I’m not the poster child for alcohol abstention. Trying new breweries (and returning to old favorites) is a pastime of mine, and I’ve enthusiastically brewed my own beer at home on multiple occasions. I enjoy wine with dinner and the occasional cocktail or two out on the town.
But I know lots of folks, including close friends, who’ve temporarily or permanently given up alcohol use for various reasons: health concerns, financial strain, dependency issues. And I’ve seen firsthand the destructive power of intemperance, which so often signals or evolves into full-blown addiction.
Even if you’re comfortable with the volume, regularity, and context of your alcohol use, there’s never a bad time to step back and reflect. Alcohol might lack the cultural stigma of other controlled substances, such as cocaine and opiate medications, but it’s still a mind-altering drug with high potential for abuse and a retinue of short- and long-term health impacts. Plus, every drink – from homemade wine or cider, to professionally mixed drinks at a high-end cocktail bar – carries a price tag.
In this post, we’ll delve into:
- Moral, cultural, and religious arguments against alcohol use
- Drawbacks of alcohol use and reasons to voluntarily stop using alcohol
- Potential health and social benefits of moderate alcohol use
- Options for temporary alcohol abstention, such as Dry January
- General strategies to reduce alcohol consumption temporarily or permanently
Moral and Cultural Objections to Alcohol Use
That the relationship between alcohol and morality is complex probably is not news to you. Most major religions are at best ambivalent about alcohol use, with the most liberal attitudes best described as “pro-moderation.” Secular moralists have strong opinions on the matter as well.
Major Religions and Alcohol
Major world religions aren’t unanimous in their attitudes toward alcohol use:
- Islam: Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, consistently refers to alcohol and other intoxicating substances as sources of temptation, threats to good judgment, and impediments to piety. Though there is some evidence that Muhammad’s contemporaries used alcohol, practicing Muslims today generally don’t partake. Less devout Muslims and those who’ve lapsed from the faith do use alcohol, and alcohol use is permitted with some restrictions in many Muslim-majority countries.
- Hinduism: The Ayurveda, Hinduism’s premodern system of medicine, regards alcohol as a tonic or medicine to be taken in moderation at the direction of a medical professional. Alcohol use is carefully proscribed, with “scientific” doses dependent on body type, size, and gender.
- Buddhism: Practicing Buddhists view alcohol as an impediment to mindful practice and eventual enlightenment. Specifically, alcohol use directly contravenes Buddhism’s Fifth Precept, a prohibition on intoxicating drinks and drugs.
- Christianity: Moderate alcohol use is tolerated by certain strains of Christianity, where wine in particular plays a key ceremonial role. However, certain Christian sects prohibit alcohol use. Some, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism), prohibit mild stimulants like caffeine and nicotine as well.
- Judaism: Judaism is arguably the most liberal major religion on the alcohol question, though excessive drinking and intoxication are frowned upon. Wine is an important element of Jewish ceremony, and some passages of the Torah can be read to advocate for moderate alcohol use. On the other hand, the Nazirite order altogether prohibits alcohol use and certain other behaviors.
The Temperance Movement: A Moral Argument Against Alcohol Use
The temperance movement, which crested on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, existed independently of but not wholly separate from its advocates’ Christian faith. Its arguments for moderate drinking or complete abstention included:
- Health Impacts: Temperance advocates found powerful allies in the medical community. Philadelphia physician Dr. Benjamin Rush was a persistent critic of alcohol use on health grounds. He took a particularly hard line against distilled spirits, authoring the influential “The Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon Man” in 1805. According to the National Institutes of Health, Rush “corrected erroneous notions about their presumed beneficial effects and accurately described more than a dozen alcohol-related health problems.”
- Family Impacts: In the rigidly patriarchal context of 19th century America, well before the emergence of the modern social safety net, excessive alcohol consumption and dependency threatened families’ very survival. Heavy-drinking men were more likely to experience long periods of unemployment or underperform in occupations where pay or profit depended entirely on productivity. As is the case today, excessive alcohol use was closely correlated with domestic abuse and domestic absenteeism.
