Each and every year since the age of 18 I have been taking a month off drinking, and each year I am met with the same internal and external struggles.
Once you say you can’t have something, it becomes impossible to not want it.
On top of that, you have the added reaction from your peers which is often a dramatic roll of the eyes when I announce my yearly health kick.
Some will exclaim “Nooo, but you need to come to X and there will be free alcohol at Y.” Others will ask me how am I going to spend my time without a chalice of the sweet stuff, “Oh but you’ll be so bored” they sigh.
They’re not wrong. There’s no point of lying or pretending to be puritanical when I’m not. I am all about the balance. During the week, I work-out religiously and eat spinach like it’s going out of fashion, on the weekend I drink wine and go dancing, you see? Balance.
I like to see a month off booze as a chance to restore my body and relax my mind but I never thought about how it actually affected the inner-workings of my health too much, until now. Whether you’re a passive drinker or a binge drinker, party animal or wine-in-the-bath-kind-of-person, taking a break from an unhealthy habit will undoubtedly benefit your physical and emotional health.
Prior to wanting to increase my awareness, I always knew I subjectively felt better after a month “sans alcool” but I never really thought about how I am objectively after the all important hiatus.
This year was going to be different because I decided to really monitor and track my progress instead of just getting through it. I did my research AND took a Liver Function Test so you don’t have to, and I’m here to share my findings with some top tips on how to survive the month.
I slept better
In a previous article, I outlined all the short term and long term effects that drinking alcohol can have on your health. When we drink we are essentially disrupting our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is the body’s frame of reference for physiological processes. In other words, it refers to the set times throughout a 24 hour period that we do the things that keep us alive like eating, sleeping and breathing.
After a night on the tiles and a subsequent sleep in, you might think that you got a really good, long and deep night’s sleep. In fact, the opposite is true, when we go to bed intoxicated, we make it harder for our body to enter into REM sleep, which is where we do all our dreaming! This is why you might sleep for a solid 18 hours after a big night out but still feel like a zombie when you wake up.
There is a difference between sleep and sedation. When you drink alcohol before bed, you are sedated, you will not achieve the same benefits as going to sleep sober. When you go to sleep drunk, you dream less, you have an elevated heart rate and you stir 17% more than you would if you went to sleep sober.
What’s more surprising is that even if you have say, two drinks before bed, your circadian rhythm and REM sleep will be compromised. Sleep disruptions from drinking are also often caused by poor bladder control while under the influence, as well as breathing issues.
Do you only snore when you’re drunk? I know I certainly do, and it’s because our throats are relaxed. This can have a negative impact if you already suffer from sleep apnea.
Additionally, going out for drinks with friends often ends in a chip-serving establishment. Are post-drinking greasy food binges your idea of fun? If so, you’re not alone but think about the strain your liver is already under trying to process all of that alcohol. When we add some fast food to that mix, it means your digestive system joins your liver in trying to detox, making it all the harder to wake up feeling like a God or Goddess, because even if you were “asleep”, your body is up all night.
Bottom line, if you cut out the booze and go to bed at a reasonable time, your body learns that between, say, 10.30pm and 6am, you go to sleep, you will achieve a restful sleep. If you go out on a Friday night and are still awake at 4am with chips in hand, you can trigger an unregulated balance between drinking and sleeping. That is why it’s more than likely that you will still feel groggy by the time it comes to your Monday morning coffee, which brings me to my next point.
Top tip: If you have a poor sleeping pattern, use this month to regulate your sleep. Decide on the 8 hours per 24 hour cycle that you want to be asleep and make it happen. Turn off your phone an hour before bed, make sure that all you do in your bed is sleep (not watch TV), and really make this time all about you. Sleeping well is the best free healthy thing you can do for your body. Once you really get into the swing of a healthy sleep cycle, you will barely need your alarm, because your body knows it is well rested and is ready to out and smash the day's goals!
I concentrated more
Now, I’m not claiming that before this challenge I entered the workplace with a hangover every Monday: that is definitely not the case however there is no comparison between your productivity during the week when you spend the weekend hiking, reading and swimming as opposed to having drinks with friends.
There are claims that “alcohol kills brain cells.” It’s not entirely true but it’s not entirely false either. Neurogenesis is the process in which the brain produces or creates shiny new brain cells that are responsible for your development. Your rate of alcohol consumption can cause a slow down in neurogenesis. While most of these studies have been completed in animals, it is not a surprising finding, considering the other host of psychological issues that can arise from drinking on a regular basis.
If you think about how often you go out for drinks and have a groggy memory the next day, the effects of alcohol might start to seem a bit more sinister.
While pop culture might try to belittle black-outs as a non-significant side effect of drinking, they are clinically known as short-term amnesia which is brought on by alcohol, and 40% of U.S. adults report that they are prone to them.
