Sobering thoughts: is going alcohol-free for a month worth it?

Signing up for an alcohol-free month like Dry July, Febfast or Ocsober might raise money for a good cause, but how much difference will it really make to your health? 

On the face of it, taking a month off from drinking alcohol seems like a smart move. But does embarking on a stint of ‘binge sobriety’ result in long-term health benefits, or is it just a blip in a 12-month period that has little impact in the grand scheme of things? 

Worse still, is there a risk that after a month off the booze, you might feel you deserve a drink (or four) more than ever, because you’ve been so good in staying sober? 

Julie Rae, the Australian Drug Foundation’s head of information and research, says that doesn’t seem to be the case. “There is a train of thought that people might make bargains with themselves, so they feel entitled to overindulge once the month’s over, but the evidence we have doesn’t show that’s happening.”

A sobering experience

In fact, the evidence Rae’s referring to shows quite the opposite. When researchers in the UK examined the impact of taking part in Dry January, not only were people unlikely to drink more after the voluntary month off alcohol, the majority wound up drinking less than they had before taking part – and were still drinking less six months later. 

Here in Australia, when researchers put Febfast participants under the microscope a short while after the event, 51 per cent of people were drinking less often as a result of taking part, and 49 per cent consumed less alcohol when they did have a drink. After 12 months, more than a third of Febfasters were still sticking to their ‘drink less’ guns. 

“When you commit to an alcohol-free month, in the weeks that follow you become much more aware of your habits around alcohol, so that you can really start to appreciate how you’re using it,” says Rae. “Some people also say that by taking part, they find it easier to start to change their alcohol habits, because being able to say ‘I’m doing Febfast’ makes it more socially acceptable to turn down the offer of a drink.”  
young people enjoying the beach together

Does abstaining from alcohol help your health?

As for real, tangible health benefits, taking a break from alcohol for a month can have a big impact. 

Alcohol has been associated with a wide range of immediate and long-term effects on the body. This includes causing some types of cancer, liver disease, long-term cognitive impairment, affecting diabetes management and causing harm to unborn children. So it is no surprise that not drinking alcohol for any length of time can reduce your risk of these along with the many other effects alcohol can have including alcohol tolerance and dependence.

A survey of Febfast participants found that 85 per cent of people doing Febfast experience at least one benefit, with losing weight and sleeping better ranking in the top three - saving money is the third.

Still, it’d be a mistake to think that all you need to do to protect your health from alcohol-related problems is take a single month off although, thankfully, not many people seem to think like that: seven out of 10 Febfast participants say that after participating they’re more aware of the negative health effects of alcohol. 

“If you do choose to drink alcohol, whether or not you’ve just done something like Febfast, it’s vital that you stick to the guidelines recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council,” says Rae. That means drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day, and drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion. Experts also suggest aiming for at least two alcohol-free days a week.
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