MARCH 1ST 2021

The undeniable magic of alcohol-free living

BY AMRAJ LALLY

SELF-CARE, INTROSPECTION, HEALTH

Imagine if there was a magic tonic that if taken daily for a month, could give you better skin, lower your blood sugar and cholesterol, increase your concentration, and manage your weight. Would you take it? Well researchers found having a month free from alcohol is associated with these improved health and well-being markers.[1] This might explain why Dry January has taken the world by storm, with now over four million people taking part in the challenge. Psychologist Richard de Visser surveyed 800 people doing Dry January and discovered 71% realised they didn’t need to drink to enjoy themselves, 71% slept better, and 58% lost weight.[2] His research also uncovered something remarkable. After the month was over, many participants felt more comfortable refusing drinks and drank less long-term.[3] In short, there were incredible short-term and long-term rewards by temporarily stopping drinking.

What if this magic could be magnified? A growing number of people — including me — have explored this curious possibility. As the clock struck midnight and 2021 rolled in, news of Chrissy Teigen leaving alcohol behind trended on Twitter — adding her name to an impressive roster of sober celebrities, including Naomi Campbell, Natalie Portman, Kendrick Lamar and Zac Efron. These names are a tiny part of the bigger picture which shows more and more of us making the power-move to not drink, with young people more eager than ever to go alcohol-free. In fact, the number of 16-24 year olds not drinking in England rose dramatically from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015[4] — that’s about 1 in 3 young people. 

My last birthday saw me curled up under the covers in a miserable ball, gut-wrenchingly sick from drinking the night before. I’m sure the global pandemic was involved in my heightened hangover but it also offered me the opportunity to closely examine my life. After going through the cycle time after time, I so desperately never wanted to feel like this again. While staring into darkness, a bright spark of inspiration came to me. What if I didn’t have to feel like this again? In that moment, I knew that I wanted to go alcohol-free long-term. I didn’t feel a sense of loss. I felt lucky for the opportunity to live more freely.

It never really crossed my mind that I could choose not to drink. I would think, I’m not that bad… I’m not an alcoholic. There’s a simple formula you are taught: if you’re not an alcoholic, then you continue to drink. But it’s misguided for us to use alcoholism as a barometer. It stops us from examining our own relationship with alcohol, and assumes the problem is only on the very extreme end of the spectrum. The truth of the matter is, one in six people develop health problems from drinking too much, even though nine out of ten heavy drinkers are not technically considered ‘clinically addicted’.[5]

‘How bad did you get?’ is the question that is frequently asked. Writer Catherine Gray believes that when we ask this, we often use the said person as a “benchmark of abnormal drinking”, rather than empathising with them and recognising the similarities in experiences. If you find it unimaginable or horrifying to never drink again, you are probably dependent on alcohol. It may only be a twice weekly psychological one, or an ‘I have to drink at parties’ dependence, but it’s a dependence nonetheless.[6] The problem with waiting for some part of a story where you can say “well I’ve never done that! ” is that it’s fine until it’s not. The slippery slope doesn’t seem much of a slippery slope when you don’t realise you’re sliding down.

Instead of asking yourself if things are enough of a problem to stop, Holly Whitaker says there is a better question to ask: is alcohol getting in the way of my best life?[5] Hangovers destroy weekends, birthdays and holidays. Regular alcohol use causes chronic imbalances which affect sleep, sex, empathy, eating, motivation and mood. And heavy drinking on average shortens your lifespan by 10-12 years. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of alcohol use, there is an adage in alcohol-free communities: nobody has ever regretted stopping drinking. 

You might read this and think going permanently alcohol-free is unnecessarily extreme. Why can’t I moderate? Doesn’t it get better when you get older and fall into drinking more responsibly? But what if it doesn’t get better? Currently more than four million over-50s in the UK binge drink at least once a week.[7] Some people can drink small amounts of alcohol occasionally and not experience severe health consequences. But what we don’t talk about is that alcohol is a highly addictive psychoactive drug, so much so that researchers at the National Institutes of Health found one in three Americans develop an alcohol use disorder (medically-recognised problematic drinking) in their lifetime.[8]

I have trialled many ways to ‘correct’ my drinking behaviour. First the good old ‘drink limit’ where I gave myself a limit of 3 or 4 drinks. This fails because alcohol is so biochemically moreish and reduces our ability to refuse drinks too. Then there was the ‘drink a glass of water with every drink’ trick, which helps but means you have to go to the toilet every 15 minutes. There’s the ‘drink-switch’ where you swap a ‘problem’ drink out for another. That’s fine until the replacement drink needs replacing. I’ve had sober months here and there and observed intermittent fasting diets — which meant I would skip alcohol for finite time periods, but I had no solid plan or clear path to success after I left the temporary period of abstention.

