All The Health Benefits Of Sober September, According To Experts
Think of it as the perfect opportunity for a fall reset.
If you're sober curious, or just want to spend a little time hangover-free, you might be interested in the concept of Sober September. Like Dry January, the goal of Sober September is to go a month without alcohol, whether that means skipping your evening glass of wine, forgoing shots with friends, or attending happy hour for the company — and not for the $5 margaritas.
Sober September offers an opportunity to evaluate the relationship you have with alcohol and observe its effects, says Dr. Lori Ryland, a licensed clinical psychologist, behavior analyst, and advanced addictions counselor at Pinnacle Treatment Centers. Are you totally fine without it? Or does its absence make you feel kind of weird? “You might benefit from this challenge if you suspect your relationship with alcohol might not be healthy and you want to explore sobriety without judgment from the people around you,” adds therapist Jessica Brohmer, LMFT.
Unlike Dry January, however, Sober September’s origins are a little more mysterious. While history tells us that abstaining from alcohol in the post-yuletide period is a very old concept — a teetotal version of "new year, new you" — the idea of not drinking for a month in the fall is relatively new. The idea may have emerged in England with the charity Cancer Research UK, which was credited with creating it in 2016 and now hosts "dryathlons" year-round to raise money for cancer research. And it’s caught on since then, the same way Dry January did, but for different reasons: While one kicks off the new year, the other is all about a reset.
"After a boozy summer, September is a month that finds a lot of people in detox mode," Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious and founder of non-drinking club Club SÖDA NYC, tells Bustle. "People also see September and October as a good time to take a break from drinking before Halloween and the holidays kick in." Want to give it a go? Here, experts reveal all the benefits of Sober September along with some tips for staying dry.
The Benefits Of Sober September
You can think of Sober September as a reset button on a physical, mental, and social level. “Physically, it gives you an opportunity to see how your body functions without alcohol,” says Leah Aguirre, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker. Not only does it give your liver a break, but you’ll also likely observe that you feel more energized and less sluggish, too, she tells Bustle.
In fact, studies have shown that taking even a short pause on drinking can be good for your health. A 2018 research from the University of Sussex that studied people who went sober for Dry January found that going 30 days without alcohol resulted in improved sleep, clearer skin, and more energy.
The break from drinking also left participants with more money and a hefty sense of achievement, the latter of which might have something to do with goal-setting and its effect on self-esteem. “They say that building trust in relationships is achieved by making small promises and keeping them,” Ryland notes. “You can say the same for the promises you make to yourself: One promise kept makes you feel like you can accomplish another goal, and then another. The achievement creates a cycle of setting more healthy behaviors, which leads to a healthier you.”
You may also notice that you feel less down in the dumps during Sober September. “Alcohol is a depressant,” Aguirre says, so it’s totally possible you’ll feel better without it. And while it may go without saying, you’ll also be clearer-headed and more present while sober, Aguirre adds, because you aren’t intoxicated — or hungover.
The same research team also studied Dry January in 2019 and found that people felt more prepared to deal with difficult issues in their lives after they'd participated, which is a huge bonus. What's more, the 2018 study found that folks who went back to drinking after the month was over drank less over the next six months. And that brings up the social side of things: A 2016 study of Dry January published in Health Psychology discovered that participants were more capable of refusing drinks at social events after their alcohol-free month.
This might have something to do with that promise, as well as a boost in confidence. According to Brohmer, there’s often a lot of pressure to drink in social settings, both spoken and unspoken. “Notice how many of your activities involve alcohol,” she says. You might reach for a drink to fit in or to relieve some of the pressure, but go a full 30 days without alcohol and you’ll see that it isn’t that big of a deal to hold a seltzer water instead.
As a side note, you don’t have to commit to this forever or even go all-in to feel the positive effects. "Even if you don’t go completely sober, a reduction in drinking is still a worthy goal as it not only improves your sleep but can improve your overall health and well-being," Dr. Joseph Volpicelli M.D., a psychiatrist and sobriety expert, tells Bustle. "Sometimes a goal of lessening up alcohol consumption can be a great lifestyle transition for a month."
How To Do Sober September
Want to give Sober September a try? It can be as simple as abstaining from alcohol for 30 days. “Some people just like a drink at the end of the day and it's easy for them to find a new routine,” Brohmer says. But if you tend to rely on alcohol to get through social situations, manage stress, or wind down after a hard day, Brohmer says you’ll need something more to help see you through.
If you suspect this challenge will be difficult, Brohmer suggests planning ahead as much as you can by finding alternative ways to de-stress and to give your confidence a boost. “One way to help a Sober September challenge feel easier is to do it with friends or family,” she says. “You'll have support on the journey and the knowledge that others might be struggling, too.” It’ll also be a hundred times easier to hang out with friends who aren’t drinking versus ones who are.
Distractions are also key. Ryland suggests filling the time you’d normally drink with healthy activities, especially if you have cravings. Take a long walk, read a book, or work on a project you’ve been meaning to get to. If you have a craving, Ryland says it’s best to ride it out and wait for it to pass — which it will, however strong it might feel.
Once you get to the end of the month, take a moment to reevaluate. “You could come to see that you are more physically dependent on alcohol than you thought, and this could motivate more long-term abstinence,” Aguirre says. You may decide to turn your Sober September into an On The Wagon October, a No-Alcohol November, and beyond. And if you find that you’re struggling to change your relationship with alcohol, don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend or therapist for support.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
Ballard, J. 2016. What is Dry January? Br J Gen Pract. doi: 10.3399/bjgp16X683173.
de Visser, R. O., Robinson, E., & Bond, R. (2016). Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during "Dry January" and subsequent alcohol use. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 35(3), 281–289. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000297
de Visser, R. O., & Nicholls, J. (2020). Temporary abstinence during Dry January: predictors of success; impact on well-being and self-efficacy. Psychology & health, 1–13. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2020.1743840
Jessica Brohmer, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
Leah Aguirre, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker
Dr. Joseph Volpicelli M.D., psychiatrist, sobriety expert
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