ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Allison Aubrey.
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AUBREY: If you've decided to take a break from alcohol, one thing to anticipate is the reaction from your friends and colleagues. They may not get it.
ALLYSON QUINN: Oh, you don't want to drink. Well, why not? Well, why not? Why not?
NADIA SALDANA SPIEGLE: There was a Friday happy hour every time. And I would show up, and people would say like, oh, really? Just a Sprite, really? Just water?
MARK VOWERS: Why don't you just have a beer?
BLAIR BENSON: They just kept asking why? Why? Why?
SALDANA SPIEGLE: And sometimes people would try to joke around like, oh, well, are you pregnant? Or, you know, what do you mean you don't like alcohol? Everybody likes a drink.
AUBREY: But don't let any of this hold you back. Taking a break gives you a chance to evaluate your relationship with alcohol.
AARON WHITE: We think that one of the best things about taking a break from alcohol is simply stepping back and looking at how alcohol fits into one's life.
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AUBREY: In this episode of LIFE KIT, dry January is a thing, so is sober September or October. Whatever time you choose, these tips will help you take a break from alcohol, whether it's for 30 days or longer.
Before we get started, you know when you go to the doctor for your annual physical, and they ask, do you drink? And you say, oh, I'm a social drinker. I drink a drink or two. Well, let's do a reality check here. What is moderate drinking? There is a technical definition. Here's Aaron White of the National Institutes of Health.
WHITE: The current U.S. Dietary Guidelines define moderate alcohol consumption as up to seven drinks a week for a woman, more specifically one drink per day, on average, and for a male, two drinks per day on average during the week - so up to 14 drinks in a week. And importantly, that's a daily average. That doesn't mean one day a week, you can have 14 drinks.
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AUBREY: White has a Ph.D., and he has spent years evaluating alcohol use. But come on. You don't need a Ph.D. to know that too much alcohol can be bad for you.
WHITE: In general, what alcohol does is produces a toxic effect on the body. I mean, we truly poison ourselves with alcohol. Alcohol is a poison. It just happens to be a poison that gives us some effects that we enjoy.
AUBREY: You see, when you have a drink, as it metabolizes or breaks down, a byproduct is produced called acid aldehyde.
WHITE: And acid aldehyde is a pretty short-lived molecule in the body. The liver gets rid of it pretty fast. But it is toxic, and it damages the liver over time. It's a big driver in inflammation of the liver and the development of cirrhosis.
AUBREY: And as it turns out, alcohol can lead to inflammation throughout your whole body.
WHITE: In fact, we're starting to think that a lot of the damage that alcohol does in general to the body, including the brain, is by producing this broad system-wide increase in inflammation.
AUBREY: Yikes. Now, even though we all know that alcohol can have harmful effects, it's something the majority of us do, at least occasionally. I mean, think about it. People drink at weddings, funerals, sporting events, even baby showers. We just drink when we're hanging out at home. So to get started with this break, the first step is to take time to assess your relationship with alcohol. One way is to keep a journal. Write down what's motivating you. You want more energy or maybe you just feel you've indulged too much lately.
RACHEL KAZEZ: So if you're thinking about doing a dry January or making some kind of short-term or long-term behavioral change, I think that it is useful to know about the behavior that you're changing.
AUBREY: Rachael Kazez is a therapist in the Chicago area. She says begin with some basic questions to get a little perspective.
KAZEZ: How often am I drinking? How much am I drinking? Who am I drinking around? What are some of the reasons that I drink? How do I feel before I drink? How do I feel during drinking? And how do I feel afterward?
AUBREY: These are simple questions. But once you start reflecting, your answers might surprise you.
WHITE: How does it affect your social relationships? Do you get to work on time? Are you hungover a lot? Are you thinking about alcohol a lot?
AUBREY: There's no right or wrong here, no judgment. But White says in a culture where alcohol is so ubiquitous, a lot of us drink out of habit and don't really realize its effects.
WHITE: But it's the act of stepping back and looking at one's relationship with alcohol that we think is really where the magic is.
AUBREY: Nadia Saldana Spiegle says she learned a lot by asking herself these questions.
SALDANA SPIEGLE: What are the things that alcohol does for you? What is it in yourself that you feel like you need from alcohol? Is it because it helps you loosen up when you meet up with friends? Or is it that it helps you unwind at the end of a hard workday or workweek? Or is it a routine? Like, whatever it is that you're getting out of alcohol, is there another way to get that without drinking?
AUBREY: For Jose Rincones, his assessment led him to a fairly stark conclusion.
JOSE RINCONES: When I sat and thought about it as hard as I could, I could trace back all the regrets I could remember to having had something to do with alcohol. So I thought, perhaps if I want to lead a better life, I should cut that out of the equation.
