How Much Good Does Not Drinking for a Month Actually Do?
January seems like the perfect month to lay off the booze for a bit, but why would you? Why?
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
The realisation that you've spent a year making a toxic wasteland of your body came on January 2nd, when you stumbled out of some house party coughing up mucky bits that could very well once have been part of your lungs or other vital organs. The next day, drenched in hangover sweats, scrolling past articles about body cleanses and Dry January on your timeline, you decided it was time to lay off the booze for a month.
Wonderful. Now, let's not make more of not drinking alcohol for a while than it is – pregnant women do it all the time, often for nine months or longer – but still, it can be a struggle. You won't want to be out of the house as much as you used to, you'll have to be hard on yourself at difficult moments and your friends will stop liking you for a bit.
So why, then, deny yourself the taste of sweet, sweet alcohol this month? What's the use, besides momentarily knowing to be true what you've always suspected – that you are a better person than your alcoholic friends? I did some reading and spoke to a clinical psychologist and the spokesperson of the Jellinek institute for drug and addiction prevention in Amsterdam, to see whether or not it makes sense for you to stop drinking for a month.
All images from Raymond van Mil and Sabine Rovers' photo series Drinken, dutten en een punt drukken on VICE Netherlands.
In 2013, 14 editors of New Scientist didn't drink for a month, after which they had themselves medically examined. At the end of the month it turned out that the editors on average had 15 percent less fat in their liver – and fat can lead to liver damage – and 16 percent less glucose in their blood. Aside from having less fatty livers and lower glucose levels, the team also on average lost three pounds without having changed their diet.
That's all making a lovely factual case for not drinking for a while, but unsurprisingly, the editors also reported that their social lives were negatively impacted by the experiment. Floor van Bakkum of the Jellinek clinic told me: "For many people, it's not quitting drinking that's the hardest, it's dealing with comments from other people. You're bound to hear: 'One drink won't hurt you!' or 'Are you pregnant or something?'"
On top of the fact that everyone else wants to see you fail, it seems that even your own body will want you to return to the bottle. Clinical psychologist Bart Vemer tells me that when your body is used to having a beer at 5 PM, your brain will start preparing for that beer at 4PM – getting your body ready to process an alcoholic beverage. "Your liver goes into a different state, the part of your brain that thinks of alcohol activates and starts asking: 'Are we there yet?' Those impulses are chemical at first – your body responds in a certain way, and that releases feelings and thoughts. When you stop drinking, those needs don't go away. You'll be grumpy and tired – or you'll channel that activity into something else that's bad for you. Those symptoms will lessen after a while, when your body starts to realise that it's not getting a drink."
But there's something you can give back to your body to make it stop whining – rest. "After three weeks of not drinking, the quality of people's sleep is generally greatly improved," van Bakkum tells me. "People who drink a few beers before bed tend to fall asleep easily, but end up sleeping lightly. On alcohol, your body doesn't rest as well as it should." Getting more and better sleep is important if you want to keep your resolutions, because a shortage of sleep is disastrous for your willpower, says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who teaches the science of willpower at Stanford University. Not getting enough sleep disrupts the part of the brain responsible for taking decisions and controlling impulses.
Generally, your mental wellbeing improves after a month of abstinence – you'll feel healthier, more focused and your memory will be better. But both van Bakkum and Vemer say that depends on what kind of drinker you are – if you drink to forget, quitting will obviously make you have to deal with whatever issues are upsetting you. Doing that won't improve your mental wellbeing in a month, but it's healthier nonetheless.
I finally asked if there is anything you can do to make not drinking in January easier. Van Bakkum says that by not drinking, you'll start to realise that there's alcohol involved in way more situations than you think. She advises to think about those situations in advance and prepare for them. "It's smart to think ahead about what you're going to drink instead, or how you're going to decline when someone offers you one. Or consider whether it would be too hard to even go at all." It's obviously also a good move to drag others into your arid abyss. "When you do it together, you don't have to justify your actions constantly. Some people have WhatsApp groups to talk to each other when they're having a tough time of it."
Giving up booze for a month will get you into a better physical and mental state but the real question is what good it'll do, if you're only going to get back on it as soon as the clock hits midnight on January 31st. The one thing no one will be able to take away from you after Dry January though, is that moral higher ground. You will have exhibited enough discipline and therefore be officially better than everyone else. Bar pregnant women.
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