- Work and Economic Impacts: As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the business community took a harder line against workers who drank on the job or showed up impaired from overindulgent nights prior.
The temperance movement’s most dramatic achievement, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Prohibition), lasted from 1920 until 1933, when the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed the national ban on sales of “intoxicating liquors.”
The Prohibition Era ended ignominiously, done in by popular resentment and an untenable surge in criminality, but the movement that sparked it left an indelible mark on the United States’ legal and cultural geography. State-level prohibition persisted for decades. Even today, several dozen U.S. counties remain completely dry, including 35 of Arkansas’ 75 jurisdictions. Other counties and municipalities are “moist,” meaning they severely restrict alcohol sale hours or prohibit alcohol service at restaurants.
Reasons to Voluntarily Stop Drinking
Only you can decide to reduce or cease your alcohol use. These are among the most compelling arguments for doing so.
1. It’s a Financial Drain
Anyone who’s been surprised by a hefty bar tab knows that alcohol is expensive. Some observers think alcohol should be even more expensive, per Vox, but that’s a separate issue.
In pricey coastal cities like San Francisco, a single pint of craft beer sets you back $8 to $10, and a fancy mixed drink runs anywhere from $12 to $16. That’s $40 to $80 per week, assuming a five-drink-per-week habit. Those are midrange bar and restaurant prices – you can expect to pay even more at high-end establishments. And let’s not even talk about the cost of hailing a taxi or rideshare to get home.
Drinking at home is cheaper, to be fair, but replacing alcoholic beverages with nonalcoholic drinks is even better. Read up on popular mocktail recipes or learn how to make kombucha at home.
2. It’s a Net Negative for Your Long-Term Health
According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, after tobacco and the combined effects of poor diet and physical inactivity. The Centers for Disease Control found that between 2006 and 2010, 35,584 Americans died annually, on average, from chronic alcohol-related causes, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Though moderate alcohol use does have modest ameliorative effects, particularly for older men, the adverse effects of heavier drinking far outweigh any health benefits. If your goal is to do right by your body over the long haul, abstemiousness is the best course of action.
3. It’s a Significant Cause of Traumatic Injury and Death
Alcohol is bad for your long-term health. It’s even worse for your short-term well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 50,000 Americans died each year, on average, from acute causes, such as falls and automobile accidents. Men were far more likely to meet such fates than women.
4. It Impairs Decision-Making
It’s no secret that alcohol impairs decision-making. One or two drinks might not lead to a truly bone-headed move, but heavier consumption certainly can. As a younger person, I made plenty of questionable choices after a night of social drinking. Perhaps you can say the same. The surest way to avoid making alcohol-driven choices you’ll later come to regret is to not drink at all.
5. It’s Not Pleasant the Next Morning
If you’ve ever overindulged, you know firsthand just how unpleasant the morning after a night of heavy drinking can be: pounding headache, dry mouth, sour stomach, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, chills, dizzy spells, you name it.
A hangover’s severity depends on multiple factors, including the amount consumed, the rate of absorption into the bloodstream, the drinker’s hydration levels, and more. But virtually all heavy drinkers experience hangovers. The surest way to avoid the feeling is to drink less – or not at all.
6. It May Put You in Legal Jeopardy
Not all alcohol-driven decisions are created equal. Some, such as buying a round of drinks for the table on a dangerously low bank account, have manageable, temporary consequences.
Others are far more serious. One of the most consequential decisions you can make while impaired is to get behind the wheel of a car. According to NIH data, nearly 10,000 Americans died in alcohol-related auto accidents in 2014 – approximately one in three road fatalities.
The cost of a drunk driving arrest varies considerably based on the jurisdiction, the statute cited in the statement of offense, and the outcome of the case, but the short answer is: It’s expensive. A Nolo survey pegged the average cost of a first-offense drunk driving arrest at approximately $6,500, and nearly $11,000 when accounting for lost wages. (Arrestees often miss work for court appearances and other case-related matters, and many employment contracts list a drunk driving arrest as cause for suspension or termination.)