AUBREY: So takeaway No. 2 - once you've committed to a break, make a plan.
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AUBREY: Aaron White says it may be tough to follow through if you haven't thought about what you're going to replace your alcohol habit with. Say you're in the habit of having a glass of wine every night at 6 o'clock.
WHITE: Instead, at exactly 6, do some yoga. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Watch something funny. In other words, rather than just take away the behavior, replace the behavior with something that is healthier and more sustainable.
AUBREY: A dry month may lead you to rearrange your social calendar or to pick people to hang out with who will be supportive. Elizabeth Greener says that's what she did.
ELIZABETH GREENER: I made it a point to find social events that had other options so that, you know, we weren't going exclusively to, you know, places that were alcohol only. It would be a place that had food or - kind of changing the setting a little bit so I didn't really feel like the odd man out if I wasn't, you know, taking shots with people.
AUBREY: Why not go bowling, take a dance class, go ice skating, or how about try curling? I promise it's really fun. Just see it as an opportunity to do something you normally wouldn't do. And find a friend to go with you because sometimes not drinking can make you feel a bit isolated.
Kevin Dunham says he stopped drinking when his wife was pregnant, so that made it easier.
KEVIN DUNHAM: We hadn't talked about it together. I just felt it was the perfect opportunity. And she was able to help me because it's hard to be around, so having an opportunity with her not drinking was as good as any as I could have to set myself up for success.
AUBREY: And Sarah Black Sadler says she finds a break from alcohol helps her feel more creative.
SARAH BLACK SADLER: I'm an artist, and in the evenings when I usually would have come home and had a glass of wine to unwind and then just spent the night watching TV, I spend the evenings instead reading or working on sketches for a new piece or working around the house. There's a lot - it feels like there's more hours in the day.
AUBREY: So strategy No. 3 - after you've stopped drinking, start to notice changes in how you feel. It'll be different for everyone. Some people don't notice much, especially if they're not big drinkers to start with. Others notice significant changes. Blair Benson told us when she stops drinking, she feels better.
BENSON: My skin tone improves. I have a lot more energy. And you really notice - I notice that more - you feel better physically. Like, I don't have the normal bloat that you get after you have a few beers at the bar. My joints feel better. Like, everything just feels so much better. Mentally, your head's clear, you don't have anything fogging up your brain.
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BENSON: It's just - I mean, it's great.
AUBREY: And Benson's story really fits with what the research shows. Back in 2016, researchers in Britain tracked about 850 men and women who volunteered to abstain from alcohol for one month. At the end of their dry January, 82% said they felt a sense of achievement, 62% said they slept better, and about half reported that they'd lost some weight. Another big one was more energy. And Sarah Black Sadler says this fits with her experience.
SADLER: I definitely have more energy. I sleep better. And the biggest thing that I noticed is that I don't need alcohol to have a good time with my friends. I would never want to speak for anybody else's personal decisions but for me, yes, not drinking has been a huge health boost.
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AUBREY: It's been clear for a long time that heavy drinking takes its toll on the body. But Aaron White says recent studies have led to some surprising results.
WHITE: There is early evidence that even taking a one-month break from fairly low levels of consumption reduces some burden on the liver. You don't have to drink a lot to tax the liver. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to damage the liver, but it means that the liver has to work harder to do what it does. And so even taking a break from, you know, a fairly, you know, moderate level of intake leads to what appears to be some improvements in just the ability of the liver to do what the liver does.
AUBREY: So maybe you're hearing this feeling extra motivated to get started with this break from alcohol, and then you get invited to a happy hour with friends. Everyone's drinking. Why aren't you?
KAZEZ: Alcohol has a lot of functions. I mean, it's a social lubricant. I think it makes people feel more loose and comfortable and ready to be silly or outgoing.
AUBREY: Sometimes people nudge you to drink, to join in because they're drinking a lot and it justifies their own behavior.
KAZEZ: One of the hardest parts about making a change can be how it impacts your role in your social surroundings. And that's so rough that you're trying to do something that feels good to you and the people around you are berating you for it.
AUBREY: For some people, one challenge of a dry January isn't so much just giving up the alcohol as it is pushing back against the social norm. So takeaway No. 4 - resist peer pressure. This may sound like an afterschool special or a public service announcement, but seriously, just stay strong. Kazez says one way to respond to people pressuring you to drink, just say, hey, it's dry January.
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KAZEZ: You have an easy external excuse for why this is so it can make it a little bit more comfortable to communicate to friends. Hey, I'm going to be changing up how socializing looks because there's this thing that I'm participating in, and other people are doing it, too. I'm not the weird one.
