I love to drink things that taste bad to most people: cheap wine, scotch neat, and IPAs so strong they’re named for their bitterness. I also love the feeling each of these brings to me in the first few sips: that cue that it’s time to relax, hang out with friends, or kick back and enjoy a particularly pleasant day. After a long day or busy week, it seems so right to knock back a cold one, have a glass (or sometimes bottle!) of wine, or hit the bar for happy hour.
Which is why it might be surprising that I decided to give up alcohol completely for two whole months.
Why the Heck Would You Do That?
Believe me, I asked myself this question several times during my experiment. The short answer is that I wanted to do it because I wasn’t sure that I could. I’d had a few friends who’d taken voluntary reprieves from alcohol, as well as friends who’d given it up while pregnant and nursing, and they all took it in stride. But it seemed downright impossible for me. How could I not drink at least a little? Could I really survive the week without a few evenings with a glass or two of wine? The fact that I didn’t actually know whether I could do it meant that I had to try.
But beyond the challenge of it, I also wanted to see whether it had any effect on my health or my fitness habits. Although research suggests moderate amounts of alcohol are not bad for our health, greater amounts of alcohol can negatively affect sports performance and recovery The effect of alcohol on athletic performance. Shirreffs, S.M., Maughan, R.J. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. Currents Sports Medicine Reports, 2006 Jun;5(4):192-6. Alcohol: Impact on Sports Performance and Recovery in Male Athletes. Barnes, MJ. Sports Medicine, 2014 Apr 19. The effect of exercise, alcohol or both combined on health and physical performance. Suter, P.M., Schutz, Y. Department of Medicine, Clinic and Policlinic, University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland. International Journal of Obesity, 2008 Dec;32 Suppl 6:S48-52.. People tend to eat more when drinking Lifestyle determinants of the drive to eat: a meta-analysis. Chapman CD1, Benedict C, Brooks SJ, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012 Sep;96(3):492-7, and increasing alcohol consumption over time has been identified as a risk-factor for long-term weight gain Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. Mozaffarian D1, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. New England Journal of Medicine, 2011 Jun 23;364(25):2392-404.. Plus, there’s the potential for headaches, fatigue, and other hangover feelings that can really make you drag the next morning The incidence and severity of hangover the morning after moderate alcohol intoxication. Rowland J, Rohsenow DJ, Allensworth-Davies D, et al. Addiction, 2008a;103:758–765.. So I wondered what differences I might notice if I gave alcohol up. Would I lose weight? Would I be motivated to work out harder? Would it be easier to avoid over-eating at social events? Would it affect my happiness?
To find out, I resolved to try to not drink at all for two months. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I figured I’d try and see what would happen.
The Stuff That Was Easy
It was a lot easier to give up alcohol than I thought it would be, which was a delightful surprise. Having a few late nights out—the kind after which you don’t necessarily want to drink for a while—right before my booze-free challenge definitely helped. But even after those nights wore off, it was much easier that I’d anticipated.
It always seemed to me that everybody drinks alcohol, but once I stopped drinking, I realized that lots of other people weren’t drinking either. Early on in my experiment, I was traveling a lot for work. I was bummed that I wouldn’t be able to try the local brews at restaurants and worried that I’d make other people feel uncomfortable if I wasn’t drinking during dinners and they wanted to. Instead, I felt relieved when other people ordered water or cranberry soda in a wine glass. I was free to order a virgin mixie or the locally-brewed root beer without hesitation.
Even after I returned from my trips, I realized that most the time, as long as I had a drink in my hand, it didn’t matter what it was. There were times when I’d enviously eye the wine box or beer can, but the temptation was pretty small. Instead I drank a lot of sparking water, tea, coffee, and an occasional diet soda at social events—and nobody cared. My friends understood, and a lot of them talked about times when they had chosen not to drink or their current philosophy to “stay dry during the week” to be a bit brighter in the mornings before work.
Another nice effect was that I didn’t have to think about drinking. All sorts of small decisions went away—like whether it was mine or my husband’s turn to be the designated driver, or whether I was getting a little too tipsy, or whether I had to pick up beer on the way to a function. All of that thinking was gone—and it was a relief. In retrospect this makes a lot of sense: Science suggests that spending brainpower on making decisions can reduce the brainpower needed for self-control Lifestyle determinants of the drive to eat: a meta-analysis. Chapman CD1, Benedict C, Brooks SJ, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012 Sep;96(3):492-7. So the less I thought about alcohol, the easier it was to avoid it.
The Part That Sucked (But Only a Little)
While it wasn’t difficult to live without alcohol in general, that beginning moment at social events when others start drinking was the hardest part was . It was then that I’d feel that cue—that itch—that told me it was time to have a drink and relax. It felt like the two actions were connected (have-a-drink-and-relax!), and I would momentarily wonder if I could relax without having the drink.
In that moment, I’d have to remind myself that it was no big deal and that I could do it. At bars or restaurants, I’d tell the person taking drink orders, “I’ll start with water,” to take the pressure off that first one. Usually that was enough, but if it wasn’t, I’d start up a new conversation or find another way to distract myself. Once that initial moment passed, the rest really was easy.
The Surprising Things I Learned
My two months is up. I’m drinking again, but I have changed some of my habits, mainly that I’m only drinking socially. I’ve decided to give up drinking at home or alone because I don’t get enough enjoyment out of it. The other change, which is a bit harder, is that I want to limit myself to only one or two drinks socially—for me, two drinks is the limit for feeling good the next morning. I know that I’ll still occasionally tie one on, but hopefully I can use a few of my tricks to stay on the sober side a bit more often.
Not drinking didn’t magically improve all of my health habits, but there were noticeable positive effects. My face cleared up almost instantly. I still ate a ton of food at potlucks and parties, but probably not as much as I would have if I’d been drinking (plus, I was skipping out on all those alcohol calories). And not drinking on Friday and Saturday nights meant that I felt a lot better on the weekends and was more likely to have a good, weekend-warrior workout.
Most importantly, giving up alcohol made it easier to believe that I could give up other things. I’ve never been the type to make big or fast changes. And I don’t characterize myself as having strong willpower—especially the I won’t power that’s needed to abstain from things. It’s just not in my personality, so this experiment was a big departure for me. But after quitting alcohol for two months, I could actually imagine giving up other things. Halfway through the alcohol experiment, I decided to quit a number of foods with added sugar, such as cereal, granola, and energy bars. This is something that I’d wanted to do for a long time, but had never thought it was possible. But, like the alcohol, it was easier than I’d anticipated. Now I see myself a little bit differently: Now I am a quitter of unhealthy habits.
For this reason, I’ve become a big fan of self-experiments. Of course there are lots of people who won’t want to try giving up alcohol (or sugar, or what have you). But whether it’s trying to get six-pack abs, do a handstand, or just being extra nice, there’s incredible value in pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones. We all see ourselves in certain ways and get stuck in our own routines. Taking the time to experiment, make some changes, and try out new healthy habits—even if they only stick a little bit—can lead to big changes over time.
This post was written by Maria Janowiak, whose bio reads: When I think about things that are big, epic, exciting, and life-changing, I think about the outdoors. I grew up in the country catching turtles and frogs. In college, I studied the environment in general and forests in particular. I’m currently doing my best to live a simple, intentional life that’s never too far removed from nature. When I’m not working or writing, I can usually be found in my garden or off training for my next triathlon, bike race, or other adventure. To learn more about Maria, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.