How to Reestablish a Healthy Relationship With Alcohol

Dry January got its start in the United Kingdom about a decade ago as a public health campaign to help people become more aware of their alcohol consumption habits and jump-start a new relationship with booze. Since then, it’s caught on around the world as a way to reset after a drinks-heavy holiday season.

According to research conducted in December 2020 by survey company YouGov, 15% of American adults planned to participate in the month-long fast from alcohol in 2021.

If you were among them, know you’re in good company. But now that we’re most of the way through February, have you found yourself backsliding into your old ways, before the Dry January drought? If so, you’re also in good company. It can be difficult to navigate that rocky terrain between teetotaler and heavy drinker. Learning to moderate your alcohol use can be difficult, but it’s possible to reestablish a more healthful relationship with alcohol going forward.

[READ: Is Alcohol a Depressant?]

Drying Out

This year, the rise in popularity of the month-long undertaking called Dry January was aided in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Darby Fox, a behavioral therapist in private practice in the greater New York City metro area. For the past year since the pandemic began, “everybody’s been working from home, and I think a lot of people got used to having a cocktail at the end of the day. It broke up the day and signaled the end of the workday.”

In a time when so many things that we typically look forward to have been canceled, looking forward to a glass of wine at the end of the workday became an important stand-in for many. But that drink can rapidly turn into two or more, and before long, those drinks become a consistent habit that offers zero health benefits and plenty of health risks.

Alcohol consumption has been associated with a wide range of health risks, the most direct being liver disease. Risk of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease, depression and many other ailments also increases as alcohol consumption rises.

Fox says some people opt to take part in Dry January as a means of reassuring themselves that they do not have an issue with alcohol. “Some people have in the back of their minds that if they can go a month without drinking, that proves that have no problems with alcohol. But as people start to drink again, I want them to keep in mind that there’s no correlation there. To be able to abstain from alcohol for a month doesn’t mean you don’t have an alcohol problem.”

That’s because going right back to your previous habits negates the benefits of having taken a month off. “We start to get into trouble when we try to convince ourselves that ‘I was able to go without it for a month, so I can drink now whenever I want, and I can quit whenever I want,'” she explains. That deprivation approach can set you up for a rebound in over-consumption later.

[SEE: Alcoholic Hepatitis Symptoms: Here’s What You Need to Know.]

Benefits of Not Drinking

In December 2016, Hilary Sheinbaum a journalist and author in New York City, had been working hard on her beat as a food writer. She’d been attending a lot of red-carpet events and parties after work. “As a food and beverage writer, I was covering wine, beer, spirits and the industry as a whole on a regular basis,” she says. This meant a lot of taste-testing and events where more than a few drinks would be available.

The year was ending when she went to dinner with a friend. “We were catching up about everything, and because it was very close to New Year’s, the topic of New Year’s resolutions came about,” she recalls.

“I wasn’t somebody who made any resolutions historically, but my friend brought up this idea about Dry January, and how a friend of his had done it and felt great at the end of the month.” Sheinbaum didn’t think too much further about attempting a Dry January, because she felt she had to drink as part of her job.

But a seed had been planted. A few days later on New Year’s Eve, with a glass of champagne in hand, Sheinbaum texted her friend and challenged him to forgo alcohol for the next 31 days. If either of them slipped up, that person would have to buy the other dinner at their Manhattan restaurant of choice.

“I ended up winning,” she says, and while the dinner was nice, “I ended up winning so much more than a fancy meal.”

That month-long challenge changed her life. “I realized the effect that alcohol was having on my skin, my sleep, my mood, my productivity, my dating life. My life as a whole.”

That month without alcohol helped Sheinbaum “evaluate how I was spending my time and how alcohol was impacting my life.” Since 2017, Sheinbaum has “gone dry” every January, and a few other months here and there too. She recently wrote about the experience. Her book, “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” was published by HarperCollins in December 2020.

Sheinbaum shares some of the health impacts she experienced when abstaining from alcohol.

[SEE: Benefits of Drinking Ginger Water.]

Benefits of Abstaining From Alcohol

Sleep

Improved sleep was Sheinbaum’s “biggest epiphany. I was a terrible sleeper, and my anxiety was high. When I decided to forego drinking, my sleep almost immediately improved.”

By the second week without alcohol, Sheinbaum was sleeping through the night for the first time in years. “What I learned later was that alcohol might initially sedate you, but it’s going to cause awakenings because it’s a diuretic,” and you’ll need to get up to urinate during the night.

Sheinbaum’s experience is not uncommon, Fox says. “We often hear that when you’re not putting sugar into your body right before you go to sleep you often have more restful sleep.”

Skin

After just a few days of no alcohol, Sheinbaum noticed she looked different. “I felt like my skin was glow-ier. It was less dry and less dull. Again, alcohol is a diuretic, so it’s going to increase the appearance of fine line and wrinkles and dark, under-eye circles,” she says. While these blemishes didn’t disappear entirely, she says they did noticeably diminish. “They’re definitely less obvious.”