AUBREY: But if you don't feel comfortable saying it out loud, it's OK to be sneaky. We heard a lot of tips from listeners who say they've learned to blend in.
SADLER: Ask your bartender for a Sprite or soda on the rocks, and it's the perfect camouflage. It looks like you've got a gin and tonic or a rum and coke.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A lot of those are like, I'm on an antibiotic, or I overdid it last night. I'm taking a break today.
RINCONES: Find an empty beer can and just fill it with tap water, and carry that around the party. That way, nobody asks, and nobody wonders.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I actually just shotgun seltzers (laughter). And Kazez says, be prepared for some interesting revelations.
KAZEZ: One of the things that I hear a lot from my clients when they choose to stop using substances is that they find their social situations really boring. And part of that is that they're losing the dopamine hit of using alcohol, and they're losing part of the expected kind of endorphin rush of using it.
AUBREY: And this can really be a big change. At first, it may feel like a loss, but as you stick with it, the idea is that you can find joy and pleasure through so many other activities. And hopefully, your friends will be cheering you on. But if they're not, Kazez says there may be something bigger going on.
KAZEZ: But maybe also think about, hey, is this actually - is it only because of the alcohol, or has this friend always been a little judgmental of me? Or is this friend not really all that supportive of me when I'm confused or trying to make a change or something like that? So I think that, again, as I've said before, like, removing a part of your routine can help you learn a lot and might take the cover off of some dynamics that are happening in your life. So that can be useful to explore - hard but useful.
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AUBREY: So clearly, taking a month off from drinking can influence your social life, your physical health, your habits. Now, tip No. 5 - take note of your mental health. What do you notice about your mood, your anxiety level?
KAZEZ: One of the most important things to ask yourself in general or when you're doing something like this is when you start having a craving or when you're feeling the need for something, whether it's alcohol or something else, to ask yourself what do I truly want right now? Oftentimes, it's not literally alcohol that you want. You might want a sense of release, or you might want to let off some anger. You might want a hug. You might want to be alone.
AUBREY: Mark Vowers told us that when he's not drinking, he feels more present, more awake for his life.
VOWERS: Being more in tune with my kids. Alcohol is kind of a numbing agent. And when I'm drinking, I'm kind of out of the world.
AUBREY: The idea of alcohol as a numbing agent is something to watch out for, White says. It's pretty common.
WHITE: Yeah. I think what he just said was very poignant. We tend to think about alcohol and other drugs as things that people do to produce pleasure, that we like them because they make us feel good. They add some euphoria. They enhance the way we feel. But really, many people drink alcohol, not for the euphoria but to numb the discomfort that they feel.
AUBREY: But by numbing your discomfort, you're also numbing all the good feelings.
WHITE: People can get into a habit of grabbing that bottle of wine and having a couple of drinks in the evening to deal with their stress and anxiety. But at the same time, you're shutting yourself off from the ability to feel true, genuine happiness as well. It's a trap that we can fall into.
AUBREY: And over time, the more you drink, the less effective alcohol may become in reducing anxiety. You keep saying to yourself I want or I need that drink or two tonight; It'll take the edge off.
WHITE: The problem is, the next day, you're going to get a rebound increase in anxiety. I mean, the brain is always trying to push back from the effects of a drug. And in doing so, when the drug wears off, the brain can push too far in the other direction. And so you might drink at night to reduce your anxiety. And then, as a result, the next afternoon, next evening, you feel more anxiety, which then motivates you to drink again.
AUBREY: Over time, it's like a boomerang effect. As the anxiety comes back, it's stronger. And White says this can lead to escalating levels of drinking. That's what Ash Weber found.
ASH WEBER: Because having one glass of wine started to not provide the sort of effect that I was looking for anymore. It wasn't enough of a quick fix. I suppose what that actually was was growing a tolerance to alcohol and needing more than, you know, two glasses to start feeling the warm and fuzzies (ph).
AUBREY: Mark Vowers says when he's not drinking, it actually helps to reduce those anxious feelings.
VOWERS: I just feel better equipped with life. Like, it's not as level-10 anxiety all the time.
AUBREY: Moving on to tip No. 6 - as you get towards the end of your month, temporary abstinence may beget a bigger question, is my level of drinking healthy? Is it a little bit of a problem? Or maybe it's a big problem. You see, alcohol-use disorders aren't this binary thing. It's not like you either are or are not an alcoholic. That's really outdated thinking. It turns out that alcohol-use disorders fall along a wide spectrum.
WHITE: Some people are going to find that actually alcohol fit into their lives nicely, that it's something they still enjoy and they still want to do. Other people might decide to cut back a little bit.
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WHITE: Some people might realize that they need to stop, that it really is impacting their lives in ways that they just didn't recognize.
