Should You Stop Drinking?

By R. Scott Rappold
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

March 16, 2016 -- When Robert Parmer gave up alcohol, it wasn't for any of your classic reasons. He didn't have a run-in with the law. He wasn't in a failing relationship. He didn't get a stern lecture from a doctor.

Instead, the 25-year-old Boise State University student did it for his health -- and just to see if he could. A six-pack-a-night kind of guy, he decided to stop drinking during January 2015. He felt so good he extended it for 2 more months. He also took the challenge at the start of this year, and decided to stay on the wagon this February, too.

The benefits lasted long after he decided it was okay to have a beer again.

"Once I did start drinking again, I was a lot more mindful of using moderation and making sure I wasn't getting so drunk that I had to figure out a ride home ... (I was) using a lot better judgment and having like one or two drinks over the course of the night instead of however many it led to because I got too drunk," Parmer says.

Parmer says he was inspired by Dry January, which started in the United Kingdom in 2012. The campaign targets social drinkers, asking them to give up booze for the entire month of January. Two million people worldwide pledged to do so this year.

Participation in the event has grown each year, organizers say. Although it's impossible to know how many Americans are giving it a try, the campaign has inspired social media buzz, as some writers and bloggers, like Parmer, have taken a break from alcohol and shared their experiences.

Len Horovitz, MD, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, noticed in late 2015 and early 2016 that more of his patients were asking about the benefits of giving up alcohol, though usually because they wanted to lose weight as part of a New Year's resolution.

"Even a glass of wine is 250 to 300 calories. If you multiply that times seven, that's 2,000 calories a week," Horovitz says. "That's about a pound of weight lost a week if nothing else changes and you simply eliminate alcohol."

Whatever the reason, abstaining for a short while can reset your relationship with booze before it can become a problem, experts say. And limited research suggests it can have some health perks, even in a fairly short time.

"We do a lousy job, about 5-8 years before an alcoholic has reached their rock bottom, of giving them other alternatives and options to recover," says Denver recovery expert Dave Andrews, co-author of The 30-Day Sobriety Solution: How to Cut Back or Quit Drinking in the Privacy of Your Own Home.

He says 500 people have signed up for the program, which involves using the book and his web site.

"We don't say, 'In 30 days you can change your life and go back to the way you were,' because that would be crazy," Andrews says. "But in 30 days you can change the whole trajectory of your life, and if you then instill some new habits and some new behaviors, you can certainly maintain that."

'A Double-Edged Sword'

For Lori Bogedin, a restaurant owner in northeast Pennsylvania, the after-work wine had become a "double-edged sword" that was cutting other things out of her life.

"You come home and think, 'A couple glasses of wine and relaxing, and that will be wonderful.' But you get home and you relax and that's it," says Bogedin, 50. "You find yourself just sitting there and having another glass of wine and usually another. Then in the morning, it's off to work, and I'm tired because I didn't sleep well or I drank too much, and you get home and the whole thing just starts all over again."

That was a year and a half ago. She says her first 30 alcohol-free days led to a complete transformation of her life. She felt better and began exercising. Her husband, who also tackled the challenge, lost weight. She wrote the book she'd always wanted to write, and then wrote another, and she and her husband started an Internet radio station.

And she can still have that one glass of wine, but she rarely reaches for a second.

"That routine, once it's broken, is broken. You can replace it with another routine," she says.

Parmer, the college student, says his first Dry January wasn't easy. At first he had anxiety and trouble getting shut-eye. But he gradually realized that sleep without alcohol is a whole different kind of rest.

"When you're drinking a lot, you obviously have no problem falling asleep, but you don't realize how poor the quality of sleep you're getting absolutely is until you take a step back and get a good solid 8 hours of sleep when you're not drinking. It's like, 'Wow, I feel completely rejuvenated.'"

He had more energy, was more productive at work and school, and noticed his complexion was clearer. But the real kicker came when he realized how much money he was saving -- that he'd been spending more money on alcohol than food.

Though he plans to enjoy beer again, he says he will keep the tradition alive of abstaining every January.

"I will probably continue to do it every year. It gives me more accountability for myself."

Alcohol and Health

The government warning on every container of alcohol only scratches the surface of the dangers of drinking.

The heart, pancreas, brain, skin, and immune system all suffer from booze, which also can increase the risks of certain kinds of cancer. But it's the liver, which filters toxins from our bodies, that is most prone to harm. Drinking more than the liver can process over the long term can lead to alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and, in the worst case, alcoholic cirrhosis, which usually leads to a liver transplant or death.

Of the 71,713 total liver disease deaths among people age 12 or over in 2013, 46.4%involved alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

So can going cold turkey, even if it's only for a short time, help? Maybe.

Researchers at the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School did a small study last fall of 10 people who considered themselves to be "normal" drinkers and agreed to abstain for 5 weeks.

Their liver fat, a prelude to liver damage, fell by an average of 15%, and blood sugar, a sign of diabetes risk, fell by 16%. Blood cholesterol dropped by 5%, and the abstainers lost an average of 3 pounds. The only negative they reported was less social contact.

If someone is drinking to the point of a blackout or other changes of behavior, it's more serious, Horovitz says. But for the average light-to-moderate drinker, abstaining from booze can be just one part of a healthy new regimen.

"Alcohol is really just part of the more general landscape of a person's health habit, and when alcohol is light and stays light, you usually find their other health habits are in line with that."

Andrews, the author and recovery counselor, says quitting for 30 days helps you understand the role drinking plays in your life. He says it's also a more forgiving approach than traditional all-or-nothing programs that could be an obstacle for some people.

William R. Miller, former co-director of the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions, has been arguing for this approach since he first published the then-controversial book How to Control Your Drinking in 1976, most recently updated in 2005.

"We used to think there were two kinds of people in the world, alcoholics and non-alcoholics, and that doesn't seem to be so," he says.

The Dry January concept, or any other vacation from alcohol, is beneficial, he says.

"To practice not doing something you habitually do, it builds up your self-control muscle, your ability to manage your own behavior," he says.

"A relapse is always possible. What you (quit) for is to learn from it, to kind of discover what life is like without drinking, the ways in which you might be using alcohol."


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SOURCES: Robert Parmer, student who quit drinking, Idaho. Lori Bogedin, restaurant owner who quit drinking, Pennsylvania. Dave Andrews, addiction counselor; author, The 30-Day Sobriety Solution: How to Cut Back or Quit Drinking in the Privacy of Your Own Home. William R. Miller, retired professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of New Mexico; former co-director, Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions. Len Horovitz, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York. "What Is 'Dry January' and Why Is It a Thing?" "Going Dry: The Benefits Of A Month Without Booze." Dry January. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Alcohol's effects on the body." American Liver Foundation: "Alcohol-induced liver disease." New Scientist: "Our liver vacation - Is a dry January really worth it?" The Drinks Business: " 'DRY JANUARY' SEES ALCOHOL SALES HALVED IN UK."

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