The concept of a “dry month” has gained mainstream popularity in the past few years where for 30 days, you get a little taste of a life of sobriety.
I upheld this tradition throughout my twenties, starting off the first month of each year with omitting drinking from my routine. I chose this month since December was always a heavy month of indulgence with the rolodex of Christmas parties and festivities on tap. January was the start of a new year and what better time to jump on the health train and cleanse my system. Each year the experience was kind of the same—the first few weeks were easy and the latter two more difficult. The last week was when I really needed to ramp up my will power (which was conventionally running close to empty) and couldn’t wait for the final day where I could celebrate my accomplishment with…..you guessed it…a beer (or several).
However, since turning 30, things have changed. Alcohol has kind of lost its appeal to me and some of the applicable social situations involving alcohol (parties, bars, etc.) don’t really interest me anymore. Perhaps I overdid it in my youth or maybe I just like feeling good and energized more often than not. As I’m sure most of us can relate, I’ve had some bad experiences with alcohol; I’ve done or said stupid things, acted like a fool, and felt the dreaded “hangxiety” and shame the next morning.
It wasn’t until my 30th year when I really started cutting down on the drinking and abstaining from alcohol for longer bouts (2-3 months at a time). When I took these prolonged breaks, I saw some big, positive changes in my life and my mental health. I was able to make transformative changes to my body (building muscle and getting leaner), had way more energy in my workouts, approached my work with more positivity and enthusiasm, felt more creative, and had more motivation pursue activities that brought me real joy and fulfillment.
At the end of 2020 and in the midst of a turbulent time in my life (and most likely everyone else’s…we will not miss 2020), I wanted a clear mind to set a positive tone for 2021. The truth is that alcohol has never really added anything to my life—only detracted from it. I set some pretty lofty goals for the new year and knew that there was no way it was plausible if I upheld my drinking patterns—even on occasions. I couldn’t afford to have a day to go to waste, nor did I want to. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a fan of timed challenges and experiments so with this one, I wanted to see if I could abstain from alcohol for a full 6 months—which is the longest I’ve ever gone without a drink (since turning 19, or maybe even before that).
As I write this, I’ve successfully hit the 6-month mark. If you would have asked me in my late 20’s if I thought this was plausible, I would have laughed and replied, “yah right! maybe a month max”—oh, how things have changed.
In this post, I’ll take you through my experience abstaining from drinking for half a year. Similar to all my experiment posts, I’ll include some of the latest research on alcohol and how it relates to your training and body composition. While I know alcohol is a touchy subject, I think it’s important to uncover some truths when it comes to the consumption of alcohol and some of the lies we’ve been lead to believe: one being that life just isn’t as good without it.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because I’ve shifted to a more holistically healthier lifestyle, but every time I drink alcohol, I feel exponentially worse than I did in my 20’s. Although, I think this is something that everyone can relate to—our tolerance just isn’t quite the same as it was during the “golden years” of partying. Even after drinking a beer or two, my brain would begin to feel foggy and I would feel a bit sick to my stomach. The next day was like clockwork—I would feel overwhelming anxiety that lasted pretty much the entirety of the day. If I drink any more than that, well, let’s just say my hangovers usually last 48 hours. While I do enjoy the fast, euphoric buzz after the first drink, that quickly fades and I’m just left feeling like garbage.
For the sheer fact that drinking makes me feel like shit, it wasn’t a very difficult decision for me to exclude it from my life. In January of this year, I moved back from Alberta to Ontario to temporarily stay with my parents as I figured out my next move. Since we’ve been in lockdown FOREVER, I haven’t had the opportunity to see too many of my friends on the regular or had the luxury of hitting up any sort of patios or restaurants. So, on the social side of things, it’s been easier to abstain. My close friends that I do see, we usually choose the more geriatric activities like having a tea or coffee and going for a walk/hike + having a good chat.
So while it’s been easy over the last 6 months, there have been times throughout the past few years that made it more difficult (from a social standpoint).
In my 20’s during Dry January, I would avoid any “tempting” situations: going out for meals/drinks with friends, going out to parties, going to clubs or bars, concerts, etc. Most of my month, in the dead of winter, would consist of a whole lot of indoor chilling and watching Netflix.