7. It May Adversely Impact Relationships
Research from the University of Buffalo suggests that moderate alcohol use has some benefits for married and cohabiting couples.
The picture is bleaker for couples who drink heavily or unevenly (one partner drinks regularly while the other abstains). These couples may experience:
- Lower marital satisfaction
- Higher rates of domestic abuse
- Higher rates of divorce and marriage counseling
- Higher rates of negative interaction and lower rates of positive interaction
- Financial strain related to poor money management, job loss or unstable employment, and other factors
These issues are particularly pronounced when one partner is a problem drinker.
8. It May Lead to Dependency
Data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that the vast majority (9 in 10) of “adults who drink too much alcohol are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent.” However, 1 in 30 American adults – more than 3% of the population – is alcohol dependent. If you have a history of alcoholism or dependency in your family, you may be at elevated risk for dependency. Talk to your doctor about your options, including whether you should abstain altogether.
9. It’s Bad for Productivity
Several studies cited in “Alcohol, Work and Productivity,” a major paper by the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum, suggest that moderate and heavy alcohol use is inversely correlated with productivity at work and school. One cited study found that “delaying drinking onset by one year increased schooling by 0.47 years for men and 0.36 years for women” in the United States. Others found “a significant negative relationship between drinking and measures of education that reflect the quality of human capital accumulation.”
An occasional drink probably won’t derail your career or cripple your lifetime earning potential. But it’s worth pondering the effects of regular or heavy use on your productivity and performance in the workplace.
Potential Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Use
Moderate alcohol use does have benefits. Some are supported by peer-reviewed medical research. Others are anecdotal, borne out by positive experiences. It’s up to you whether they outweigh the potential consequences.
Pro Tip: “Drink” and “moderate” are ambiguous terms.
In the United States, one “drink” is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (80 proof). High-ABV beer, fortified wine, and liqueurs require special calculations based on proof and drink size. The generally accepted “moderate” drinking rate is no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
It May Be Good for Cardiovascular Health
Moderate alcohol use is correlated with higher levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which helps protect against cardiovascular disease.
According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “more than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack…peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes.” The observed effect ranges from 25% to 40% above the baseline – a substantial reduction. Studies suggest that continued moderate alcohol use is indicated even after acute cardiovascular events.
It May Prevent Ischemic Stroke
The same studies cited above show a significant inverse association between moderate alcohol use and risk of ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke. Like myocardial infarction (heart attack) caused by one or more blocked coronary arteries, ischemic stroke occurs when one or more blocked blood vessels prevent oxygen from reaching parts of the brain. Ischemic stroke is a leading cause of disability and death in older adults.
It May Prevent or Mitigate Type 2 Diabetes
Some studies suggest that moderate alcohol use can forestall the onset of type 2 diabetes, a costly chronic condition caused by insulin resistance. A 2005 meta-analysis published in Diabetes Care found a 30% reduction in type 2 diabetes risk for moderate consumers of alcohol relative to nondrinkers.
It’s a Social Lubricant in Proper Context
Alcohol loosens lips and dissolves inhibitions. In the proper context, it’s a social lubricant – a boon for introverts and a salve for awkward encounters.
Perhaps you’re dreading a work-sponsored happy hour, your first face-to-face encounter with the person on whom you just swiped right, or a ritual holiday dinner filled with cringe-worthy uncle stories. Whatever the occasion, a drink or two can help. The challenge lies in not using alcohol as a crutch – a prerequisite for meeting an obligation. This is a fine line to walk for many.
Temporary Alcohol Abstention: Dry January and Other Options
If you’re worried about your drinking, the first thing you should do is take an alcohol use self-assessment test. This National Institutes of Health screener is a good template, as is the World Health Organization’s Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.
