute to the health benefits of giving up alcohol. So yeah, it turns out a month can have quite an impact on us. Something to mull over for Dry January, maybe.
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