In my 30’s, I shifted this mindset and decided that I don’t want to miss out on any of these experiences—alcohol didn’t need to be the focal point. I wanted to live life like I normally would and run a social experiment to see if I genuinely enjoyed the activities I used to participate in or if it was the lens of alcohol that made those activities seem fun.
I think we sometimes underestimate the power of our minds and how they influence our experiences. If we don’t think we’re going to have a good time hanging out with friends or going to a party without alcohol, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ll feel like we’re missing out on a good time. Standing there being the only sober one can feel boring or make you self-conscious.
If, on the other hand, we go into the experience thinking we’ll enjoy the company, the deep conversations or the event itself (whether that be a concert, sports game, etc.), we’re more likely to have a good time.
One shocking realization I came to during this experiment is that some of the activities I loved doing when drinking, I couldn’t stand sober. I only enjoyed it because alcohol was involved. Baseball is a great example. for instance; Going to a three hour game sober is tortuous for me—I find it boring as hell and realized that for me, the whole experience used to revolve around pints.
Hitting up a patio with one of my best friends, on the other hand, was a great experience: I got to enjoy some amazing appies and a great conversation—no alcohol was needed to enhance the experience.
When I first started this new sober lifestyle (pre-pandemic), I actually felt anxious showing up to “drinks” at a restaurant/pub and ordering a diet coke or arriving at a party with a 6-pack of sparkling water. I was worried that my friends thought I would be boring or that I would come with a “holier than thou” attitude—judging them for their choices.
The truth is that alcohol made me boring. I wasn’t as articulate, I lost my wit and passion, and on some of the blurrier occasions, I could barely remember the conversations I had the night before.
When people find out I’m not drinking there’s mixed reactions, but predictable at this point. The first and most common reaction is curiosity: why am I choosing to not drink when drinking is just so much more fun? The second, less common reaction is when someone starts trying to pressure me into it (or guilt me) or automatically goes on the defense about their drinking habits. This is the most irritable reaction to deal with. I don’t understand why my decision to not drink is anyone’s business, but my own.
I’m honestly not judging people for their choices and choosing not to drink is a personal choice—not a reflection on what I think about other people’s choices. I don’t go around telling people that I don’t want to drink as bragging rights on how “seemingly” great my self-discipline is. In fact, one of the main reasons I publicly announced that I was doing a 6-month challenge was to mitigate any questions/negative responses from those around me when they realized I wasn’t drinking. I could simply say that I’m doing a 6 month challenge. After further reflection, I thought more about how weird this whole situation is. Weird that alcohol is the only drug that we stigmatize those who don’t take it.
What I have noticed though is that my true friends don’t care if I drink or not. They enjoy my company because of me and not because I’m a drinking buddy. Connecting deeply with people I care about offers the natural high I crave without any of the negative side effects that come with consuming alcohol.
Alcohol consumption is so pervasive in our society and by choosing to not drink, I’m aware that I’m going a bit against the grain. While I used to care so much at first about what other people thought (I used to meticulously plan out my reasons and even devised a script that outlined reasons for not drinking when out in social situations), I’ve kind of stopped caring altogether. When anyone starts to probe, I just shut it down. I’ve realized that if people are disappointed or don’t want to hangout with me anymore because I choose not to drink, well then so be it. No love lost on my end.
I know for a fact that I’m much more enjoyable to be around when I’m sober vs. intoxicated and I can create more lasting memories and experiences. When most events or social situations involve alcohol they can become a blur of sameness or what Annie Grace in in This Naked Mind describes as, “a boozy Groundhog Day in which you become ensnared.”
For me, this couldn’t be closer to the truth—my memories all kind of blend together when alcohol is involved, but the lasting, real memories that I hold close to me are always when the day/night doesn’t rely on alcohol.
Now let’s get into some truths; hard truths about what alcohol can do to your body and mood.
Alcohol’s Effect on the Body
As soon as we take that first drink, alcohol immediately gets absorbed by the bloodstream and b-lines it straight to our livers. Our bodies process alcohol the same way as if we were to ingest poison. Which makes sense because alcohol, made up of ethanol, technically is poison. If we consume food simultaneously, our body prioritizes processing the alcohol first to rid the toxicity from our bodies as quickly as possible. As soon as it enters the liver, alcohol is broken down to acetaldehyde and into acetate. Acetate suppresses fat oxidation; in other words, it stiffles our ability to burn fat. One study showed that the consumption of just two beers inhibited lipolysis (the breakdown of fats). This is one of the many reasons why alcohol can stunt our fat loss progress.
