Dry January, or opting out of drinking alcohol for the first month of the year, is an idea that has become increasingly popular. Some folks do it to jump-start their resolution to better health, while others may be looking to reassess their habits and relationship with alcohol. Many have even made it an annual tradition. For those who are sober-curious it can be helpful to first ask how much you've actually been drinking and why. Alcohol sales have soared since the start of the pandemic, even as bars and restaurants were closed for weeks on end. And as many of our normal routines were upended, new habits evolved.
There's good reason to be mindful about one's alcohol consumption, explains Dr. Leslie Smith, director of Integrative and Culinary Medicine at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield. "Alcohol is a causal factor in over 50 medical conditions, including cancers and liver problems, but also high blood pressure and depression. In truth it affects every organ in the body, generally in a negative way."
The body has an amazing ability to naturally detoxify, but this normal detoxification process is impaired when alcohol enters the picture. "One of the problems with consuming alcohol is that if the alcohol dehydrogenase, which is the main enzyme in the liver that helps to break down alcohols, gets overwhelmed, then the alcohol and its byproducts start to leach into other areas of the body," Smith explained. "This results in acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen, accumulating throughout your body, which then results in a hangover and other achy sore feelings in your body the day after heavy drinking."
Unfortunately, from a medical perspective, there aren't really any advantages to consuming alcohol. Even the idea of a "heart-healthy" glass of wine doesn't really hold water. Resveratrol, the antioxidant that gives wine its healthful properties, is present in many other foods, like blueberries and pistachios, that don't tax your liver and dry out skin, so from a strictly medical perspective there's no good reason for consuming wine or beer over getting resveratrol from other sources. "The spike that happens in your blood sugar when you drink alcohol is not helpful for your pancreas," Smith said, "and the alcohol itself causes problems for the liver as it tries to get rid of it. Alcohol also increases anxiety and depression, makes sleep worse and even reduces libido."
The advantages to cutting back your alcohol consumption are immediate, and taking an extended break allows the body to reset itself and focus on detoxing things other than alcohol, Smith said. "If the liver is constantly confronted with alcohol, which is kind of an emergency situation, it's not working to clean up other toxins that are floating around." When all of this happens in the context of tweaking other dietary habits, it can allow for a full exploration of how good you can really feel.
For those looking to enter into 2021 as the best possible version of themselves, an examination of their relationship with alcohol may be a part of that. "It's about exploring the possibilities of cutting down over a longer period of time," said Smith. "In terms of enacting change for yourself, it's generally easier to say I'm going to not do something for a set period of time, rather than simply try to cut back. Just like with sugar, many people have an easier time saying, I'm going to quit eating sweets for 30 days, rather than simply trying to cut back. The idea is that once you've hit that reset button it's much easier to ask yourself, 'Do really need to eat ice cream (or drink a glass of wine), every night?'"
During a set period of sobriety, many may realize that they're simply drinking out of boredom or as a way to manage stress. I've personally realized that since lockdown my nightly glass of wine had become less about enjoying a great vintage and more about marking the shift from daytime to evening. Now, armed with that new awareness, I've started going for a brisk afternoon walk at the end of the day instead.