DRINK TO YOUR HEALTH?
The Benefits of Going Dry
From financial benefits to improved memory to better sleep and overall health, the advantages of alcohol abstinence are many and vary from person to person, says Jamie Seabrook.
The concept of Dry (or Sober) January started decades ago and gained popularity over the years. Dry February is gaining momentum, too, as many who want to ‘sober up’ like the idea of doing it during the shortest month. Increased alcohol use during the pandemic has been well documented, with folks hunkering down and drowning their sorrows or using the time to hone mixology skills.
Now that we are getting back on track, the concept of taking a break from drinking is again on the upswing. Exploirng craft beer and its culture has been a hobby for Dennis Kalichuk over the past few years. He and his wife Becky Matthews like finding new area breweries and tasting their products.
The couple looks forward to enjoying a beer or two most evenings of the week and on weekends. A former marathoner, Kalichuk wondered what the effects of nonconsumption would be, so last February he and Matthews became temporary teetotallers. “We decided to take the Dry February Challenge and see how it goes,” he explains. “The first couple of days I looked at the calendar and it looked like it was going to be a long month, but within three or four days it was fine.”
As a substitute, Kalichuk tried brewing different flavoured teas, and he successfully completed the challenge. Matthews, however, did have a couple of cheat days. Dean Anderson, a certified addictions counsellor, says that finding a substitute activity to take the place of drinking is a good strategy. Knowing why you drink is the key factor in withdrawal management, he says. “Alcohol provides a basic need in your life, so you have to find out what are the needs that get satisfied when you drink.”
Drinking is often tied to social behaviours. He gives the example of someone who enjoys playing golf followed by a few beers with friends. Golf is a healthy and beneficial activity, so you don’t want to give up that, but he advises setting your tee time very early in the morning as a way to avoid the pressure of drinking after.
Many use it as a coping mechanism through stress, so he says that finding out what the major stressors are and working around those is important. “If you’re going to stop drinking for a month and you’re going to sell your house, you should do it a different month because selling your house is very stressful,” Anderson explains.
The benefits of taking a break from alcohol are many, according to James Seabrook, PhD, a professor in the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at Brescia University College. Better sleep is one of them, along with having more vivid dreams and waking up more refreshed. Those who drink every night – even just a couple of glasses of wine or beer – may find it harder to fall asleep at first. Other early symptoms may be irritability or feeling lethargic.
Many will substitute water for alcohol and notice better-looking skin because of improved hydration.
But after a few days of not consuming and not getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, better sleep will be achieved, he says, decreasing the risk of obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
During the second and third weeks of cessation, Seabrook says that a reduction of acid reflux, blood pressure and liver fat, along with improved kidney func-tion can occur.
“Our bodies are really resilient, he says, “so a month of abstention will have good results,” says Seabrook.
Many will substitute water for alcohol and notice better-looking skin because of improved hydration. Skin conditions such as eczema can also improve.
Seabrook adds that there are financial benefits as alcohol is expensive in Ontario.
Weight loss is often a benefit, not only because alcohol and mixers have a lot of calories but also because heavy drinking can prompt you to eat more high-fat and unhealthy foods, especially late at night, he adds.
Such is the case for Susan Bradley, 66, who decided to take a break. She is on Weight Watchers and has a health condi-tion that is aggravated by alcohol. After six weeks of abstention, Bradley lost 12 pounds. “Drinking does make me want to eat more and before you know it, I’m off track,” she says.
Usually drinking a few glasses of wine or beer each week, Bradley says that she doesn’t miss it except when she and husband Rob Pelletier go out for dinner. “We’ve been disciplined to match our alcohol and our meals. A nice meal seems to need a glass of wine to go with it.”
Bradley agrees with Seabrook, saying that she sleeps and feels better since she’s stopped drinking.
Mary Beth Fellner, who is 70 and sin-gle, doesn’t feel any different when she takes her annual hiatus from alcohol, which has happened for the last 10 years during Lent. Fellner says her level of use has been up and down over the years. She usually consumes wine each night but is able to quit drinking during the 40 days of Lent without a problem.
As a Catholic, Fellner does this because “you’re supposed to give up something that means something to you for Lent” but takes up drinking after. “It seems like a fresh start, but I lapse back into old habits like drinking every night,” she says.
Fellner says she doesn’t feel any ben-efits during the 40-day period. “I still sleep terrible,” she explains, “and not one single pound lost over the 40 days.”
Because she is concerned about her level of alcohol consumption, Fellner has tried to quit or cut down. “I do stop every year, so I can do it but at other times of the year it’s harder. I think that maybe I’ll just drink on the weekend but then I slip.” She signed up for an app but quickly deleted it. “It was too aggressive for me, with reminders every hour, and I don’t need it in my life.”
Seabrook argues that studies show that people who have support systems – such as quitting with a friend or using one of the available apps – have a high-er success rate of reaching their goals to abstain for a certain amount of time.
Naltrexone is a medication that also can help, says Rob Campbell, a retired pharmacist. Requiring a prescription and most effectively used in conjunc-tion with counselling, this medication “works by blocking the receptors in the brain that are responsible for pleasure.”
According to Campbell, “People who want to cut down or control their drinking because they have recognized that alcohol has a detrimental effect on their life can benefit from the use of this medication.”
He adds, “It also works really well for people who have one drink but can’t stop. Maybe they’re able to stop in a controlled setting at home, but if they know that they’re going to be in danger of drinking to excess – like go-ing to a wedding – it helps put a switch on that says ‘I don’t want to finish that bottle of wine or have that extra beer.’”
Most who undertake a period of cessation plan to enjoy having a drink again. Kalichuk, Bradley and Fellner all resumed drinking after experiencing some of the benefits of abstinence.
According to Seabrook, literature shows that the trend toward alcohol abstention and reduction is more prevalent in older adults in a higher socioeconomic status with a higher level of education. Some use the period of abstinence to springboard into being more health conscious by limiting their drinking, often only partaking on weekends.