One Year With No Alcohol: The Effects On My Body, Mind, and SpiritSep 10, 2023
(The benefits and perils of alcohol consumption can endlessly be debated, and my goal in publishing this is not to engage in this particular discussion but rather share: 1. My motivations to stop consuming alcohol and 2. The impact this life change has had on me over the course of the past year.)
Last summer, I decided to indefinitely stop consuming alcohol. My body had been making clear to me for some time that alcohol wasn’t really supporting me. Even if I had a single glass of wine, I’d be entirely devoid of energy or motivation. The once breezy glass of pinot grigio at lunch with a bestie was no longer because I’d simply want to nap afterward. This dynamic began after my first child was born and only intensified with compounded exhaustion.
Over the past several years I had toyed with quitting — one, three, six months without drinking (also with no hard commitment), and then I’d hop off the wagon. Every time I did, I questioned why I didn’t stay on for the long haul.
On August 11, 2022, I had an appointment with my friend’s hypnotherapist in Paia, Maui. I thought I had a clear idea of what I wanted to address during this session, but after chatting for quite some time, she pointed out to me, “It seems to me you’d really like to see what life would be like without alcohol.” So we made the session about eliminating alcohol consumption from my repertoire.
Historically, I never felt challenged to stop drinking. Any time I did stop for an extended period of time, the biggest thing keeping me from staying dry was having a hard rule for myself. I don’t love absolutes. And since I don’t have an addictive personality, I didn’t think I had to apply an absolute rule to this particular custom (habit? norm?) in my life.
I neither went into nor followed this hypnotherapy session with any expectation about how long I’d stay alcohol-free. I think that, at least at the beginning of this journey, a major factor that contributed to my commitment to stop drinking was accountability. I had now communicated to someone who wasn’t a friend or family member that I intended to stop drinking, and it was less of an experiment and more intentional. It felt a little different than a Sober October or Dry July.The Initial Transition
The early weeks were filled with very conscious behavior and habit shifting. I was extremely mindful of replacing the evening glass of wine or happy hour cocktail with sparking water or kombucha. Over the subsequent months, which included American football and the holidays (seasons generally paired with myriad alcoholic concoctions), I realized that I had to re-ground myself in certain settings and environments. Staying free of alcohol wasn’t yet second nature, and certainly not while being offered champagne on Emirates when we flew to visit family! At times, I heard the voice from one of my shoulders challenging me, “What harm will one do?!”
This was when my talk therapist pointed out to me that I was in the process of completely rewiring my reward system. One that not only had been so deeply ingrained in how I operate over the course of decades but that is also completely normalized and even glorified by society.
After I got pretty good at quieting the taunting voice on my shoulder, certain benefits of not consuming alcohol made it easier to stay the course. Research suggests that it may take 18 to 254 days to form a new habit (European Journal of Social Psychology, 2009). I would estimate it was at about the 9-month mark that this life change started to feel natural and automatic. A lot of this was also external — once my partner and close friends got used to the idea I wouldn’t partake in the bottle of wine at dinner, this new norm started feeling more natural and less experimental. Outside factors supporting and conforming to my choice made the transition more organic.
The Initial Transition
I experienced a positive impact across five major attributes of my well-being in this order: quality of sleep, physical appearance & function, anxiety, mental and emotional fog, and creativity.
The quality of my rest and resulting physical disposition were the benefits to most quickly hit me after I stopped drinking alcohol. I haven’t used a sleep tracker over the past year (but am considering starting to do so out of pure curiosity), but I knew the quality of my sleep improved because I would wake up feeling calm and refreshed. Not to mention, never remotely hungover. Byeee, headaches.
Though I wasn’t a heavy drinker in recent years, it took about three days without drinking for me to feel the stark contrast in the quality of my rest. The detoxification process after consuming alcohol is what disturbs our sleep, stealing the energy our bodies need to restore overnight.
Now, in the morning, my disposition demonstrates to me that my sleep was restorative — the way it’s meant to be.
The next big change to be apparent was my body, starting with my weight and appearance. It’s no secret that boozy beverages pack calories, so eliminating these was a major factor. I’d estimate I lost about 5–7 pounds, which was 3–5% of my starting weight.
The real kicker here is that I am able to eat literally whatever I want with no real impact on my weight and how my clothes fit. I started noticing this at the 4-month mark. Sure, I experience bloating after eating certain things, but I can have my cheat days (weekends, vacations, whatever), and my body doesn’t look like it’s being punished. (It’s also worth noting that I work out and am a generally healthy eater, but I do like my barbeque, doughnuts, ice cream, you name it.)
Because I am certain that on at least half of my days my caloric intake matches and possibly exceeds what I was ingesting when I was drinking, I started to read about the impact alcohol has on our metabolism and digestion.
I am GROSSLY simplifying this because a) I am NOT a biologist or medical practitioner and b) my goal in touching on the science is not to break it down in detail but rather to share enough substantiation to support my theories around why the absence of alcohol has affected me the way it has.
My research culminated in two primary physiological points:
- The metabolism of alcohol in the human body generates poisons in our body (not a surprise to most)
- Alcohol consumption greatly disrupts the digestive and nutrient (mal)absorption processes
The most common pathway through which the human body metabolizes alcohol engages two enzymes that break it down so our body can purge it. These enzymes are alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH).¹
ADH turns booze into acetaldehyde, which becomes acetate (with the help of ALDH), which then becomes water and carbon dioxide before being eliminated.
(Note: acetaldehyde boasts greater toxicity than alcohol and is the culprit behind the nausea, headache, and fatigue drinking may cause, and it generates damage at the cellular level.)
