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 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 a busy week, it seems so right to knock back a cold one, have a glass (or sometimes a 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.
Giving up alcohol: Why the heck did I 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 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'd all taken 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 I had to try.
Alcohol and health
Beyond the challenge of it, I wanted to see whether my experiment had any effect on my health or my fitness habits.
Some research suggests moderate amounts of alcohol - up to one drink per day for women and one to two drinks per day for men - are a-OK for our health.
In fact, studies have shown that sticking to these guidelines can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (thank you, red wine).O'Keefe JH, et al. (2014). Alcohol and cardiovascular health: The dose makes the poison… or the remedy. DOI:10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.11.005
Drink more than those limits, though, and the research is a total buzzkill. For example, greater amounts of alcohol have been shown to negatively affect sports performance and recovery.Barnes MJ. (2014). Alcohol: Impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. DOI: 10.1007/s40279-014-0192-8
People also tend to eat more when drinking (why, yes, a whole pizza does sound better than a slice, thanks). Some studies have shown that upping your alcohol intake over time may put you at risk for long-term weight gain, though more research is needed on this.Traversy G, et al. (2015). Alcohol consumption and obesity: An update. DOI:10.1007/s13679-014-0129-4
A 2018 study also found that alcohol increases the odds of elevated blood pressure, especially in heavy drinkers.Teixeira Santana NM, et al. (2018). Consumption of alcohol and blood pressure: Results of the ELSA-Brasil study. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0190239
Plus, there's the potential for headaches, fatigue, and other hangover feels that can drag you down the next morning.
Then there's this freaky finding: A 2018 study of 195 countries and territories found that no amount of alcohol is good for overall health. Even a little is enough to cause health issues, and the healthiest amount to consume is none.Griswold MG, et al. (2018). Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31310-2
So I wondered what differences I might notice if I gave up alcohol. Would I lose weight? Would I be motivated to work out harder? Would it be easier to avoid overeating at social events? Would it affect my happiness?
To find out, I resolved to try not to 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.
How giving up alcohol 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 had worn off, it was much easier than I'd anticipated. Here's why.
Lots of people don't drink
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 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 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.
Nobody judged me
Even after I returned from travel, I realized that most of the time, as long as I had a drink in my hand, it didn't matter what it was. There were times I'd enviously eye a wine glass 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'd chosen not to drink or their current philosophy to “stay dry during the week” to be a bit brighter in the mornings before work.
I didn't have to make decisions
Another nice effect was that I didn't have to think about drinking. All sorts of small decisions went away, like whether it was my or my husband's turn to be the designated driver, whether I was getting a little too tipsy, or whether I had to pick up beer on the way to a function.
All that thinking was gone - and it was a relief. The less I thought about alcohol, the easier it was to avoid it.
How giving up alcohol sucked (but only a little)
It wasn't difficult to live without alcohol in general, but this was the tricky bit.
Watching others drink
That beginning moment at social events when others start drinking was the hardest part. It was then that I'd feel the cue - the 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 a new conversation or find another way to distract myself. Once that initial moment had passed, the rest really was easy.
The surprising things I learned
My two months are up. Here's how that little experiment changed my routine.
I don't drink alone
I'm drinking again, but I've changed some of my habits, mainly that I'm drinking only socially. I've decided to give up drinking at home or alone because I don't get enough enjoyment out of it.
I limit my alcohol intake
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 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.
My health has improved
Not drinking didn't magically improve all 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 I felt a lot better on the weekends and was more likely to have a good weekend-warrior workout.
I quit other things, too
The most important change is that giving up alcohol made it easier to believe 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 necessary 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 foods with added sugar, such as cereal, granola, and energy bars.
This is something I'd wanted to do for a long time and had never thought 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.
My bottom line
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 be extra nice, there's incredible value in pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones.
We all see ourselves in certain ways and get stuck in our routines. Taking the time to experiment, make some changes, and try out new healthy habits - even if they stick only a little bit - can lead to big changes over time.