Now I want you to think about instances that involve alcohol consumption where your speech slurs or your vision blurs. I’m not trying to criticize you or anyone else who has ever had a black-out, whiskey tongue or a short-term need for glasses but we need to put an emphasis on what drinking does to the brain on a night-out and over a longer period of time.
The majority of people will not experience these features during a night out but if you do, you need to cut back.
In this feature, we talk about what a standard drink looks like. Trust me, I didn’t know how much one standard drink was until I put the research in!
During my health challenge, I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to experience any of the above which meant I felt brighter and more creative. I started putting time aside to make personal shopping lists for my goals and put some thinking behind new projects. All in all, I felt that my concentration and productivity both skyrocketed.
Top tip: Channel your productivity in a way that will benefit your personal goals. Take note of how much money you are saving and at the end of your four week ban, buy yourself a present that will help you harness more productivity down the line. Whether it’s a FitBit or a gym membership, a new hobby, or a career change, this month is the perfect time to start putting this excess time to good use.
I felt happier
There is nothing like getting loose after a week of hard-work. You know that giddy, happy feeling you get after your first few drinks? That is connected to the way alcohol affects the neurotransmitters in your brain. You might feel less shy, euphoric or excited.
The two neurotransmitters that are responsible for these feelings including GABA, which plays a role in relaxing the brain and releasing dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin are responsible for feelings of pleasure, happiness and reward. If you do something that you enjoy, dopamine is released, which is why we might stick to a hobby or a person, it’s because they make us feel good!
Alcohol works in the same way but it is an artificial high and as we all know, what goes up must come down. Alcohol might be your social crutch that helps you feel confident and outgoing during social situations but this release of behaviour is often followed by a crash and burn which we call a “hangover.”
Narcotic drugs work in a similar way. If you take amphetamines, such as cocaine, or ecstasy, your brain will begin to rapidly release dopamine and serotonin. Hours after taking drugs, this release will slow down and the “reuptake” of these feel good transmitter, which describes the physiological process of a “come-down”. People with depression are commonly prescribed drugs know as SSRIs or Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors which are used to regulate chemical imbalances that are responsible for feeling down or anxious.
To get to the point of this long-winded explanation, alcohol, while it may be a legal drug still has potential dangers. It is a physiological depressant, it relaxes the nervous system and your cognitive framework, but it can also lower your mood.
If you have an existing emotional illness, you need to think about how much you drink, because for many, becoming disinhibited can bring up emotions that you might have been trying to ignore previously.
So wherever you are on the spectrum in your mental health, alcohol has the ability to negatively impact on your mood. During my month without alcohol, I found that my mood drastically improved. Weekends without hangovers meant that I had more time to take stock of all of the things I’m grateful for and this translated into my overall outlook.
Top tip: Use the month to start a mood journal. It might sound lame but if you find yourself moody from Mondays onwards, it might have something to do with what you’re doing on the weekends. Don’t think about it too much, write down adjectives that describe how you feel each day with a few sentences on what happened during the day. After three weeks, look back at what you have down and you might find your own personal ingredients to better your happiness!
I looked like I lost weight
I refuse to weigh myself which might seem surprising, considering the fact that I am on a consistent mission to get in better shape. For me, knowing the number or weekly fluctuations will not help me achieve my goals, beating personal bests and maintaining the ability to get into my jeans will!
We can all get bogged down with numbers on a scale but I think it’s so important not to quantify yourself with that number in particular because it’s outdated. I am more concerned about my cholesterol, blood sugar and cortisol levels. I am most interested in how many hours I slept or how many litres of water I drank, how many reps I managed and how many times I smiled in any given day.
So without being able to compare and contrast the numbers before and after alcohol, I can say that my jeans seemed looser and my friends said I looked slimmer and this is not surprising when you think about the substantial number of calories in alcohol, as well as the associated munching before, during and after drinking it! The effects of hangover food cannot be ignored!
Top Tip: Cutting alcohol alone isn’t going to make you lose weight, however for many, not having this distraction gives you ample time to focus more on meal prep and reaching your fitness goals. With this time comes an opportunity to properly look after yourself and that is the kicker, you can give up alcohol and still spend the month on the couch with unhealthy snacks or you can seize the time to better your fitness. It’s not the opportunity, it’s what you do with that opportunity!
I got the glow
I’m lucky to have okay-ish skin most of the time, however, like most women I have breakouts at certain times of the month.
During my month off, my skin glowed and seemed more hydrated. I didn’t have one spot for the entire month! I attribute this to the fact that I was drinking litres of water and spending my “fun money” on tasty salads and wholefoods instead of liquid dinners of ingredients consisting of fruit, sugar syrups and vodka.
I wanted to find out why this was happening so I did some digging, alcohol is a diuretic, which is why you have an urge to use the bathroom more when you go are drinking, especially when you drink large quantities. Your body genuinely has your back and wants to detox as much alcohol as it can during alcohol consumption. Often, people will try to avoid “breaking the seal” or force your body to carry excess alcohol, however, you need think about the solid your body is trying to do for you through it’s natural detox processes.