WEBER: I'm on day 27, and I still think about wine every day. I wish that wasn't the case.
JAMES NATALE: My rule is I'll drink with someone, and it needs to be for a reason. And then I'll only have one.
WHITE: It was really hard. And it was actually harder to give up and just do one drink when you're out.
SALDANA SPIEGLE: Once I stopped, I was like, I'm having just as much fun. Like, I don't even have to spend the eight bucks on the fancy drink. Stuart Weibel told us that he takes periodic one-month breaks, but he's come to see it as kind of a reset. But overall, he's realized he has a pretty healthy relationship with alcohol.
STUART WEIBEL: My major motivation for stopping in January is just to make sure that I'm still in the driver's seat and I can stop when I want to or if I needed to. I don't get any great benefit from it other than a sense that I'm still in control of my drinking.
AUBREY: Ash Weber says for her, taking a break from alcohol has had a profound influence.
WEBER: Taking a break from alcohol has made me realize that there's so many stories we tell ourselves that may not be remotely true. A story I've been telling myself for a while is that I'm an easier and better person to be around once I have a few drinks in me. So a new story that I'm trying to tell myself is that I am fun to be around when I'm not drinking. I'm still an interesting person, a warm-hearted person. It's just a matter of believing it.
AUBREY: Whatever your outcome, no matter where you land at the end of 30 days, be gentle with yourself. Maybe you're motivated to keep going. Maybe you're still evaluating.
WHITE: It takes a long time to change habits, and I think the most important thing is not to be discouraged if you decide to pass this year or you try to do it and something comes up and you get off-track. Just keep trying, and, you know, be kind to yourself. If you're thinking about it, at least you're thinking about it.
AUBREY: And if you need a little more motivation, well, we heard from lots of people who have it.
RINCONES: Go for it. (Laughter) Try it.
WEIBEL: You know - OK, you miss a day. Go back and just get back on the horse and keep riding.
SADLER: Treat yourself. Every day that you stay sober is an accomplishment and deserves a reward.
JAE ELLARD: Instead of it being, like, a restriction thing, look at it as, like, an opening.
DUNHAM: You might as well give it a shot. You don't have anything to lose. Friends aren't going to disappear. Good times aren't going to disappear. And the money aspect is pretty big, too.
ELLARD: And just have fun with it and try it. Like, who knows? Who knows what might happen?
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AUBREY: So let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - start by asking yourself some basic questions. What's your relationship with alcohol?
KAZEZ: How often am I drinking? How much am I drinking? Who am I drinking around? What are some of the reasons that I drink?
AUBREY: Takeaway No. 2 - make a plan. Think about how you'll replace drinking with other activities.
WHITE: Say, OK, every time I get the urge to do this thing that I'm trying to change, I'm going to do another thing. I'll give my brain a reward from another source.
AUBREY: And takeaway No. 3 - the research actually shows that when people take a break from drinking, they report more energy, better sleep, and a lot of people lose a little weight. So you want to own these positive changes. Takeaway No. 4 - shotgun some seltzer, and stay focused on your goal. Don't let other people's discomfort or judgment affect you.
KAZEZ: I think that whenever somebody sees you making some kind of healthy behavior change, it can bring up a lot in them.
AUBREY: And takeaway No. 5 - take note of your mental health. Taking a break from alcohol puts a stop to that anxiety boomerang. And lastly, takeaway No. 6 - no matter where you land at the end of the month, be gentle with yourself.
WHITE: It takes a long time to change habits. And I think the most important thing is not to be discouraged if you decide to pass this year or you try to do it and something comes up and you get off track. Just keep trying.
AUBREY: So that's our episode. If you've learned anything, let us know. And if you try dry January or sober September, let us know how it goes.
For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I've hosted episodes about getting the most bang for your buck when you exercise, how to pick the right diet for you. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit, and while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. And here, as always, a completely random tip - this time, from listener Alan Schwartzbard.
ALAN SCHWARTZBARD: My LIFE KIT tip - carry bungee cords in your vehicle. Several years ago, my son was rear-ended while driving on a Los Angeles freeway. With the fender hanging off his Honda Civic and traffic already backing up, he utilized bungees to secure the fender to the car body, enabling him to operate the vehicle immediately and not incur the cost of a tow or the time it would have taken waiting for assistance.
AUBREY: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to all the listeners who contributed to this report. You guys are what made it so great - Nadia Saldana Spiegle, Mark Vowers, Jose Rincones, Elizabeth Greener, Blair Benson, Kevin Dunham, Sarah Black Sadler, Ash Weber, Stuart Weibel, Allyson Quinn, James Natale, Jae Ellard and Tricia Smit. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.
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