By Karla Walsh
What may have started as a time-stamped trend with Dry January and Sober October is now a full-blown movement.
Search #sobercurious on Instagram and you’ll discover more than 38,000 posts of mocktails and motivational quotes. Booze-free bars (such as Listen in Brooklyn, New York and Sans in Austin, Texas) and alcohol-free raves like Daybreaker are popping up from coast to coast. Non-alcoholic beers, like those by Athletic Brewing Company and Freestar actually taste legit, and zero-proof distilled mixers (see: Seedlip) can be found on bar shelves across the globe. Ruby Warrington even wrote a book on the topic, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connections, released in December 2018. Hear that? Blissful sleep and limitless presence.
Are More People Really Giving Up Alcohol?
More people are indeed choosing to abstain from alcohol most—or all—of the time. That’s in part due to the rise of the everyday athlete: Men want to perform at their peak in the gym, in the boxing ring, during their next marathon, you name it. And a hangover certainly doesn’t help you hit your goals, which are probably more ambitious than ever.
The proof is in the market: People are sending a non-spirited message with their money. Year over year, from 2017 to 2018, worldwide alcohol consumption dropped 1.6 percent, according to the drink marketing analysis group IWSR.
So, should you be saving that margarita for Cinco de Mayo alone, rather than every Taco Tuesday? Or is this a passing fad and it’s A-OK to crack open a Corona with your crew every time your baseball team hits the mound? We turned to medical pros and dug into research for answers.
How Does Alcohol Impact Your Health?
Before we answer that question, it’s important to note the current definition of “a drink” to put this all into context. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines one serving of alcohol as:
- One 12-ounce beer with 5 percent alcohol
- One 5-ounce glass of wine with 12 percent alcohol
- One 1.5-ounce serving of 80-proof liquor
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans allow up to one serving each day for women and up to two servings each day for men to stay within the “moderate drinking” range. “Heavy drinking” is eight or more drinks a week for women, and 15 or more in a single week for men.
While there have been countless studies on the impact of alcohol on the body and brain—including a controversial 2018 Lancet study that suggested that any drinking more than 3.5 ounces per week is detrimental to longevity—it’s tough to isolate for personal factors and genetics. It’s even tougher to prove a definitive cause-and-effect relationship.
“Studies examining the health effects of alcohol are challenging to interpret,” says George F. Koob, Ph.D., the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in Bethesda, Maryland.
What we know for sure: “For people underage, women who are pregnant, and people taking medications that can interact negatively with alcohol, the optimal level of alcohol consumption is zero,” Koob says.
We also know that any level of alcohol consumption is a major contributor to injuries and mortality. “Alcohol contributes to one in 10 deaths every year among adults aged 20 to 64 in the US,” Koob says, many of which can be tied back to car accidents, drownings, or falls, says the CDC.
Over the long-term, Koob also notes that…
- Just one night of binge drinking causes detectable inflammation in the heart.
- Chronic heavy drinking reduces gray and white matter in the brain (where most of the activity happens).
- Alcohol is associated with several types of cancer.
The cause of the cancer-cocktail connection is still a little fuzzy, but the National Cancer Institute suggests that when the body breaks down the ethanol in boozy beverages, it might create a toxic DNA-damager that can lead to increased cancer risk down the road.
That’s a major buzzkill, but you’ve probably seen the studies that say light drinking can improve heart health and increase HDL (good) cholesterol, maybe even on the American Heart Association’s website. So, what’s the deal?
“The general medical consensus out there is that ‘light to moderate’ drinking is probably okay, and may be beneficial,” says Kari Haley, M.D. , an emergency medicine doctor at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. “But the risks of heavy drinking could outweigh the benefits. This is very individualized, based on multiple factors, including genetics and predilection for abuse, though.”
Men are more likely than women to drink—and drink heavily on occasion—according to research published in the journal Addiction. And that’s when the real trouble starts, Dr. Haley suggests.
How (and How Much) Can I Drink Without Increasing My Risk for Health Issues?
The bottom line: If you’re sober curious and willing to adjust your social life accordingly, you’re definitely not going to harm your health by abstaining. You’re pretty much guaranteed to improve it, in fact.
“It’s unclear at the moment whether any level of alcohol consumption is perfectly safe in the long-term,” Koob says. “Evidence suggests that people who currently drink might benefit from taking breaks, which gives you a chance to evaluate your relationship with alcohol and to cultivate alternatives for relaxing, socializing, coping, and celebrating.”
Some other benefits of a booze break: Weight loss, more energy, and sounder sleep. Drinking before bed impairs the body’s ability to reach deep sleep (REM), and often results in middle-of-the-night wake-up calls, reports the National Sleep Foundation. And no more shuddering at that bar tab. “The financial savings could be substantial for some people,” Koob adds.
Still, if you’re sipping on an old-fashioned every so often, you’re probably not doing too much long-term damage to your body. Just keep that liquor level light.
If you’re struggling with addiction or know someone who might be, check out the NIAAA’s Alcohol-Treatment Navigator for local resources and more information.