When it comes to your skin, the same process is taking place. Remember that your skin is the largest organ that you have and your body wants those toxins out. Do you ever feel flushed after a few drinks? Perhaps a little sweaty? That is your body’s way of detoxing through the skin.
Drinking alcohol also results in inflammation in the body, both effects can lead to dehydration, dullness, larger pores, redness in the cheeks, sagging and fine lines, especially around the eyes.
Top tip: Instead of thinking about what alcohol does for your waistline or wallet, consider what it does to your vitality. You feel cranky, you look run-down and you’re sick of skin blemishes. Take this month to perfect your skincare routine and get that glow back. It will make you more conscientious of how much you drink on a weekly basis after you see the positive results that not drinking has on your skin.
I did a liver function test.
I did a liver function test before and after my no alcohol month so see how taking a month off would affect my liver function because that’s where the party happens when we drink alcohol.
Before the challenge, all of my biomarkers were in a normal range and after the challenge, I can report that they were pretty much the same.
Before the challenge
After the challenge
What I learned was that because of my age (24), and because of my drinking habits (moderate) outside of this particular health challenge, my results on both ends were not significant.
What I have learned is significant however, because now every time I do drink, I begin to think about the processes at play in my body and brain.
You won't know how your liver functions until you take the test and taking one month off alcohol won't massively impact your biomarkers. It is important however to bear your liver in mind when you're making choices around alcohol.
Use my story as inspiration for awareness, maybe even take a liver test yourself and see where you are at.
When I drink alcohol now, I’m not thinking about “getting lit” (as us millenials like to say), I’m being a nerd and thinking about the biomarkers that my liver rules including total protein, globulin, alkaline phosphatase (ALP), alanine transferase (ALT), Albumin, Bilirubin and Gamma GT.
Let’s take a quick look at what each of these guys do:
Total Protein refers to the volume of albumin and globulin in the body. Albumin/Globulin (A/G) ratio may highlight liver scarring (cirrhosis).
Globulin is a group of proteins produced in the liver, they play an important role in liver function, blood clotting, and fighting infection. If globulin levels are low, it may be indicative of liver disease.
Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP)
Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP) is an enzyme found in the blood that breaks down proteins in the body. ALP is produced in the liver, bones, intestines, pancreas, kidneys and the placenta. ALP is tested to determine how well your liver and gallbladder are performing, as well as your bone health.
Alanine Transferase (ALT)
Alanine Transferase (ALT) is another enzyme that is produced in the heart and liver cells, and is released into the blood when there is acute damage to the heart and/or liver.
Albumin is a protein that is produced in the liver. Albumin nourishes tissues and transports essential components, such as hormones, vitamin, and drugs throughout the blood.
Bilirubin is a pigment that is produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells. High bilirubin levels may indicate underlying issues with the liver and gallbladder.
Gamma GT (glutamyltransferase) is an enzyme that is found in liver cells as well as the biliary tract. High Gamma GT is indicative of liver disease, bile duct disease or to monitor alcohol abuse.
While all the media and marketing strategies out there might trying to illuminate the sexier side of alcohol consumption, trust me when I say it’s sexier to know how your behaviour affects your physiological function.
All in all, this month off has illustrated five things to me:
I previously didn’t know what a standard drink was. This meant that I was binge drinking on a regular basis. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for men in one sitting and four or more drinks for women in one sitting.
I find it very hard to say no. When you put a blanket pan on a behaviour for a set period of time with an end date, it's easier to say no. Previously I was always a “Yes Person” which meant that I often found myself in a bar when I didn’t want to be there. If you don’t want to do something, anything, say no. You’re more of a benefit to other people when you put yourself first and that is one of the most valuable things I have learned in the last few months.
You don’t need to drink alcohol to have fun. It can become a habit to meet your friends in a bar on a Friday night but there is more to life! I know. shocking! Go to the cinema, a museum or for a walk some evenings. If you must, go to the bar and have a fizzy drink, you’ll find that you are having more meaningful conversations with your friends and family.
Making lists is key to achieving goals. There were numerous times that I though “Fxxk it, I would love to just let this one” go but all of the mindfulness I’m harping on about in my top tips is actually integral to success. Make a list, check it twice, keep going.
Creating measurable goals makes them obtainable. Whatever you want to do, it makes a huge difference if you have a way of measuring your progress. In this instance I had the Liver Function Test. I wanted to make it an accurate experiment, one month of complete abstinence vs. one month of regular drinking. In this instance, my results didn’t show a huge difference but it offered me enough motivation to get through it, and through that motivation I learned more about myself by simply taking notes, being observant and understanding the processes at work, and you can too.
Did you do dry january? It might be time to take your Liver Function Test.