Whether you’re at work events, dinner parties, clubs, or on dates, it can seem that alcohol is always there. And sometimes — like what happened to me this weekend — they’re the only options besides plain water. But as more people are embracing the sober curious movement, which helps people reframe their relationships with alcohol, research is showing there are health benefits to cutting back or abstaining entirely from alcohol beyond what you'd expect. A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that women who didn't drink alcohol had improved mental health.
Some medical professionals and researchers say moderate alcohol use can have various health benefits, like reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, increasing your lifespan, decreasing your chance of developing dementia, or lowering your chance of diabetes. However, while further research is needed to fully examine the link between mental health and abstaining from drinking, the authors of the study say that their research suggests that commonly held beliefs about alcohol and health might need to be reexamined.
“Our findings suggest caution in recommendations that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life,” Herbert Pang, one of the study’s co-authors and an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, told Today.
Of 10,000 people from Hong Kong and 31,000 from the Unitd States, researchers found that people who had never drank at all "reported the highest levels of mental well-being," Today reported. For women, quitting alcohol during the course of the time the study followed them was linked to improved mental health. The study didn't include heavy drinkers in their analysis.
Moderate alcohol use might have more negative health benefits than researchers realize, but heavy alcohol use can be deadly. Every year, alcohol misuse leads to an average of 2.5 million years of potential life lost, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also says that alcohol misuse can cause long-term health problems, like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems, cancer, learning and memory problems, mental health problems, and social problems.
So it’s easy to see why some people feel that reducing your overall alcohol intake can be beneficial. And improving your health is a value that’s intrinsic to the sober curious movement. But being sober curious isn’t the same thing as being sober, and the distinction is really important. Sober curious people design their own level of comfort when it comes to drinking, deciding to only drink once a month, or maybe only on the weekends. However, being sober is a difficult, lifelong decision that people make to save their lives, support themselves, or help preserve their relationships. The sober curious movement can help a lot of people, but associating it with sobriety can be offensive for people recovering from substance misuse.
Commercializing the concept of sobriety and redefining it as part of the wellness movement can clearly have its drawbacks. But encouraging social spaces to be more inclusive of different lifestyles would be helpful for many. Having more non-alcoholic options in social spaces would make spaces more inclusive for people with other medical conditions, pregnant people, or people who follow religious guidelines about drinking, in addition to people who are sober.
Alcohol can be an enjoyable part of life, but it can also carry with it very serious health problems that can negatively impact their health. The “sober curious” movement might not be for everyone, especially for those who are struggling with alcoholism. But creating more inclusive spaces where alcohol doesn’t need to be at the center of our entertainment, intimate relationships, or friendships is always a good thing.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).