Abstinance: periods of time off alcohol can be beneficial in more ways than one. Photo: gradyreese
Just as the festive season is associated with over-indulging, for some, the months that follow are all about abstinence, whether it’s Dry January or FebFast, thousands of Australians are taking part. But can giving up booze for just one month really make a long-term difference to our health, wellbeing and relationship with alcohol?
Beth Burgess, addictions therapist and author of the book The Happy Addict, says there are some definite health benefits. “You’re giving all your organs a break, especially your liver, which sheds about 15 per cent of its fat cells after five weeks of abstinence.”
Participants are also likely to lose weight.
“You’re saving on calories from alcohol but also the associated junk food that people are more inclined to eat on a night out or to deal with a hangover,” Burgess says.
While these benefits are certainly appealing, are they sustainable once the period of alcohol abstinence has finished, or do participants merely carry on where they left off, gaining back the weight and “re-toxifing” the liver as they go?
Jess Newman participated in FebFast last year; she says that although she lost “a couple of kilos” during the month, the weight did creep back on eventually. However, while the weight loss was not sustained, Newman says the lasting benefit of the challenge was a new awareness when it comes to alcohol.
“When you stop drinking, it gives you an opportunity to assess your ‘I need a drink’ mentality. I realised that more often than not, I didn’t ‘need’ it at all, it was just an unhealthy coping mechanism.
“[The challenge] also forced to me think about what would actually make that moment less stressful, and how I could handle it differently.”
In addition to this new self-awareness, Newman started to observe the role that alcohol plays in our culture.
“I had never noticed how drinking is encouraged everywhere. All my favourite shows would feature someone drinking, and social media is just rife with it, particularly on a Friday night.”
So does this awareness help to create healthier drinking habits?
Rob Moodie, a professor of public health at Melbourne University’s Melbourne School of Population Health and a FebFast ambassador, says that while there is a risk people will rebound and drink heavily to make up for their month off, most FebFast participants do change their drinking habits.
“We get a strong sense from the research [conducted by Vic Health] that those involved in FebFast do modify their drinking for the rest of the year, which is a really positive outcome,” he says.
The research is compelling. Of surveyed FebFast participants 70 per cent said that since taking part in the challenge they were more aware of the effect alcohol has on their health.
While the end results are positive, how do those taking part in alcohol abstinence challenges feel during their dry month?
“Most people find that it’s not as hard as they think it will be,” Moodie says.
Zoey Martin has been participating in Dry January. She says that so far it has not been difficult.
“Although I love a glass of wine at the end of the day, I don’t miss it at all and I’m already seeing the benefits such as energy levels and fitness.
“I’ve been finding new ways to relax. Friday mocktails are a great way of keeping my traditional way of relaxing at the weekend minus the alcohol,” Martin says.
She definitely thinks alcohol abstinence challenges are worth the slog? “I think it’s a great way to reboot and figure out how much you do because you want to and how much is just habit.”