We’ve all heard about Sober October or Dry January, a finite period of time when people voluntarily stop drinking alcohol as a way to give their body a “break” or “reset.”
Abstaining from alcohol doesn’t need to be a trend reserved only for a specific month. If you are looking to take a break from drinking at any point, there are numerous mental and physical benefits in doing so.
Some changes associated with temporary alcohol abstinence can be harmful if not done under adequate supervision, particularly if you have an alcohol use disorder. But if you’re someone who has a more casual relationship with drinking, there are perks to simply cutting it out for an extended period of time.
We spoke to a few health experts to better understand what temporary alcohol abstinence does for the mind and body, and what to know before starting:
Your skin will improve.
Perhaps one of the immediate changes you will see after coming off alcohol is clearer skin. Alcohol causes the body and skin to lose fluid and dehydrate, creating a dullish, gray appearance. It can also cause acne because it changes hormonal levels.
“Skin and face color often return to normal … your elasticity will be restored and yellowness, redness, or grayish [color] around the eyes or face will diminish with abstinence, and inflammation in the body will be reduced,” said Corey Weber, clinical manager at Warriors Heart, an addiction treatment center in Bandera County, Texas.
Even a temporary break from alcohol can help the skin feel and look more rejuvenated and refreshed.
You’ll get higher-quality sleep.
Sometimes people have a glass of wine or a drink to unwind and relax before bed, thinking it will help them ease into a better sleep routine. However, excessive drinking or drinking over long periods of time can disrupt sleep patterns, often causing broken sleep or discomfort through the night.
When you take a break from alcohol, “sleep patterns will often return to normal and REM sleep and quality of sleep will return to healthy patterns,” Weber said.
In lieu of an alcoholic beverage before sleep, try other alternatives like decaffeinated warm tea or warm milk. In general, better sleep also improves mood and quality of life.
Your memory and cognition will sharpen.
There are also mental and neurological changes that can occur as a result of short-term abstinence. When you drink, alcohol affects the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for judgment and reasoning, as well as the cerebellum, which is responsible for balance and coordination.
“Abstinence from alcohol over several months will improve memory and thinking. Also, it will allow structural brain changes to partially correct and memory or cognitive functions such as problem-solving, attention span, and rational thinking will increase,” Weber explained.
It may decrease your risk of cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies alcohol as a carcinogen, meaning that drinking raises the risk of cancer. Alcohol has been associated with mouth and throat cancer, cancer in the larynx, esophagus, colon and liver, and breast cancer in women. Scientifically speaking, the body breaks alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is a known contributor to tumors.
But longer-term cessation decreases the risk of developing cancer because the body isn’t exposed to this toxin, said Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, a board-certified physician and chief medical officer of American Addiction Centers.
It could lead to better organ function.
Heavy drinking on a night out or over time can lead to a number of diseases, such as liver damage (cirrhosis), fatty liver and even pancreatitis.
Dr. Bruce Bassi, a board-certified addiction psychiatrist, said abstaining from alcohol, even temporarily, can improve how organs in the nervous system, cardiovascular system and gastrointestinal systems recover and improve.
“Since alcohol can affect the absorption and utilization of vitamins and nutrients, abstinence from alcohol allows your body to start to use these more effectively again,” he explained.
Additionally, Weinstein noted that research shows your cardiovascular health returns to baseline in just one month after eliminating alcohol.
It boosts your mental health.
Restricting or eliminating your alcohol consumption for a brief period of time could help mitigate any complications with your mental health.
Alcohol is known to exacerbate or contribute to depression, anxiety and more. Research shows that anxiety can increase post-drinking, with many people experiencing mood effects following the comedown from alcohol.
Alcohol is also a depressant, which can cause neurotransmitters in the brain ― like serotonin, which is responsible for positive emotions ― to go haywire. As the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions states:
The misfiring of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, is directly related to clinical depression (not to be confused with temporarily “feeling bad” after a bout of heavy drinking, which goes away after a few days).
It can contribute to some withdrawal symptoms (but that isn’t a reason to not take a break or stop altogether).
Bassi also noted that the body may go through withdrawal once alcohol is no longer part of your system.
“There are many ‘post-acute’ effects of alcohol abstinence which last up to one year,” he said. “Some of the post-acute symptoms are unpleasant and perpetuate the use of alcohol, which makes it so difficult to stop. The post-acute symptoms include trouble concentrating, irritability, fatigue, low motivation, anxiety and mood swings.”
Alcohol withdrawal in long-term drinkers can be serious, as it can result in seizures and delirious tendencies. If you are not comfortable or able to quit alone, then seek the assistance of a physician or quit in a controlled setting, such as a treatment facility.
Weinstein added that there are medications (like naltrexone) that can help by blocking the reinforcing effects of alcohol and decrease the likelihood of continued drinking, but they should be utilized with proper behavioral treatment. Any medicinal use should be discussed with a medical professional prior to use.
Overall, abstinence can have a positive outcome for your body and brain – whether it’s a brief break from alcohol or (ideally) something longer. Work with a physician or therapist if you need a little help getting there.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.