The honest reasons behind giving up alcohol for Dry January
‘Dry January’ is in full swing and we want to find out the health and social aspects of drinking alcohol vs staying sober.
If you’ve spent most of your December drinking, you may be having a break from the booze as January gets into full swing. Over a hundred thousand people across the UK are embarking on the Dry January challenge, an annual campaign run by Alcohol Change UK that started in 2012, which encourages people to give up alcohol for a whole month, in order to see the benefits of sobriety. But, what exactly are the good things about giving up, or cutting down on, your alcohol intake? How does it feel when you quit drinking – is life ever the same again?
In this blog, we’re exploring the impact alcohol can have on our health and the reasons to try going ‘dry’, as well as talking to people about their experiences with alcohol, including those who have changed their drinking habits.
Is alcohol really THAT bad?
We Brits love our booze! In 2017, 57% of adults drank alcohol at least once a week in the UK, and 27% of them were ‘binge drinkers’ (ONS 2018), defined as “one whom drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, with the intention of getting drunk”. So, does drinking regularly or to get drunk really matter? Is it doing us harm?
In a nutshell, yes, drinking matters. Alcohol has a negative impact on the body every time we drink it; for example, drinking even one or two glasses of alcohol:
- May affect blood sugar levels (as it contains LOTS of sugar)
- Increases calorie intake
- Dehydrates the body
- Affects sleep
- Affects coordination, speech and behaviour
- Makes the stomach more acidic, which can lead to gut inflammation
- May cause anxiety
No wonder hangovers are no fun at all. Regular, long-term drinking or drinking over and above recommended amounts of alcohol can also lead to more serious health conditions. For example, there is a link between regular drinking and high blood pressure, a condition with no symptoms but which can have a serious impact on our health. Drinking lots of alcohol over a long period of time damages organs, putting you at an increased risk of having a stroke, or developing kidney disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease.
Misuse of alcohol is also linked to several types of cancer and may have a part to play in the development of dementia. Alcohol also has an impact on our moods and mental health, and can be a contributing factor for people experiencing anxiety or living with depression. Additionally, alcohol plays a role in weight gain, which can lead to obesity, and heavy drinkers may be at risk of developing osteoporosis.
It’s important to note that lots of other factors impact on the likelihood of us developing some of these health conditions, including our genes, lifestyle and general health, but experts know that alcohol plays a large role. Sticking to recommended amounts may limit longer term effects of alcohol, but official guidelines often change and research constantly reveals that, as a nation, the more we drink, the more ill we are becoming.
For decades, we were told that certain drinks were better for us than others – moderate drinking of red wine was suggested as being beneficial for the heart – but now researchers are saying this probably isn’t the case. The UK Chief Medical Officer currently advises that, to keep the risks of alcohol-related health problems low, the maximum intake should be 14 units a week, and these should be consumed at separate intervals (no bingeing), with some days being drink-free.
These are the cold, hard facts. We may love booze, but our bodies don’t return that affection.
The benefits of being sober
We decided to speak to some drinkers and non-drinkers, to see why they accept or decline a drink, and their input has been really interesting.
Amy R had recently stopped drinking for 7 weeks and counting, enjoying a sober Christmas. She used to have just two alcohol-free days a week, drinking 2-3 alcoholic drinks, 5 days a week. She explained to us why she decided to take the plunge and quit.
“I stopped drinking because I'd cut down a bit in recent weeks but still couldn't do it in moderation. It's all or nothing for me, really. I get anxiety from drinking and it was becoming unmanageable and not worth it. I was also getting run down and ill constantly and was generally just annoyed at myself after drinking.
“The first 2 weeks were quite hard at times, as I still had the physical cravings, but I kept reminding myself why I was doing it and I managed to carry on. I also read a really good book called This Naked Mind which really helped to re-train my thought processes on drinking. It's actually been easier than I expected but I think a lot of that is down to me genuinely wanting to do it.”
We asked Amy how she has found the experience and how not drinking has changed her life.
"I don't go out much now anyway but the main adjustment has been in my relationship. We would go to the pub or drink whilst watching a film so it's been hard in some ways getting used to that change. My other half has been supportive as he understands why I'm doing it. I've been out with friends over Christmas and driven but still genuinely had a good time because I wasn't spending the night worrying about how I’d feel the next morning.
“My close friends are surprised and first reactions have been “are you pregnant?!” because they can't believe I would just stop. However, I've found with nearly all my friends that once we discuss it in more detail they get it and some have even said they wish they could do it too.”
Amy has seen numerous benefits already and plans to continue to stay sober.
