Healthy Heart

Should you stop drinking for a month for better health?

We're talking to a doctor for some answers

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group
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Many people have heard of "Dry January," the annual initiative to stop drinking for the first month of the new year. But we have 12 months in a year. Is it worth it to "go dry" for 30 days?

Would it impact your health? Will it make a difference in the long run?

Well, it all depends on the person.

We asked Dr. Frank McGeorge, a health reporter and an emergency room doctor, for some answers.

What’s the deal with all these studies? One day we read that alcohol might help you live longer, and then we’re always hearing that a little red wine is good for your heart, but then this summer, researchers said there was NO safe level of alcohol consumption. What gives?

McGeorge explained that in that last study we’re referring to, which was published in The Lancet, researchers said there was no safe level of alcohol consumption -- and drinking was bad at any quantity.

The problem with that study, McGeorge said, is that it examined everyone across the globe, and looked at many statistics at once, all together. For example, researchers factored in the risk of drunk driving -- for everyone.

Sure, if you’re someone who goes out regularly and gets drunk, then gets behind the wheel of a car, your risk for drunk driving is likely high. But if you’re a housewife who has an occasional drink with dinner, your risk is low, again, relative to drunk driving. The study factored in other risk factors as well, but it was almost too broad, overall.

When it comes to risks involving alcohol, simply put, it all depends on the person who’s drinking.

But regardless, abstaining from alcohol for a month might be the start of something positive … right?

Sure. It certainly couldn’t hurt. Think of it like this, McGeorge said: A time to recalibrate.

It’s like you’re taking inventory on your body.

Cutting alcohol for a month will help you understand what your life is like with and without it. If you find that after, or even during, an experiment such as this, that you have tremors, your mood is poor and you’re snippier and more unhappy without alcohol, then perhaps you really do have a drinking problem.

Maybe the alcohol was moderating your behavior. Longer term, if you stayed away from drinking, you might return to a more normal you. That's because those symptoms we just mentioned sound like evidence of withdrawal, McGeorge said.

There’s also evidence suggesting that people who did Dry January reduced their alcohol consumption overall, after cutting it for a month. It seems that they reset and realized what their most appropriate level of consumption really was. A month off can really recalibrate everything in your mind and body.

Drinking also disrupts your sleep cycles, and affects your ability to get a good REM sleep. So maybe you’ll get a better night’s sleep with alcohol completely out of your system.

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Just remember, alcohol isn’t all bad, McGeorge said. Don’t turn this into an all-or-nothing-type mentality.

“It’s fair to say that drinking alcohol for your health is not a good recommendation,” McGeorge said. “I would not, as a physician, say, ‘You should start drinking a glass a day.’ It’s not a logical choice, because I can’t weigh individual risk factors enough to know what’s beneficial for certain.”

But it all comes down to those individual risk factors.

Still, if you drink responsibly and you have a positive experience -- maybe there are certain social interactions where it helps you, or it helps you relax -- sure, there’s no harm in continuing to do so, McGeorge said.

Yes, some studies and schools of thought do contradict one another, but when we’re talking about alcohol, it’s a little different than talking about smoking, for example, the doctor pointed out.

“There’s no evidence that smoking is good for you -- zero,” McGeorge said. “Alcohol is not in the same vein. There’s a mixed risk benefit with alcohol. You just have to understand what your risk and your benefit is, and moderate your consumption accordingly. It’s not all good or all bad, it’s something in between, depending on what your personal risk, behavioral patterns and factors are.

“... Alcohol has made its way into society where an occasional drink in light to moderate use is more likely safe and beneficial than harmful. To avoid alcohol because you have some fear of it or because you’re concerned it’s unhealthy -- that’s probably not accurate.” 

“All or nothing” in the case of drinking really shouldn’t be your mindset, unless of course, you’re an alcoholic, in which case, you really should be at "nothing." You don’t want to risk your sobriety and relapse, McGeorge said.

“But cutting out alcohol ‘just because’ is probably not necessary for the average person,” McGeorge said.

And a few final notes ...

Keep in mind, alcohol does have a lot of calories, so factor that in too, if you’re watching your calorie intake.

And if you crave alcohol, that’s probably unhealthy. If you’re ever at a point where you can’t function unless you’re intoxicated, that’s clearly unhealthy. If your drinking causes a situation where you’re behaving inappropriately or it’s harming your personal or work life, that’s considered a disorder, the doctor said.

But if you’re curious or you want some more insight into your body and your health, sure, try a month without it. Maybe you’ll be exactly the same. Maybe you’ll realize you were buying two bottles a week, which might be a bit much, McGeorge said. But we'll add our interpretation to his answers, as well: Don’t feel like you HAVE to abstain. And hey, if you’re not concerned about your drinking, that’s probably a good sign, too.

Would you ever attempt an experiment like this one? Let us know in the comments.

Graham Media Group 2019