A hot new trend has people everywhere just saying no to a cold, tall beer or frozen margarita.
The so-called “sobriety movement” asks participants to give up or substantially reduce their alcohol intake.
Some people give up alcohol for health reasons. Others lament their dependence on booze to lubricate social interactions, or worry that spirits are making them less productive than they otherwise would be.
The sobriety movement is catching fire in cyberspace and in trend-setting cities such as New York and Los Angeles, where some bars now offer nonalcoholic drink menus featuring “mocktails” that mimic adult beverages, minus the intoxicants.
Although the sobriety movement is generating its own kind of “buzz,” it would be a mistake to characterize the trend as something novel, says William R. Miller, emeritus distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and author of “Controlling Your Drinking.”
“I’m not sure how ‘new’ a movement this is,” he says. “American per-capita alcohol consumption has been dropping dramatically since the 1980s, and is now at about half of what it used to be.”
In fact, 28 percent of American men and 40 percent of women do not drink alcohol at all, according to the Alcohol Research Group’s 2010 National Alcohol Survey.
Combine people in that group with those who have less than one standard drink per week, and you have 51 percent of men and 71 percent of women who are borderline teetotalers. “Nondrinking is normal,” Miller says.
Health benefits of sobriety
For those who continue to drink – especially those who imbibe heavily – quitting alcohol can have significant benefits, Miller says.
Experts typically recommend that men have no more than two standard drinks per day, and that women limit themselves to a single drink. Miller says a standard drink is about half an ounce of pure ethyl alcohol, or roughly a:
- 10-ounce glass of beer
- 4-ounce glass of wine
- 25-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor
“If you’re drinking under that amount, the benefits of stopping will be more modest, though still measurable,” Miller says.
However, if you drink more than experts recommend, going sober can bring substantial improvement in health and cognitive functioning, Miller says
“Heavy drinking impairs memory, judgment and mental abilities,” he says. “These tend to improve within six to 12 months without alcohol.”
When you stop drinking heavily, you also are less prone to depression and suicide, and reduce the risk of diseases such as:
- Heart disease
“Liver function tests tend to return to normal in the first year of abstinence unless substantial damage – like cirrhosis – has already been done,” Miller says.
Concerns about quitting alcohol
In recent years, numerous studies have linked modest alcohol consumption to long-term health benefits. Drinkers contemplating a life of sobriety might worry they will miss out on such a boon.
However, Miller says the health benefits of moderate drinking might be overstated. For example, while moderate drinking has been linked to a reduced risk of heart attack in men, the impact is small – “about the same as the effect of taking a baby aspirin or eating a handful of nuts each day,” Miller says.
In addition, Miller says that while low-risk drinkers often are found to be somewhat healthier than total abstainers on some measures, it is unclear if dietary alcohol use is the reason for this difference.
People who abstain from drinking might be in poorer health and take medications. Or, they might be in recovery for substance-abuse problems. Those factors could account for why their health outcomes fall below those of moderate drinkers.
“I think the alleged health benefits of moderate drinking have been exaggerated,” Miller says. “For most people, any small benefit of low-risk drinking is easily offset by taking better care of oneself, exercising and eating well.”