“My skin is great and I feel much clearer and energetic. Just the knowledge that I am healthier helps greatly. The thought of a hangover now fills me with dread! My mental health has definitely seen the biggest improvement. Not just anxiety but also feeling more positive and in control of my body and mind. I'm proud of myself for doing it. Especially over Christmas.”
Having a go at going dry
We also spoke to Amy C, who has decided to do ‘Dry January’ and commit to staying sober for the month. She explained to us why she usually drinks, why she feels she needs to re-evaluate her relationship with alcohol and what she hopes to gain from quitting.
“Before having kids, I only ever drank if I was on a night out and I never really drank to excess; it would never enter my head to drink at home. Since having kids everything is more stressful – juggling work, kids, housework, social life and so on. I'd find myself craving a glass of wine on a Friday night to calm me down, which has escalated to me drinking a whole bottle to myself every Friday night and sometimes Saturday nights too.
“I'm taking a break because it's all becoming a bit much. I'm aware of the amounts I'm drinking and I know it's not good for me. It also has a negative effect on my mental health the next day and makes me feel horrendous. After a stressful week I look forward to a glass of wine and that first sip just feels like heaven, as if it's taking all my stress away, but really I suppose it just masks it for a few hours and maybe that's what I enjoy?
“I’m also concerned about the potential health risks of continuing to drink too much, after seeing family and friends who have succumbed to the perils of alcohol, and I think this is why I'm taking a step back to reassess my health (both mental and general).”
Interestingly, another lady we spoke to, called Shawny, did Dry January once before and has no plans to do it again:
“I did dry January a couple of years ago and I have no interest in doing it again! I didn’t struggle to do it, but I also didn’t feel any better, or lose any weight, so I say… bring on the wine! It’s just as healthy and there’s wine!”
Everyone will have a different experience of alcohol and taking a break or giving up completely may not be for everybody. We think Dry January helps to put the spotlight on drinking, making us assess our feelings towards it. If we feel we drink acceptable amounts, or that we couldn’t live without a drink, at least we are aware of that.
Why I stopped drinking alcohol
Our colleague Emma, chose to go sober in August 2018 and agreed to share her story about the role alcohol has played throughout her life, ultimately leading to going sober last August.
“I have always loved alcohol. From the first time I drank (shockingly at age 13, at youth club), I loved that I had found something that made me more extrovert, braver and less socially anxious. My drinking hit a peak in my twenties, when I would binge-drink every night of the weekend (which, to me, was Thursday night to Sunday night) leaving me exhausted, hungover and anxious at work for four days, until Thursday rolled around again.
“I never thought about the risks of drinking and, after a heavy weekend at a festival or a hen party, my friends and I would laugh about our kidneys hurting! I never thought about any damage I was doing and figured that would only matter when I was older. I just wanted to have a good time, and I thought it was boring to not drink. I didn’t think I would enjoy a night out, a meal, a holiday if I wasn’t drunk or at least tipsy for most of it. All my friends were the same and our culture was frankly, to live for getting wasted. All our memories and stories start with ‘you remember when we were so drunk at…’ and we laugh about the silly or reckless things we did.
“I built up such a tolerance to booze that I could drink large amounts of really strong drinks which my (petite) body just couldn’t handle, and I would waste hours and even days in bed with hangovers, recovering from getting home in the early hours of the morning. I didn’t really think about what it was doing to my body inside, but I knew it made my stomach feel bad, my skin look rough and made me have really low mood or feelings of depression. It was only when I started having anxiety attacks after drinking that I realised I needed to calm down a bit. I did, but I still drank and still got drunk, just not as often. It’s hard to change decades-long habits and I didn’t know who I would be if I wasn’t a drinker.”
For Emma, everything changed after the birth of her daughter in 2015 – including her attitude towards alcohol.
“After having my daughter a few years ago, I developed a better attitude towards drinking, because I wanted to feel good mentally and I didn’t want to lose any more time being hungover when I had her to look after and spend precious time with.
“Since August 2018, I have not touched a drop of alcohol. I’m on a health kick and I’m aware I need to stay well for my family. I write all day about health conditions and I am really conscious of living a long, healthy life. I realise now that I don’t need to drink and I’ve had some brilliant nights out being designated driver – but it’s still hard. I still fancy a glass of prosecco at a celebration, or a cocktail when I’m on holiday. I don’t know if I will be sober forever but for me, now, it’s the right choice. I think we all take responsibility for our own bodies and lives, and if you want to have a few drinks, get wildly drunk, or stay sober, it is entirely up to you. Just make yourself aware of the risks and if you think you rely on alcohol too much, consider what you can do about it.”
If you are concerned about your drinking, feel that you need some support to reduce your alcohol intake, or just want to be more aware of the risks of drinking alcohol, visit Alcohol Change UK or Drink Aware.
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