Life

6 Ways Not Drinking Boosts Your Health Over Time

agrobacter/E+/Getty Images

Do you ever wake up on a Sunday morning after a week of after-work happy hours and boozy brunches and realize that, actually, a year off from drinking wouldn't be so bad? If you're interested in avoiding alcohol for a bit — whether to save money, feel clearer-headed in the mornings, or any of the myriad reasons to quit drinking — you might expect some of the more obvious health benefits, like improved sleep. But the unexpected benefits of not drinking might entice you to close your bar tab for longer than a Dry January.

"Most of us are familiar with the health benefits of a period of sobriety," Dr. Joseph Volpicelli M.D., an addiction specialist, tells Bustle. "For example, giving up alcohol is associated with improved sleep, improved mood, and even improved complexion with less baggy eyes and puffy skin." However, he says that many benefits of sobriety are less immediately obvious, and might not be very well-known, even if they're just as important to our health and wellbeing over the long term.

Experts tell Bustle that going sober can reduce liver damage, improve insulin resistance and cancer risk, and help mental health. Though the signs of those improvements don't appear in the mirror every day, they're no less real. Here are seven things that happen in the long term after quitting drinking.

1
You'll Reduce The Stress On Your Liver
martin-dm/E+/Getty Images

Just a month of sobriety is enough to help your liver recover from some of the damage done by drinking. Dr. George Koob Ph.D., director of the National Institute on alcohol abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells Bustle that a study published in Alcohol in 2018 found that after a month of sobriety, people showed lower levels of damaging liver enzymes than when the study started.

"These weren’t toxic levels of elevated enzymes to start with, but they did return back to the normal range," he says. "Given that these enzymes reflect oxidative stress to the liver, a month of sobriety could be beneficial." Long-term oxidative stress has been shown to play a role in liver disease, which can shorten life expectancy and make it hard for the body to eliminate toxins, so even if you don't feel any different, sobriety may be helping your liver to flourish.

2
Your Sense Of Wellbeing May Increase

After a taste of sobriety, you may feel unexpectedly more satisfied with life, according to research. A study of over 40,000 people published in Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2019 found that people who quit drinking, particularly women, experienced a distinct improvement in their feelings of wellbeing up to two years after they'd quit. They assessed wellbeing using a scale called the SF-12, which asks a range of questions about physical and mental health, including social functioning, pain, and emotions.

The mental health impacts of sobriety are complex, but research indicates that you might feel the benefit years after you make the decision to go sober.

3
It May Help Your Sex Life

Sobriety may bring an unexpected benefit to your bedroom. "As Shakespeare remarked, alcohol 'provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance'," Dr. Volpicelli tells Bustle. "Many people assume that drinking can increase sex drive and remove inhibitions, but alcohol can also take away the ability to perform sex and is an important cause of erectile dysfunction." People who've decided to stop drinking may experience a higher libido, better performance, and other benefits in bed. A 2018 study of almost 700 people found that alcohol was also associated with feelings of regret after sex, so while sober, you may feel more confident about your decisions in bed.

4
You Might Want To Drink Less In General
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

While you might expect your first experience of sobriety to be filled with cravings for alcohol, that might not be the case. A study of 850 participants published in Health Psychology in 2016 found that people who'd done Dry January felt less inclined to drink afterwards. When their period of sobriety ended, they didn't consume nearly as much alcohol as they had before. Part of this may be psychological — Dry January helps you figure out that you don't need to drink quite as much to have a good time — but further studies are needed to confirm the link.

5
It Can Improve Insulin Resistance

A study of 94 people published in the British Medical Journal in 2018 found that people who'd been sober for one month showed a host of improvements in their health, including one unexpected area: their insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition where the body stops paying attention to signals from insulin to absorb glucose, and starts producing more insulin as a result. It's known to be a precursor to diabetes and other health conditions. The people in the 2018 study showed marked reductions in their insulin resistance after just four weeks of not drinking.

6
It Could Affect Cancer Risk

The study in the British Medical Journal also examined various growth factors that are known to be linked to cancer risk. They found that in people who abstained from alcohol for one month, levels of both vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF) went down. A growth factor is a protein that prompts tissue growth, and VEGF is linked to colorectal and lung cancers, while EGF is associated with lung cancer and breast cancer. There's no long-term analysis of how these growth factors might affect cancer risk in people who stop drinking, but the signals of the small study indicate the results might be positive.

Going sober can have many benefits, from sleep to mental health. But it's the less obvious advantages that may be the ones to make a real difference to your life.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).

7

Studies cited:

Li, S., Tan, H. Y., Wang, N., Zhang, Z. J., Lao, L., Wong, C. W., & Feng, Y. (2015). The Role of Oxidative Stress and Antioxidants in Liver Diseases. International journal of molecular sciences, 16(11), 26087–26124. doi:10.3390/ijms161125942

Mehta G, Macdonald S, Cronberg A, et al (2018) Short-term abstinence from alcohol and changes in cardiovascular risk factors, liver function tests and cancer-related growth factors: a prospective observational study. BMJ Open 8:e020673. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020673

Munsterman, I. D., Groefsema, M. M., Weijers, G., Klein, W. M., Swinkels, D. W., Drenth, J. P. H., … Tjwa, E. T. T. L. (2018). Biochemical Effects on the Liver of 1 Month of Alcohol Abstinence in Moderate Alcohol Consumers. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 53(4), 435–438. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agy031

Palamar, J. J., Griffin-Tomas, M., Acosta, P., Ompad, D. C., & Cleland, C. M. (2018). A comparison of self-reported sexual effects of alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy in a sample of young adult nightlife attendees. Psychology & Sexuality, 9(1), 54–68. doi: 10.1080/19419899.2018.1425220

de Visser, R.O., Robinson, E., Bond, R. (2016) Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during "Dry January" and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychol. 35(3):281-9. doi: 10.1037/hea0000297.

Yao, X. I., Ni, M. Y., Cheung, F., Wu, J. T., Schooling, C. M., Leung, G. M., & Pang, H. (2019). Change in moderate alcohol consumption and quality of life: evidence from 2 population-based cohorts. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 191(27). doi: 10.1503/cmaj.181583

Experts:

Dr. George Koob Ph.D., director, NIAAA

Dr. Joseph Volpicelli M.D., addiction specialist