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5 Reasons to Try a Dry Month in Midlife

By Claire Gillespie
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
December 29, 2023

For many women in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, drinking is a pivotal part of the social scene. Whether you’re partaking in tailgate parties with beer, a “girls’ night” meetup with cocktails, or date nights where you share a bottle of wine with your partner, drinking can feel like part of the routine. But taking a break from alcohol and trying a dry month, like Dry January or Sober October (or any extended period that works for you), could be beneficial.

Midlife is often a time of change—children have left home, and women find themselves reassessing their domestic partnership, their work, their friendships, and also their health and their relationship with their bodies. “Many women will wake up to the fact that they might be abusing alcohol and want to make a change,” says Jean M. Campbell, a licensed clinical social worker based in Costa Mesa, California.

A dry month can help reevaluate the role alcohol plays in your life, Campbell says. Feeling like it’s time to reassess your relationship with drinking? While there’s not much science on the benefits of a temporary break from booze, those who complete a dry month challenge often report positive feelings about their well‑being. Here are five reasons women in midlife say it’s worth giving abstinence a go.

1. Better Sleep

An Alcohol Change UK survey found that 70% of Dry January participants reported experiencing better sleep.

Lori Cheek, 49, from Louisville, Kentucky, has abstained from alcohol for the whole month of January since 2009. She believes that insomnia—a common symptom associated with perimenopause—can definitely be exacerbated by alcohol, and taking periodic breaks from booze has helped her get her sleep habits back on track.

While alcohol’s sedative effects can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, it’s also been linked to poor sleep quality and duration. Alcohol may allow you to fall asleep quicker, but you will likely wake up in the middle of the night, and you won’t get enough REM sleep, where the health benefits of sleep are. Plus, research suggests that people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol often experience insomnia.

2. More Energy

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it causes your brain activity to slow down so you feel tired and sluggish. Abstaining from alcohol thus can lead to increased energy. “Some days during Dry January, I feel so energized I could fly,” Lori says. She’s not the only one—the Alcohol Change UK survey reported that 66% of participants indicated they had more energy.

Lori puts this extra energy to good use. “Instead of going to happy hours, I work out—and for longer than I usually would. I get my life super organized and catch up on every movie, magazine, and museum I don’t have time to manage the rest of the year! My apartment is never cleaner or more organized than on January 31.”

Lori adds, “I always look and feel like a new person once I reach the finish line.” But she notices the positive effects long before that—something to bear in mind if the first few days are challenging. “If you can just get past the early stage, you’ll start to notice a change, and your energy, mood, and overall health and productivity will inspire you to stay on track,” she says.

3. A Sharper Brain

Beyond having more energy, abstaining from alcohol can lead to a clearer, more focused mind. Common side effects of drinking to excess are slurred speech, slower reflexes, and poor memory—all caused by alcohol’s impact on the brain.

But the brain is a pretty incredible thing and has the ability to repair damage done by drinking. The results of one small German study suggested that lost gray matter (the stuff that processes information in the brain) began to regenerate in people with alcohol use disorder after only two weeks of abstinence. Another study suggested that brain tissue increased after participants quit alcohol for three months.

While it’s true that abstinence can reverse some of the brain damage caused by alcohol, this is only true if you haven’t been drinking heavily for a long time. Therefore, it’s important to avoid heavy drinking for many years and try abstinence early on; otherwise, irreversible brain damage can occur, leading to confusion and trouble walking.

“When I’m taking a break from alcohol, my mind is clearer, and my focus is sharper,” says Jane Evans, 48, from Devon, England, who has done several monthly alcohol-free challenges. Her feelings of anxiety also decrease dramatically when she’s not drinking. “I can be very jumpy, so this is one of the biggest effects that I notice,” she says.

4. A Healthier Liver

The main organ affected by alcohol consumption is the liver, which detoxifies and removes alcohol from the blood in a process known as oxidation. In extreme cases, years of heavy alcohol use can lead to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. But even moderate alcohol consumption can result in fatty liver disease, which can lead to liver damage in some cases. Liver damage can lead to yellowing of the skin, confusion, a distended abdomen, and internal bleeding.

The good news is that fatty liver is usually entirely reversible in about four to six weeks if you completely abstain from alcohol, according to the National Health Service in the UK. Afterward, alcohol can be added back, but at a rate less than two drinks per day, according to NHS guidelines.

As a reminder, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025 generally recommend no more than one drink for women (and no more than two drinks for men) on days when consuming alcohol. Even abstinence after developing cirrhosis can prevent future liver-related complications—and may even reverse some of the scarring.

5. Weight Management

Lori says she loses between 8 and 10 pounds whenever she does Dry January, which she credits to cooking all her meals at home (saving money at the same time) and cutting out sugar and carbs. “My body is never in better shape,” she says.

Jane points out that sugar cravings often kick in when she takes a break from alcohol. But to offset those cravings, you can make wise food choices, replacing sweets, chocolate, and cookies with healthy snacks, like oatcakes and hummus, berries with Greek yogurt, and small handfuls of nuts.

How much weight you lose—and, in fact, whether you lose any at all—also depends on other factors, including how much you were drinking before and what your starting weight is. But the bottom line is that alcoholic drinks are often high in calories, and they’re the type of calories that don’t fill you up (or provide nutrients) the way food calories can. Plus, during midlife, you may not be burning calories as efficiently as you did when you were younger.

How to Get Through Dry January

You might find that the evenings are the most challenging, so to stop yourself from pouring a glass of wine, replace that habit with another rewarding one. Jane often beads during the evening, which requires focus and concentration. She also recommends listening to personal development podcasts or audible books or listening to music. If you’d typically pour a drink while your dinner is cooking, call a friend instead. Alternatively, try a mocktail.

To help you stay accountable and motivated, Lori recommends finding a buddy for your dry month. She was inspired to set up her own Dry January Facebook group to make the experience more fun and social.

And if you slip up and have a drink before the month is out, don’t see it as a failure. “This leads to an all-or-nothing approach and self-sabotaging behaviors such as, ‘I have failed now, so I may as well carry on drinking,’” Jane says. She suggests marking your calendar on alcohol-free days and celebrating each mark (with an alcohol-free beer or glass of kombucha, of course). “Count the wins, not the failures!”

It may be daunting to try to go a whole month without drinking right off the bat. You can start slow by trying a few days without drinking at first, and then gradually increase the amount of time you abstain from alcohol.

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