Quitting cold turkey is always an option, but curtailing alcohol use is more successful when it’s done strategically and with adequate support. Temporary abstention is a great opportunity to address problematic habits, behaviors, and modes of thought, and to develop healthier, more productive routines that don’t revolve around (or even involve) alcohol use. These three strategies are popular and effective.
Dry January: A Month-Long Holiday From Alcohol
For folks who don’t drink regularly, or at all, going a whole month without touching booze is no big deal.
For everyone else, Dry January is a 31-day holiday from alcohol. Launched in 2013 by a British nonprofit, Dry January is popular on both sides of the Atlantic these days, boasting a popular Twitter handle (@DryJanuary) and hashtag (#DryJanuary). According to the U.K. Independent, more than three million Brits hopped on the Dry January bandwagon in 2018, though many inevitably fell off at some point during the month.
Dry January is an opportunity for social drinkers and regular alcohol users alike to break out of their boozy routines and revel in intoxicant-free clarity. If you’re interested, poll your friends and family in November or December to see who’s willing to take the plunge with you. Traversing a Dry January is much easier when you’re not the only reveler abstaining, though being your social circle’s go-to designated driver is a great way to top up your favor bank.
Why wait for January? Why limit your abstemious interlude to a single month? Nothing’s stopping you from pursuing an open-ended, self-directed period of alcohol abstention.
As with Dry January, open-ended abstention is best done in solidarity with friends and family – or, at least, their tacit support. If you’re married or in a committed relationship, ask your partner to join you. Should they balk, try a compromise: Perhaps they agree not to drink in the home, or in your presence outside the home.
If you’re not sure you have the willpower or discipline to pursue truly open-ended abstention, resolve to remain alcohol-free until a future date of your choosing: two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks hence. When you reach your target date, repeat the resolution. Eventually, the challenge may well wear off. Many a temporary abstainer has morphed into a committed teetotaler this way.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an addiction-management strategy designed for individuals with diagnosed and self-identified chemical dependency. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, CBT is “based on the theory that in the development of maladaptive behavioral patterns like substance abuse, learning processes play a critical role.” Successful CBT regimens find patients identifying relapse “triggers” and developing coping strategies to head them off.
CBT is best pursued with professional supervision. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, qualified therapists can charge $100 per hour or more, rendering sustained CBT therapy prohibitive at full price for patients without adequate insurance coverage.
Some private therapists have progressive (sliding-scale) payment schedules that allow patients to pay only what they can afford. The Health Resources and Services Administration operates federally funded health centers with onsite mental health providers and low- or no-cost treatment for lower-income patients. Use the HRSA’s health center locator to find a facility near you.
Strategies to Reduce Alcohol Consumption
You don’t have to stop drinking completely to enjoy the benefits of moderation. Follow these tips and strategies to reduce your alcohol consumption without completely disrupting or reordering your life.
1. Keep a Drink Diary
Commit to keeping a drink diary that chronicles every drink you take, every day. Men’s Fitness has a comprehensive list of drink-counting apps designed to track your drinking – and shame you into making smarter decisions. Paid apps have more bells and whistles, but if you’re just after a drink logger, choose a free option instead.
If you’re concerned about logging personal information in an app, it’s easy enough to do the same on paper. DrinkIQ, from the U.K. National Health Service, is a great drink-diary template
2. Join a Support Group
You can join a drinkers’ support group without swearing off alcohol completely. Moderation Management shares superficial similarities with Alcoholics Anonymous, but its goal is less ambitious: “responsible drinking,” not lifelong sobriety. Or try self-directed moderation apps, like Drinker’s Checkup.
3. Maintain an Alcohol-Free Home
You don’t have to be quick to offer guests drinks to be known as a great host. Getting rid of your home minibar or beer fridge is a great way to reduce the temptation to drink in casual domestic gatherings – and by yourself after a long day at work. When you have to leave the house to grab a beer or cocktail, you’re less likely to indulge spontaneously and more likely to cut yourself off after that first or second drink.
