Whether we’re aware of it or not, alcohol’s presence is everywhere. We live in a society that normalizes binge drinking and popping a bottle for every occasion. This means alcohol at birthday parties, at weddings, at graduation celebrations… there’s no escaping it!
However, social norms around alcohol are undergoing a subtle shift. We’ve seen this with the rise of Dry January, as well as with all of the celebrities who are speaking out about their own sobriety journeys. It’s becoming more normalized to question whether alcohol really serves us.
Perhaps you’ve been sober curious for a while, or you’d just like to cut back on your alcohol intake. Whatever your goal is, there are several benefits of quitting or cutting back on alcohol — physical, emotional, and social. Here are a few to expect.
Benefit #1: Improved Physical Health
We’re well aware of what alcohol can do to our bodies, especially if we’ve ever been hungover. While we’ve likely experienced short-term effects such as hangovers, there are several long-term health risks that increase when we consume alcohol to excess.
When we drink too much alcohol in the long run, this can lead to liver dysfunction, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, weight gain, weakened immunity, and even a greater risk of developing certain cancers.
The dangers of excess alcohol consumption have even become a global public health issue. The World Health Organization attributes 5.1% of the global burden of disease to alcohol consumption. And over 3 million alcohol-related deaths (or 5.3% of all deaths) occur worldwide each year.
When we significantly cut back on alcohol — or quit drinking altogether — we dramatically lower our risk of a variety of ailments. In fact, a 2018 study found that participants who underwent a short-term period of sobriety lost weight, had improved blood pressure, and contained fewer cancer-related growth factors in their blood.
Benefit #2: Better Mental Health
Anyone who’s ever experienced “hangxiety” can attest — the mental health effects brought about by alcohol can be agonizing! Not only this, but those of us who already struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues can experience an increase in our symptoms once alcohol’s effects wear off. This can keep us stuck in an endless cycle in which we drink to feel better, then feel worse, and so on.
Though alcohol can bring about temporary stress relief, in the long run, it’s throwing many of our hormones and neurotransmitters out of balance. This can cause mental health challenges, or exacerbate existing issues.
When we quit or cut back on alcohol, we remove its influence over our brain chemistry, and thus, allow our bodies to return to their baseline.
In the beginning this can be challenging, as we must turn to healthier coping mechanisms to avoid a return to previous alcohol use. However, over time, when we stop relying on alcohol to boost our moods, we can get the same benefits through healthier activities.
For example, we can meditate, walk in nature, play board games with friends, sweat in an exercise class, or dance it out to live music. The list is endless when we look consciously for opportunities to entertain ourselves or relax without alcohol.
Benefit #3: A Healthier Complexion
All too often, we don’t think of alcohol as an issue when it comes to our looks. But overindulging in alcohol can influence our external appearance in many ways. Now, we should be clear — there’s nothing vain about wanting to improve our appearance!
We may have noticed drier skin after a night of heavy drinking. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, which means it promotes greater urine production. We become dehydrated more quickly when we’re drinking, and this can manifest externally through dry, dull skin.
Drinking too much alcohol can also make our eyes puffy. When we’re losing water through our urine, the body retains water in certain areas to compensate. One of these is under the eyes. Alcohol can also lead to sleep deprivation (which we’ll chat more about in the next section), contributing to puffy, bloodshot eyes.
If we’ve lacked that desired “glow” for a while, alcohol can definitely be to blame! When we reduce or remove it, we ensure that our skin stays more hydrated. And thus, our complexion will improve.
Benefit #4: Higher Energy Levels
Who doesn’t want more energy?! Between our many responsibilities between home, work, and social commitments, it can feel like we’re always running on low battery. Now, throw alcohol into the mix, and this can deplete us even further.
Alcohol is a natural depressant, meaning it slows our nervous systems down. In the hours following alcohol consumption, we may feel relaxed, lethargic, and even a little drowsy. Many people think this can help them fall asleep faster and sleep better, but science suggests this is false.
Alcohol actually impacts the quality and quantity of our sleep by interfering with our sleep cycles. Throughout an average night, we’ll go through four to six sleep cycles. One important part of the sleep cycle is REM, or rapid eye movement sleep. It helps us consolidate memories and regulate our emotions, so when we miss out on REM sleep, we’re more irritable and mentally foggy the next day.
When we consume alcohol, it can also cause fragmented sleep, waking us up several times throughout the night. This can make us feel sluggish and fatigued the following day.
Once we quit drinking, or cut back significantly, we can experience improvements in our overall sleep quality (and quantity!). As a result, we’ll have much more energy — physically and emotionally.
Benefit #5: Improved Physical Fitness
Alcoholic beverages are high in calories (a typical margarita has a whopping 700!). This typically comes from much of the added sugar — whether that’s through soda, juice, or flavored syrups.
When we drink high-calorie alcoholic beverages, our body prioritizes processing and getting rid of the alcohol before anything else. That means the extra sugar gets stored as fat, leading to weight gain. We can do all the crunches and bench presses we want. But as long as alcohol still plays a big role in our lives, we won’t be able to achieve the optimal results of our efforts.
However, when we take alcohol out of the picture, or reduce its presence in our lives, we recalibrate our metabolism. This can make it easier to lose or maintain our weight, and we’ll also notice more changes in our fitness levels when we exercise.
Furthermore, alcohol can also impact the digestive system, making it harder for our bodies to absorb certain key nutrients. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol can inflame the gut lining and lead to intestinal permeability. This can put us at greater risk for nutrient deficiencies, even if we’re already eating a very healthy diet.
By cutting back on (or quitting) alcohol, we can promote gut healing, which, alongside a nutrient-dense diet, can help us take in all of the essential vitamins and minerals we need to maintain our health and fitness.
Benefit #6: Healthier Relationships
Unhealthy drinking habits can be a huge strain on our relationships. Perhaps we’ve said something we later regretted, missed out on an important event, or simply didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to support a loved one in need.
Alcohol can make us moody and unreliable, and can also make our communication less effective. This can lead to friends and family members becoming frustrated with us, and we may find ourselves in more arguments after a bout of heavy drinking.
Relationships require effort, and if alcohol is impacting our ability to be present with those who matter to us, then we must question the role it’s currently playing in our lives.
When we start cutting back or quitting, we take back the power to be the loyal friend or parent that our loved ones need. This can also improve our own well-being by reducing the amount of shame or regret we feel over our actions.
And the good news is, we can still enjoy time with our friends and loved ones in an alcohol-free fashion! This can look like finding alternative ways of fun — like taking a scenic sunset hike or enjoying a delicious brunch with some alcohol-free mocktails. Those who truly care about us will support our decision to cut back or quit.
Benefit #7: Fewer Memory Issues
Whether we can’t remember specific details from the night before, or experienced a full-on blackout, alcohol can impair our memory in the short term. (And can lead to long-term memory impairment, as well.)
When we consume alcohol, it disrupts our ability to encode new information. (It’s the classic “in one ear and out the other” phenomenon.) We may have trouble remembering things, like people’s names or where we placed one of our belongings. New information that we take in while we consume alcohol misses its chance of entering our long-term memory because of the disruption in the memory formation process.
And as we discussed earlier, alcohol also interferes with our REM sleep, which is essential for memory consolidation. When we reduce our alcohol intake, or quit altogether, our overall sleep can improve, which means that our memory will be much stronger.
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