Alcohol on Training and Performance
If I could pick one thing to blame on hindering performance and palpable body composition changes in the gym, it would be alcohol. Working out hungover is clearly not fun and I usually feel sloppy when I’m trying to lift—breaking my form, cutting corners, and ending my workouts sooner than I had planned. I’ve ran my fair share of races after a night of drinking. Back in 2011, I ran a half marathon after staying up until 4:00am drinking and threw up within the first 5 kilometres. This was definitely up there in terms of my catalogue of miserable life experiences.
I think it’s ubiquitous at this point that alcohol is not a substance that will enhance performance in the gym—only substantially detract from it. While it is plausible to still make progress in the gym while including alcohol in our lifestyle, it needs to be limited.
Effects on Body Composition
Research has shown that consuming alcohol post-workout decreases muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and inhibits recovery— two essential ingredients needed to build muscle. This same study showed that even after ingesting adequate protein (25g of whey protein) post-workout, MPS was still hindered. Basically, this means that if we drink after our hard training session, the gains we made will be impaired—all that hard work for nothing. If you are planning to drink, it’s better to use that day as a rest day or opt for some cardio.
Unlike proteins, carbs and fats that nourishes our bodies and suppresses our appetites and leaves us feeling satiated, alcohol doesn’t. In fact, it typically increases our appetite. The overconsumption of calories, plus the high caloric content of alcohol ( 7Kcal/g) can easily put us in a caloric surplus—the key catalyst for weight gain.
Binge drinking episodes are the worst for fat loss, but when it comes to casual drinks (1-2) once per week, this probably won’t have a huge effect on your progress. Alcohol is also a drug; it lowers our inhibitions, causes dehydration, and the addictive effects make us want to drink more. Because alcohol is a drug and not a nutrient, its main purpose and full-time job is to make us want more That’s why it’s so hard to stop at just one drink.
Regular alcohol consumption and all those casual after work drinks stymied my progress with body composition. As soon as I stopped drinking (for over a month), I started making substantial and real changes to my body composition: gaining lean muscle, losing body fat, and more vascularity in my arms and legs.
Alcohol on Mood and Energy
Since removing alcohol, my energy has become a lot more stable. I sleep better, I’m able to regulate my moodiness (with less outbursts), I’m more patient, and overall a lot less anxious. I’m better at dealing with my negative emotions—really feeling them and then subsequently, letting them go. Alcohol just numbed my emotions and dulled my senses. After a break-up for example (one of the hardest experiences for me emotionally), I would go out to meet with friends for drinks to get my mind off things. While I felt better in the moment, the next day my anxiety would be off the charts and all of those negative emotions came flooding back—but this time even stronger.
Since I stopped drinking, I’ve become much more creative, been able to stick with the commitments I’ve set for myself and just enjoy every day activities so much more: like reading a good book, joking around with my family or going for a mid-day walk in nature.
This 6-month experiment has been a great experience. I’ve realized that alcohol is not a magic elixir that helps me relax, but rather, it’s been a huge source of a lot of my problems.
I’ve been able to save a ton of money, invest in the stock market, and also invest in myself (ie. I took a course on creativity in March). It’s much more gratifying knowing the money I worked hard for is going towards major things I want in life: a cottage, financial independence, and my own self-growth.
I no longer have to experience the extreme swings that come with the use of a drug (which is what alcohol is: a drug) and can deal with my emotions on my own terms. Feeling them fully (good and bad) and letting them pass through me has been a cathartic and liberating experience.
While I only set a goal to go for 6 months, I’ve decided to extend the challenge and continue this new lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to. 6- months in, I rarely even think about drinking anymore.
If you haven’t taken extended periods off drinking before, I highly recommend giving it a shot. While it does take a bit of time to acclimatize, the benefits are immense. The hardest part of the challenge by far has been the social pressures, but remember that anyone that doesn’t support your decision to not drink either isn’t a true friend (drop them) or might struggle with their own relationship to alcohol.