4. Build Your Drink-Refusal Skills
Communicate clearly to friends and family that you plan to cut back on alcohol use, then work on drink-refusal skills to resist pressure from those who can’t or won’t get the message. The National Institutes of Health’s Rethinking Drinking portal has a detailed list of drink-refusal strategies, ranging from saying “no, thank you” like a broken record, to planning a physical escape if the temptation to drink becomes overwhelming.
5. Learn to Love Nonalcoholic Replacements
Find a nonalcoholic beverage you can drink in great quantities. Pass on full-sugar sodas and high-fat drinks in favor of low- or no-calorie alternatives like seltzer water and kombucha. In social settings, drink these replacement beverages in succession, or have one for every alcoholic beverage you consume.
6. Set Going-Out Limits
I’ve done this successfully for reasons that have nothing to do with limiting my alcohol consumption – I live in Minneapolis, where bitter winter weather makes nights out on the town a whole lot less fun.
I simply set a limit on the number of nights per week or month I’ll leave the house to hang out with friends. For me, the right number is one or two nights per week. If you’re a social butterfly with ample discretionary spending money, that might not be enough. If you’re a frugal introvert, once or twice a month might be plenty.
7. Stick to a “Social Bedtime”
This is another personal favorite. Wedding after-parties notwithstanding, I can’t remember the last time I closed down a bar.
That’s mostly because I’m fastidious about my “social bedtime” – the juncture at which I bid adieu and head home, even if my crew is still down to party. I make exceptions for special occasions, such as birthdays, bachelor parties, and weddings, but otherwise stick to my limit. With less time allotted to consuming alcohol, I drink less – and spend less – than I would were I to keep an open-ended social schedule.
8. Set a Strict Entertainment Budget
If you don’t want to place a hard limit on the frequency of your nights out, cap your spending instead. Set a realistic weekly or monthly entertainment budget that jibes with your broader discretionary spending budget.
For guidance, tally up how often you go out in a typical month or quarter, then look back at your credit or debit card statements to determine your average spending on each excursion. Add those figures together to arrive at your projected entertainment spending for the period. If you’re feeling ambitious, set your new entertainment budget lower.
Pro Tip: When you do go out, use a cash back credit card that favors spending on dining and entertainment, two popular spending categories likely to include alcoholic beverages. Chase Freedom and Discover it both have 5% quarterly rotating cash back categories that occasionally include restaurants, and neither have annual fees.
9. Plan Dry Social Activities
It goes without saying that you don’t need a glass in your hand to have a good time. Make a list of free or cheap activities that aren’t conducive to alcohol consumption: an afternoon at the museum, a walk in a city park, a bike ride around town, a volunteering session, a mocktail- or tea-fueled game night.
10. Use a Fitness or Calorie-Counting App
Booze is calorie-dense. Even if you’re not concerned about alcohol’s long-term health impacts or addictive potential, the prospect of needlessly putting on pounds could just do the trick.
This is my wife’s go-to strategy. A few weeks before her most recent Dry January, my wife revived her dormant MyFitnessPal account and dutifully logged the (numerous) drinks she consumed during the holiday season. (I wasn’t brave enough to do the same.) Duly chastened, she went the entire month of January without a single serving of alcohol – and met or beat her calorie goals every week.
Would the world be a better place without intoxicating substances of any kind? Perhaps. I think back to the “Family Guy” sketch about Ireland before the invention of alcohol – a technologically advanced utopia complete with flying cars and conveyor-belt sidewalks. There’s a grain of truth in its portrayal of alcohol as a source of mischief and indolence, though anyone familiar with “Family Guy” knows the show makes light of alcohol abuse far more often.
On the other hand, intoxicants play important, even sacred, roles in age-old human customs and ceremonies. They’re also associated with some of the most sublime examples of human creativity, including many of modern music’s leading lights. Ultimately, the choice to indulge is one that every person must make on their own – no matter the cost.
How do you feel about alcohol use? Is moderate consumption worth the purported health benefits, or is it better to abstain altogether?