Is Dry January a Good Idea?
When is alcohol consumption too much?
Let’s face it: Alcohol is wonderful in many ways. It’s legal and delicious. It provides an easy way to relax. It can signal the end of the work day or the start of a celebration. It can temporarily take the edge off social dynamics and anxiety.
But alcohol use comes at a price. Even though it may feel like an “upper” in the moment, regular ingestion actually produces the opposite effect: inside our bodies, it acts as a system-wide depressant, where it can induce feelings of hopelessness, joylessness, and sadness. In fact, regular drinking can accelerate symptoms of depression and anxiety, among other negative emotions.
By impairing judgment, alcohol not only renders people “loose and lively,” it can also lead to impulsivity around food, sex, shopping, and driving, as well as risky behaviors and the use of other substances. Alcohol can threaten relationships, jobs, and family systems.
And then there’s the effect on physical health. From weight gain and insomnia to raising blood pressure and increased breast cancer risk, there’s no organ system that alcohol doesn’t affect. Not to mention that alcohol is highly addictive for people who are genetically and psychologically predisposed.
Given how toxic alcohol can be on our bodies and minds, I sometimes wonder how alcohol is legal.
I’m not suggesting that we outlaw booze — or that consuming alcohol is never okay. Moreover, not everyone who drinks is doomed for disease. (P.S. I’m a drinker myself.) I’m saying that it’s never a bad time to reclaim agency over our everyday habits.
So how much alcohol is “too much”?
The answer is: it depends.
There is no “right” amount of alcohol to drink. There is no set number of drinks that clearly distinguishes substance abuse or misuse from “reasonable” use. There’s also no amount of restraint that renders Person A morally superior to Person B.
For someone who’s struggling with alcohol dependence or addiction, even one drink can be one too many. For people with a healthy relationship with alcohol, a nightly glass can be appropriate.
I think we can agree that drinking two bottles of wine every day, even for someone who deems themselves “healthy,” is probably too much — and that abstinence isn’t necessary for all.
Here, the key question is less about how much than it is about the why. So when each of us thinks about our habits around alcohol, consider the following:
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Take shame out of the narrative. Moralizing unhealthy habits (our own or anyone else’s) only sets us up for despair. Shame actually propagates addiction, whether it’s to alcohol, drugs, sugar, or social media. One of the worst feelings in the human brain comes from no longer feeling in control of our own behaviors. It’s why we so readily feel remorse the morning after a big night out on the town or after an impulsive shopping spree. Engaging in self-harm in any way — big or small — not only grates against our psyche, it can perpetuate unhealthy habits.
Be honest with yourself. Count up how much you drink on a monthly basis, and consider the context. Does your work or friendship culture often center around alcohol? How often do you passively agree to have your glass topped off or to finish the bottle or order one more? Because alcohol is seamlessly woven into the fabric of American life, it sometimes can be easier to say “yes” than to say “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
Each of us also needs to figure out the quantity of alcohol that is appropriate given our underlying health conditions and risks for disease. That’s where your doctor can help. For example, conditions like atrial fibrillation, sleep apnea, and diabetes or pre-diabetes — and symptoms like insomnia, menopausal hot flashes, and fatigue — are generally better off with less alcohol. A patient with high blood pressure, for example, might benefit from less alcohol, even if their drinking habits aren’t considered to be “too much” by the charts.
Try to identify any uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations that fuel the urge to drink. When we use alcohol to numb unpleasant thoughts (e.g. I’m unlovable or I’m not good enough); feelings (e.g. social anxiety, depressed moods, fear of failure); or bodily sensations (e.g. hunger, fullness, pain), it’s time to address these issues in healthier ways. Alcohol does nothing to improve social anxiety or restrictive eating, for example; it only kicks the can down the road till we can access the help we actually need.
It’s important to remember that each of us has habits that are healthy and others that do harm. Whether it’s a relationship with food, recreational drugs, shopping, alcohol, or other substances, the struggle to self-regulate is part of being human. Wherever you are on the spectrum with alcohol use, turning the page into the New Year is a handy time to reset.
If all you need is a simple “check-in” to align your intentions for good health with your everyday practices, that’s great. For those of you whose relationship with alcohol is more complex, I have great empathy for the challenges of feeling unpleasant feelings and asking some uncomfortable questions. But most of all, I want you to know that there are tens of millions of people with similar struggles — and there is never shame in asking for help. You do not have to tough it out alone.
For inspiration, my friend Will McCormack joined me on the podcast to discuss his battle with addiction and path to recovery. The first steps? Admitting he had a problem, then asking for help. I hope you take a listen below.
Indeed, whether it’s January or June, it’s never a bad month to assess and reclaim agency over our habits. A dose of self-reflection is good for the body and mind. I wish you all the best for a happy and healthy New Year.
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