When the New Year rolled around, right on cue I started hearing about all the weight-loss strategies and dieting tricks that everyone was going to try in order to ditch unwanted pounds. I didn’t really have any weight complaints, but I noticed a few friends hashtagging their Instagram photos of wine with #SoberJanuary, #DryJanuary, and #GetMyFixNow. I had heard of people cutting out booze for a month, but had never tried it myself—or really felt the urge to, as I wasn’t sure that doing so for such a short amount of time would bring any long-term benefits. This year had me singing a different tune. After an indulgent holiday season that involved my fair share of spiked eggnog and mulled wine, I decided to give the booze-free trend a try. And let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised with the results.
The beginning actually wasn’t that bad. Everyone warned me that giving up booze the day after ringing in the New Year was going to feel like hell (they don’t call it the hair of the dog for nothing). And if not, then I’d definitely be ready for a glass of wine after a long day of work. I won’t lie—I definitely did want to indulge after a particularly stressful day—but I wasn’t craving alcohol like it was nobody’s business. In fact, doing Dry January forced me to stop and actually decide whether I wanted a drink when I would normally grab it without a second thought. Was I just feeling overly stressed? Would a run solve this problem just as well? More often than not, cutting out the alcohol wasn’t a big deal. And I squeezed in more exercise, which was a nice bonus.
It was the end of the month that tempted me. You’d think after nailing the no-drinking thing for three weeks would make that last one a breeze. But knowing I was so close to the finish line actually made the idea of a celebratory glass of champagne very tantalizing. I started thinking about the happy hours I could add into my calendar, and whether I’d be on the floor after two drinks. Of course, having multiple people tell me I was “close enough” when they could see my resolve wavering didn’t help. I stayed strong, though, as I’d set a goal and needed to see it through to the end. So here’s what happened during my Dry January, including some unexpected extra perks.
Morning workouts no longer felt like #strugglecity. Early a.m. sweat sessions have never been easy for me—I need to have everything prepped and ready the night before so I can roll out of bed and into my gear before my brain realizes what’s happening. But thankfully they became less torturous in January. Sure, this could be a residual kick from New Year’s resolution motivation, but it’s more likely because I slept better. Like, way better. Not only did I find myself ready to fall asleep earlier, but I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night or feel groggy when my alarm sounded. Science says that’s because I wasn’t increasing the alpha wave patterns in my brain—something that happens when I’m awake but resting…or drinking before bed. The reason that’s bad: It leads to lighter sleep and seriously messes with the quality of zzz’s. Which in turn makes me want to throw my phone across the room the second the alarm goes off (or just hit the snooze a lot, if I’m feeling less violent that morning).
It was easier to stick to my healthy eating habits. While I didn’t lose any weight (which is fine, as that’s not one of my fitness goals), I noticed after a week or so that I wasn’t quite as hungry at night. I was able to actually tell whether I really wanted food, needed some water, or simply felt bored (something I solved before by having a glass of vino in one hand and my remote tuning in to The Bachelor in the other). Researchers have figured out why: One study found that women consume approximately 300 extra calories per day when they decide to indulge in a “moderate” amount of alcohol, and another found that when women had the equivalent of about two drinks, they ate 30 percent more food. Even a mild intoxication (so, feeling a slight buzz after that second glass) increased the brain’s activity in the hypothalamus, making the women more sensitive to the smell of food and more likely to chow down. In other words, choosing to cozy up with a cup of decaf tea was better for my waistline, as it was easier to say no when my husband made a bowl of popcorn that I didn’t really want.
My liver liked me again. I know, I know, this one seems pretty obvious. But since my job has me reading the latest studies day in and day out, it was interesting to find a new report showing that those who break up with booze, even for a short period, see immediate health benefits. Arguably the most important is how quickly your liver bounces back. The staff at the British magazine New Scientist made themselves guinea pigs for five weeks, and a liver specialist at the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London found that liver fat, a precursor to liver damage and a potential indicator of obesity, dropped by at least 15 percent (and nearly 20 for some) in those who gave up alcohol. Their blood glucose levels (which can determine your diabetes risk) also decreased by an average of 16 percent. So even though they didn’t give up their pints for long, their bodies benefited immensely—which means mine likely did, too.
My friendships felt more solid. One thing I quickly realized: Nearly 100 percent of my social life revolved around food and drinks. Whether it was celebrating a successful month of work at happy hour, embracing heavy pours at book club, or relaxing with a few beers while watching football, there was almost always a drink involved. My month of sobriety made things a bit more complicated because the default options were no longer available. For the most part, though, my friends were totally cool about coming up with alternative plans, or simply letting me hang with my glass of water or club soda without making me feel awkward. And I admit, this was one of the biggest concerns I had going into sober January. Would people find the whole thing annoying? Would they temporarily stop inviting me to hang out? So it helped me realize one thing: I really like my friends, and we didn’t need alcohol as a crutch to enjoy each other’s company. And that’s becoming more the norm: A recent survey asked 5,000 drinkers between ages 21 and 35 about their habits, and found that nearly half of them would spare the teasing remarks and respect a friend’s choice not to drink.
My laziness subsided. Basically, the “I’ll do that tomorrow” syndrome that I so frequently suffered from disappeared. While I still vegged on the couch when my brain needed a break, more often than not I found myself motivated to get work done. My husband even noticed, as one Friday night I had enough energy to clean our apartment and run a load of laundry instead of collapsing in bed after work. And because we weren’t defaulting to dinner and drinks, we went on a fun date that we never made time to do before.
My skin needed #nofilter. This was the benefit I was most stoked about. I’ve always struggled with acne and, even though I’ve been able to manage it fairly well the last few years, flare-ups would still pop up way more often than I’d like (read: never—I’d like them to occur never). But after just a week of no booze, there was a noticeable difference. My skin was smoother and less dry, and my tone was more even whereas before it was blotchy red. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, says alcohol can actually lower your skin’s antioxidant levels, increasing your risk of damage from UV light, inflammation, and even premature aging. Once I stopped drinking (and ate antioxidant-rich foods, like blueberries and artichokes), my levels likely shot back up. “Antioxidants are like fire extinguishers that put out skin inflammation,” says Zeichner. “While more research is needed to be sure, the theory is maintaining high antioxidant levels may help suppress inflammation around your follicles that lead to pimples.” In other words, hello pretty new skin.
I had a lot more money in my savings account. Drinking is expensive—and it sneaks up on you. Whether it’s a beer at the bar or a bottle of wine to take home, it doesn’t seem like much. But as each paycheck came in that month, I realized that I had more cash left in my checking account than I normally did after paying bills. My husband, being the supportive guy that he is, didn’t drink as often as he normally does, either, and our savings really added up. By the time the end of the month rolled around, we had built up a nest egg big enough for us to splurge on a weekend getaway.
Now that the month is over, how do I feel? Good. Really good. A month without alcohol helped me hit a reset button physically, mentally, and even socially. While I won’t be continuing into a sober February, I do plan to take some of the lessons with me, like checking in before deciding if I actually want a drink, and planning fun outings that don’t revolve around booze. I may even return to the practice a few more times throughout the year, but for now Scandal is returning on February 11, so I should get my Olivia Pope-sized wine glass ready.