Energy and Mood

Because she was sleeping better, Sheinbaum noticed that she had a lot more energy too.

“I just felt more energetic and peppier. January is typically the coldest, gloomiest month of the year, and I often don’t feel as happy or motivated. But given that I was sleeping more — and alcohol is a depressant — without it I felt like my mood was elevated,” she says.

Weight Loss

Though it wasn’t a specific benefit Sheinbaum experienced herself, many people say that abstaining from alcohol is a great way to trim some excess pounds. Alcohol is a type of fermented sugar, and it’s high in calories. If you’re carrying around some extra weight, cutting out alcohol removes a whole mess of calories that don’t provide any nutritional benefit. Eliminating beer, wine or hard liquor instantly reduces your calorie intake, which can make achieving weight-loss goals more attainable.

Adapting to Less or No Alcohol

For Sheinbaum, despite those clear improvements, when she hit Feb. 1, she “had a drink at the end of my challenge. More than that, I think I woke up the next morning not feeling so great.” And because of that, she says it’s important to remember some practical considerations when you begin letting alcohol back into your life.

If you’ve laid off booze for a while, “be aware that your tolerance is not going to be what it was.” She also recommends eating before you head out for a celebratory drink, as that will slow the rate of absorption of the alcohol and help you metabolize it.

From a behavioral standpoint, Fox recommends developing some strategies to avoid reverting to the same habits you had before the break:

Consider your why. “We want people to connect with why they feel the need to have a drink each day,” Fox says. And getting to the bottom of the why can help you find an appropriate means of curbing that habit and quelling cravings.

Examine what worked. MJ Gottlieb, CEO and founder of Loosid, a digital platform for the sober community and those looking to follow a sober lifestyle, says finding other ways to connect is critical to getting and staying sober.

He recommends taking a real and honest look at what’s changed in your life during the month you abstained from alcohol. “What happened during Dry January? Often, people will find that they were dealing with life on life’s terms for the first time, instead on life on say, alcohol’s terms.” For example, discovering that you don’t actually need a drink to feel comfortable at a party can be a liberating experience.

“My hope is that as people come out of Dry January, from a productivity standpoint, they’ll look at it and say, ‘Wow! I woke up an hour earlier and started working out for the first time,’ and all these amazing things that happened. When you realize how much time is spent drinking, you end up replacing it with healthier habits.”

Select an alternate behavior. If you’ve been looking to a glass of wine at the end of yet another work-from-home day as a signal that you’re done for the day and moving on to personal time, consider if there’s another, more healthful behavior you can substitute.

“I want people to think about what other little habits can you enlist to help you to relax,” Fox says. For example, try simply turning off your phone for an hour to signal a clean break with the work day. Or go for a walk around the block. Engaging in some exercise will clear your mind and help you transition from work to home life in the same way that a commute home might have had in earlier days.

Substitute a non-alcoholic beverage. If you still really want to engage with the ritual of having a drink, try subbing in a non-alcoholic version of your preferred drink. Recently, more beverage companies have begun adding “virgin” versions of your favorite drinks to cater to the sober-curious movement. Many of these are delicious and can provide the same feeling of ritual you’d get from your regular drink, without the alcohol.

Find other ways to connect. For many people, heading to the bar after work for happy hour or with friends during the weekend is a way to destress and connect with others. But it can be dangerous for your health and your wallet.

Before his own journey to sobriety, Gottlieb says, “I thought sobriety would mean the end of fun, and it’s be all about coffee shops, diners and church basements.” But that led him to develop Loosid. “When I got sober, I wanted to build a platform that shows the unbelievable experience that can be had when choosing to live a sober life.”

Instead of only socializing in the context of drinking, look for other ways to connect with others. Join a club, pick up a hobby or make a pact with a friend to exercise together instead of heading to the bar. Gottlieb says this is one of the reasons that the Loosid community has grown so much lately — it provides a platform for connecting with other people in ways that don’t involve alcohol.

Make a plan. Fox says it’s perfectly acceptable to designate that you’ll only drink on certain days, but that might not be going quite far enough. “There’s nothing wrong with the philosophy of saying I’m only going to drink a couple days a week.” But she underscores that it’s important to still consider why you feel the need to include it in your weekly plan at all. Decide when you will and won’t indulge, and then stick to those rules for yourself.

Be mindful. When you do decide to have a drink, be present and mindful while doing so. Enjoy it for what it is, and when you’ve finished, consider whether you really need another glass or if one will do.

Lastly, just because you finished a Dry January challenge, that doesn’t mean you need to revert to any kind of alcohol consumption, either, Sheinbaum says. “The point of Dry January is really to see how alcohol is impacting your life. And if you want to choose not to drink anymore, or for a defined period of time, you should 100% absolutely do that. When it’s over, you don’t have to start drinking again.”

Gottlieb agrees. “Look at what happened during the month and how you were able to deal with challenges without a drink in your hand. And then use that as a life to carry forward as you go into February, March and April.”

More from U.S. News

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How to Reestablish a Healthy Relationship With Alcohol originally appeared on usnews.com

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