Allen Carr — who is an expert in psychological dependencies and not a British comedian —points out that while mainstream advice recommends cutting down gradually, moderation is more difficult than stopping. This is a fact backed up by neuroscientist Alex Korb,[6] and something I personally resonated with. It turns out I’m not that special, which is always a fact I’m unhappy to hear. However, it is a consolation that this is a normal trajectory for lots of people. I thought that if I put in enough energy, I might be able to master the balancing act of moderation even if it isn’t much fun. But it requires too much energy and for me to always be in the right headspace. In the end I couldn’t be bothered. Having zero drinks is much easier than a few. It is important to remember that alcohol is an addictive substance. If you can’t moderate, you shouldn’t think the problem is with you.

Consuming alcohol has been long-thought to enhance happiness, foster connection and cool off anxiety. Even though I knew the cons of drinking, the thought of its redeeming features held me back. When I learned about the neurochemistry behind alcohol I learned a different story.

Alcohol simultaneously excites and depresses through its effects on your brain chemistry. It surges ‘feel-good hormones’ dopamine and serotonin through your body and at the same time it has depressive effects by decreasing glutamate (which slows down your “brain’s highways”) and increasing GABA (which has a sedative effect).[9]

“By jacking up dopamine levels in your brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making you feel great… while at the same time altering other neurochemicals which enhance feelings of depression.” ~ David DiSalvo | Neuroscientist

Although you might feel less anxious when you sip your first drink, alcohol also fuels the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline which means you can end up feeling more anxious and agitated than before drinking.

The next day — as the level of serotonin and dopamine decrease — you’re left being deficient in these important ‘feel-good’ hormones and so it’s likely you will feel very down. You will also have lower GABA levels and higher glutamate levels than usual, which can cause a feeling of anxiety. Long-term heavy drinking leads to sustained lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, and increased cortisol, which means overall you’re more likely to feel depressed and experience chronic anxiety in the long run.

“For so long, I thought alcohol had helped me relieve anxiety — that’s what it promises, right? But somewhere along the line, I realized the equation was actually reversed: drinking alcohol was like pouring gasoline on my anxiety. Maybe I’d feel some relief for a little while, but then — boom — I was spinning like a top. Each morning after was worse than the last.”

 ~ Laura Mckowen

I used to think that drinking smoothed out interactions and fostered connection, and it was unthinkable for me to give up all the social benefits of drinking. But you can’t selectively numb emotions. When you drink, you end up dulling down your compassion and intelligence too.[6] You have a more limited emotional bandwidth. And within this limited range of emotions, you experience elation, depression and anger more intensely. Your feelings aren’t fully authentic.

“Drinking gave me the illusion of connection, though, so when I was drinking with people… I felt like we were getting closer. I felt like alcohol allowed us to break down barriers, to slide closer to our truer selves and to each other, closer than we could ever get without it. But when the buzz wore off, the separateness returned, and often it was intensely magnified.”

~ Laura Mckowen

Going alcohol-free doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy bars or parties, in fact alcohol-free socialising can be see as ‘HD socialising’ in the words of  Catherine Gray.[6] I remember the first time I set eyes on a HD screen: the unimaginable amount of detail, vividness and sharpness. Everything felt more real… even if a bit too clear. That’s the same experience being sober: there’s no blurriness to smooth over blemishes. But Gray explains that only reason alcohol smooths things over is because it inebriates, dulling your brain. Alcohol-free socialising requires us to embrace vulnerability, but in turn it allows us to foster more authentic connection. After all, as Brené Brown found in her research “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy courage, empathy, and creativity.”[11]

“It takes a while to acclimatise to socialising in HD, but once you do, you wouldn’t go back to the old blurry picture. You start to forget that the new picture is HD at all.”

~ Catherine Gray

Going alcohol-free, whether temporarily or long-term, is becoming increasingly enticing. It’s healthful. It’s vulnerable. It’s disruptive. I don’t think alcohol offers any true benefits, so it’s not ‘giving up’ anything. You might think alcohol is what you need to be social, but you can be social without drinking at all. You might think alcohol tempers anxiety, but it fuels it. You might think alcohol connects us with others, but it only hinders true vulnerable intimacy. Alcohol-free life offers incredible gains in not only health, energy and money but also in confidence, self-respect and freedom.[12] And, I believe, it unlocks a happier life. It has for me.

[1] Our liver vacation: Is a Dry January really worth it? | Andy Coghlan
[2 ] How ‘Dry January’ is the secret to better sleep, saving money and losing weight | Anna Ford
[3] Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during “Dry January” and subsequent alcohol use | Richard de Visser and his colleagues
[4] Investigating the growing trend of non-drinking among young people |Linda Ng Fat and her colleagues
[5] Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol | Holly Whitaker
[6] The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober | Catherine Gray
[7] More than four million over 50s are binge drinking at least once a week during lockdown | We Are With You
[8] National Institutes of Health research | Bridget Grant
[9] What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain | David DiSalvo
[10] We Are the Luckiest | Laura Mckowen
[11] Daring Greatly | Brené Brown
[12] This passage is adapted from Easyway To Stop Smoking | Allen Carr (who has also written extensively on alcohol dependency)