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Health - Top Stories

I gave up alcohol for a month and it made me look hard at my drinking habits

INSIDER logoINSIDER 2019-01-10 Marilyn La Jeunesse
a hand holding a glass of wine © kaicho20 / Pixabay
  • A chronic illness made me re-evaluate how I consume alcohol.
  • It ended up being a struggle to avoid alcohol for 30 days.
  • Though I made a few mistakes, this test made me consider what cost is associated with drinking alcohol socially.
  • After quitting alcohol for a month I noticed a mood change, less bloating, and fewer headaches.

My relationship with alcohol has always been casual. I'll go out for drinks with co-workers on a Friday night after a long week, or grab a glass of wine with my friends at our favorite Italian spot. Occasionally, I'll have one too many and find myself wondering how I ended up in a seedy dive bar on the Lower East Side.

But, over the past two years, my drinking habits have changed as I struggled with a chronic illness that's compromised everything from my weight to my skin and forced me to reconsider the food and beverages I consume. My goal in 2018 was to start drinking more consciously (of which, I've only failed twice) and really reconsider the effect alcohol has on my body.

a glass of red wine © Zakharova_Natalia/ iStock

According to nutritionist Dr. Lisa Young, alcohol can have several negative effects on one's body. "While moderate drinking (one drink for women, two for men) may be protective for heart health, large amounts of alcohol are problematic," Dr. Young told INSIDER.

She listed a variety of problems alcohol can cause over time, including elevated blood pressure, which can contribute to an irregular heartbeat, interference with brain function, cause a fatty liver, and even increase your risk of certain types of cancer. More immediately, Dr. Young said alcohol can alter your mood, interfere with your coordination, and be extremely dehydrating.

"We know that the bacteria in the digestive tract help break down the foods we're eating, but they also help us process calories in an efficient way as to not cause weight gain," said Schau. You could be lacking the healthy bacteria your body needs to break down calories, and you can easily use a multi-strain probiotic to replenish your flora, she suggested. © Sarah Schmalbruch/INSIDER "We know that the bacteria in the digestive tract help break down the foods we're eating, but they also help us process calories in an efficient way as to not cause weight gain," said Schau. You could be lacking the healthy bacteria your body needs to break down calories, and you can easily use a multi-strain probiotic to replenish your flora, she suggested.

This, of course, brings me to my latest endeavor to test alcohol's effect on my body: giving up booze for an entire month. 

Typically, I don't like to drink when I am with family and, since I was heading home for a month, I decided to give up alcohol for the whole of August.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the challenge seemed relatively easy. I mean, I don't drink frequently, so how could consciously uncoupling from alcohol be so difficult? Would it really be a struggle to give up alcohol for 30 days? The answer: Yes.

I began my no-alcohol journey on Friday, Aug. 3, the day my flight to California was delayed an entire day thanks to thunderstorms in the New York area. The very next day, I encountered my first problem: free wine on board the plane. Typically, I don't drink at airports or on planes solely because turbulence is as unpredictable as your third shot of tequila, but free wine when your seat is upgraded is hard to pass up. Alas, the mini bottle of chardonnay went to my seat partner as I enjoyed a warm cup of tea.

a piece of cake on a plate next to a cup of coffee © Flickr/Laura D'Alessandro

The rest of the weekend went by without a hitch - until Taco Tuesday. A sacred tradition among Californians (and literally anyone who likes tacos), my friend and I grabbed lunch at a spot in town known for their dangerously good margaritas. Thankfully, the trendy new spot also had to-die-for aguas frescas, of which I enjoyed at least two, but not without Instagramming my friend's Coco Loco in place of my Jamaica bebida.

I've gone two weeks without alcohol before, but this time I was cognizant of my body and how it felt. I was less bloated and felt a little healthier than normal, especially when I woke up for my 6 a.m. call times at work.

a person lying on a bed: Most people urinate six or seven times every 24 hours, according to Medical New Today. If you find yourself urinating more frequently and needing to wake up at night to use the bathroom, you may be drinking too much water. Other conditions such as urinary tract infections, diabetes, prostate problems, and pelvic floor weakness can also cause frequent urination, so talk to your doctor if you notice yourself peeing much more than usual. © Gengwit Wattakawigran/Shutterstock Most people urinate six or seven times every 24 hours, according to Medical New Today. If you find yourself urinating more frequently and needing to wake up at night to use the bathroom, you may be drinking too much water. Other conditions such as urinary tract infections, diabetes, prostate problems, and pelvic floor weakness can also cause frequent urination, so talk to your doctor if you notice yourself peeing much more than usual.

"The biggest positive effect of [not drinking alcohol] is all-around health," Dr. Young explained. "People who stop drinking tend to feel more balanced, hydrated, show improved mood, and better sleep."

So far, so good on my end. I definitely saw a mood improvement over the past two weeks, but that could also be attributed to the California sunshine and seeing my family for the first time in months. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling more hydrated, which is an improvement I hoped to experience as a result of giving up alcohol.

Then came Aug. 19: the test I failed.

I was dining at a historic Mexican restaurant in LA that has been using the same margarita recipe for more than 50 years. Given that margaritas are my all-time favorite drink, I ordered one without thinking. I had already taken several *large* sips before remembering I was supposed to be avoiding the agave nectar. The drink was one-fourth of the way gone when I begrudgingly gave the drink to my friend and ordered a lemonade to drown my sorrows.

a glass of beer on a table © Kirsten Acuna/INSIDER

Al lright, that's a bit of a dramatic re-enactment, but you get the idea. I failed and drank some alcohol. Ultimately, though, it was a helpful indication of how great I'd been feeling without alcohol in my life. On the car ride home, I had a dreadful headache, presumably from the alcohol as it was over 90 degrees and I hadn't had nearly enough water to compensate for the booze.

Having learned my lesson, I survived the next two weeks without another failure and completed my 30-day no-alcohol challenge. Overall, I'd rank my challenge performance as a B-, given the fact I still Instagrammed alcohol and took a few generous sips of an ice-cold marg.

a close up of a beverage © Shutterstock

Giving up alcohol for an entire month allowed me to analyze when and why I drink, in addition to helping me reflect on the problems I face when drinking alcohol with a chronic illness.

I've recognized that the main reason I drink is to socialize, but at what cost? Are the crippling stomach cramps and inflammatory side effects really worth it?

The honest answer is no, but our society has equated fun with alcohol, which makes it difficult not to drink in a social setting. It's almost rude to say no to celebratory champagne or a round of shots at a bachelorette party. But, it ultimately comes down to 1) whether or not you're truly committed to giving up booze, and 2) if your friends are supportive of your no-alcohol journey.

a man holding a glass of wine © Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Throughout my four weeks of mostly booze-free social outings, not a single one of my friends judged me or pressured me into drinking. In all honesty, missing out on a few gin and tonics with my college friends won't sacrifice the meaning of our experiences together. And those who don't support me (or you!) can kindly see themselves out of my life.

As for the immediate health effects of not drinking alcohol for a month, I did notice a bit of a mood change, less bloating, and the number of minor headaches I had throughout the month significantly declined. Of course, many of these effects can be attributed to another cause, and everyone can have different experiences eliminating alcohol from their diet, but overall, I felt healthier and happier not drinking and will most likely continue to significantly limit the amount of booze I allow into my life.

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