Chances are, you know someone embarking on a “sober September” — a month-long hiatus from drinking, usually after a summer of fruity cocktails, Coronas, and sangria. The rules are simple: refrain from drinking for a month, swapping liquor, beer, and wine for non-alcoholic beverages.
Some aim to drop a few beer-gut pounds, while hope that doing so will give their livers a break from processing alcohol. It’s a well-intentioned commitment — but does it actually make any difference to your health?
If you’re considering taking a month off from alcohol, perhaps it’s best to first think about why you want to do it in the first place, says preventive medicine and nutrition expert David Katz, MD, the founder of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and a Yahoo Health Advisory Board member.
“If you’re asking that question as September looms, your summer debauchery was excessive and you don’t want to do that again next summer!” Katz tells Yahoo Health. But maybe your summer madness wasn’t really all that, well, mad, you may protest. But Katz says that “iIf you feel there’s a need to take a month off from drinking, it suggests there’s an issue with alcohol.”
What It Does For Your Liver
As much as people might want to believe that taking a vacation from drinking events out the excess, Katz says it’s simply not true. “If you live it up for a couple of months and then go dry for a month, thinking it’ll even out, it won’t. People need to see that,” Katz explains. A month-long hiatus won’t heal your liver — which processes the sugar in alcohol and can be damaged by excessive drinking — or your heart — which can be negatively impacted by binge drinking. What’s more, says Katz, is that a stop-and-start drinking habit can be more damaging than drinking consistently in moderation.
“What we know is that drinking episodically is not at all the same as drinking a glass of wine at dinner,” Katz explains. “There’s a condition called holiday heart syndrome, which is a toxic effect on the structure of the heart, and specifically the result of drinking a lot occasionally —it doesn’t occur if you drink moderately almost every day.”
Are you really “healing your liver”? No, though you are taking a month off from causing it any more damage.
What It Does For Your Brain
A sober September does have one benefit, says Katz, but it’s not a smaller pants size or “cleansed” liver: It will yield a mental shift, rather than a physical one (at least, not right away).
“I would look at a month of sobriety as equivalent to an intermittent fast, or juicing, or a cleanse. And we have no real evidence that they are physically beneficial per se,” Katz explains. “But it’s like rebooting a computer — they make you stop, they make you conscious, they make you mindful, and there’s the opportunity to get into a pattern that’s better for you.”
So if you find yourself caught up in a pattern of drinking in a way that’s not good for your health, taking the month off could force you to consciously avoid alcohol. By quitting cold-turkey, you’ll alter the patterns you’ve set up for yourself. “You’re rebooting your relationship, and presumably, at the end of the month, you’d make more conscious choices,” says Katz. “I think that the opportunity to reboot with any behavior, as long as you understand that it’s the initial step and it’s what you do after that matters, is beneficial.”
What It Does For Your Weight
While none are guaranteed, there are some potential physical benefits that could come from giving up drinking for a month. Alcohol is calorically dense and mostly sugar, so cutting it out for a month may lead to weight loss. A modest serving of beer or wine contains around 150 calories, while the average margarita clocks in at around 500 calories. If you typically have a few drinks at least a few times a week, and swap in water or seltzer instead of soda or juice, you’ll likely end the month a few pounds lighter and less bloated. Picking back up with drinking at the end of the month pretty much guarantees that those perks are short-lived, but if taking a month off helps create a shift in your habits, a sober September could be the first step toward lasting weight loss and better health.
Is A Sober September Right For You?
If you feel like you need a break from drinking, take it. At the least, you’ll save yourself a few hangovers, and you may come out of it with a new ability to drink in moderation, rather than to excess. Just resist the urge to tell everyone you know about your month-long liver cleanse and all the toxins you’re “releasing” — you’ll find yourself friendless and drink-less faster than you can say cheers.
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