The impact of alcohol on digestion is a bit more circuitous than merely pumping poison into the body. At a high level, alcohol consumption inhibits nutrient absorption and dehydrates the body. Gut irritation and intestinal inflammation caused by alcohol result in compromised nutrient absorption. In addition, not only is alcohol a diuretic (generating more urine), but it also expedites the digestive process, giving the body less time to reabsorb the normal amount of water in the process.
The impact of booze on these biological processes is just one piece of a larger story that supports how eliminating alcohol has improved my overall well-being. For physiological arguments, this life change has allowed my body to function the way it is meant to:
- Using time designated to rest (sleep) to digest and restore
- Absorbing all the nutrients I make available to my body.
It is hardly a secret that alcohol is a depressant. The simple scientific definition of a depressant, or “downer”, is a substance that:
“Lowers neurotransmission levels or ‘depresses’ stimulation in various parts of the brain.”
I have worked through challenges with anxiety since I can remember. I was a nailbiter as a child. My religious upbringing often had me up at night wondering what eternal damnation would be like and how I could possibly actually avoid it. So it’s no surprise that I always had a low-key layer of anxiety in my steady state. With the guidance and support of my physician, I tested SSRIs until I found one that fit. And I attribute the overwhelming improvement of the quality of my daily life in my 20s and 30s to Lexapro.
When I tried to titrate off of the medication, the heaviness in my chest and weight on my shoulder would become unbearable and overwhelming. During most of these times, I was still drinking alcohol. It wasn’t consistently heavy, but it was not consistently out of the picture.
A serendipitous transition took place in the fall of 2022 when I had removed alcohol and responsibly titrated off of Lexapro in preparation for a plant medicine ceremony. When all was said and done, I no longer experienced that tightness and heaviness. I understand that in this particular case, it could be more than just the abstinence from alcohol that negated my deeply ingrained anxiety. But I have had way too many mornings after a few glasses of wine when the cause & effect relationship was all too obvious.
A few things take place when we drink:
- Those first few sips of alcohol trigger the release of dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, neurotransmitters that make us feel pretty good. When our body recovers, bringing these factors back to normal levels, their withdrawal causes us to experience feelings of anxiety.
- Alcohol also stimulates the release of a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA is thought to control nerve cell hyperactivity associated with anxiety and is thus considered a downer. When the depressant effect brought on by alcohol consumption wears off, feelings of anxiety or panic may set in.
- Drinking alcohol has been linked to increases in cortisol, which is our primary stress hormone. When cortisol spikes, bodily functions that are not deemed essential to the fight-or-flight response are stalled. This may cause increased heart rate and blood pressure and stalling of digestion, reproduction (sex!), growth (by decreasing the production of HGH), and immunity.
- Sleep is disturbed. We already covered this.
I still have triggers. I still have stressors. Without the fluctuations caused by the alcohol-induced processes above, the way they manifest in my body and mind has completely changed. (Also, the way I am now equipped to respond in to these factors is different.) I also understand that allowing my body many months to regulate and normalize my dopamine and serotonin levels has facilitated a steadier state.
4. Brain & Heart Fog
Since removing alcohol, I am more clear-headed than I have ever been, and my memory has improved tremendously. This was actually a significant pull for me in quitting drinking, because after back-to-back kids, I definitely experienced what’s called “mom brain.” I craved mental sharpness.
Due to alcohol’s significant impact on our brain chemistry, our brain must “get back to normal” after consumption. This, in addition to dehydration, helps contribute to brain fog.
For me, it wasn’t just brain fog — removing the emotional rollercoaster even just those first few sips of wine led to has allowed me to be in far greater touch with my emotions. I’ve become braver in feeling the less enjoyable emotions because I haven’t been avoiding them by imbibing. And because I am a big believer in experiencing and moving through our emotions in order to process and move on from them, I feel a lot more emotionally cleansed and updated. I’m not sitting in shit that happened years ago.
Likely due to the same factors that affect brain fog, I have been getting back in touch with my creative side. It’s like a bunch of useless sludge has been removed from my prefrontal cortex. I enjoy simple daily activities without thinking about the buzz I will get in those first couple of sips later that evening. The sensation is freeing.
It doesn’t hurt that I also GAINED so much more real, productive time by eliminating alcohol-induced hangovers and slow & foggy days. My list of extracurricular activities has totally transformed. It’s actually jarring for me to think about how casually and insidiously alcohol permeated my life. Activities revolved around drinking, regardless of how much I would consume. Removing that element, while certainly a transition, encouraged me to expand my universe of choice activities while relieving me of any time lost recovering from alcohol consumption, which I learned was time lost or tainted even at “just” one or two drinks.
- Giving up alcohol was an effort in the beginning and took about 9 months to become natural.
- Once the many improvements in my health and wellbeing became apparent, it was easier to reinforce this change in lifestyle, particularly in the face of temptation.
- The removal of alcohol consumption very clearly enabled my body to return to its steady state, balancing out my weight and size, clearing my head and heart, and giving me back some of my very valuable time.
As I write this today, I am exactly 13 months alcohol-free. I just enjoyed a much-needed weekend getaway with my husband, which included oysters on the San Francisco Bay and a show by one of our favorites: Thievery Corporation. As we sat for lunch at a venue where I used to “lunch” with champagne and rosé, a small wave of temptation and “why the F not?” washed over me. But I literally thought about the very points I share in this piece. And I had my Arnold Palmer.
I don’t know if I will abstain from alcohol forever. This choice makes sense for me at this point in my life. I occasionally miss letting loose with cocktails or winding down with some wine. But for now, the benefits I’ve experienced embarking on this path have immensely outweighed my fleeting longing for the sauce.