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Why Wait For Dry January? Here’s Why The Right Time For A Break From Alcohol Might Be Now

by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee   /  December 9, 2019

Before I interviewed the acclaimed habit-change expert Andy Ramage, co-founder of the One Year No Beer programme for my Feel Better, Live More podcast, I thought what he had to say would be inspirational for anyone thinking of embarking on a Dry January. But in actual fact, Andy’s message is that tactical breaks from alcohol can bring you a host of benefits – from better sleep and vitality to better performance and happiness. And if you’re considering one, he says, the time to do it is now.

Andy’s mission is to help people better understand their relationship with alcohol. And to know that alcohol is not something you have to give up, but that you’ll gain a massive advantage by abstaining for a while. He speaks to what he calls ‘middle lane’ drinkers. Those who probably don’t consider themselves problem drinkers, but who nonetheless come from a culture where regular alcohol consumption – to celebrate, commiserate, relax, de-stress, socialise, network – is the norm.

A former professional footballer turned broker, Andy found himself in his mid-30s, with what looked like the perfect life. He had a high-flying, well-paid job, big house, nice car, loving family. Yet he was struggling inside. Overweight, stressed and unfit, he felt there must be more to life. He left his job and went on a journey, rediscovering fitness, good nutrition, meditation, but the one thing he didn’t address was his alcohol intake. Slowly, it dawned on him this might be what was holding him back – and so he embarked on his first 28-day alcohol-free challenge. By his own admission there were setbacks at first. But once the far-reaching benefits of not drinking became obvious to him, he’s not looked back. He hasn’t had a drink for six years.

I think Andy’s absolutely right that alcohol is the elephant in the room when it comes to our wellbeing. So often we think about changing every aspect of our health, yet overlook how much we habitually drink. When I think about my patients who have a problematic relationship with alcohol, most of them are not alcoholics. They’re not falling out of nightclubs or waking up needing a drink. They probably don’t even realise the adverse effect their intake is having.

Andy and I talked about that vicious cycle of having a drink to unwind at the end of the day, and how that affects the quality of your sleep. The next day you need caffeine and sugar to get through the day, you get stressed, you leave work and yes, reach for the bottle again. Andy pointed out that even if you drink just twice a week, the knock-on effect on your sleep can put you off your game for a couple of days. That means you’re losing 50 per cent of your week to underperformance, due to what feels like quite a moderate alcohol intake!

Andy conducted a survey on how social pressure impacts our drinking and the results were amazing. 97 per cent of respondents said they felt social pressure to drink, and 85 per cent felt that pressure at work, too. I absolutely identify with this. When I was at medical school there was a huge drinking culture. I remember making myself get used to the taste of beer just to fit in. These days I barely drink, but I have definitely had disappointed or disparaging comments from others when I’ve ordered a sparkling water. Andy remembers worrying his friends, family and even his partner would disown him when he first stopped drinking. Amazing, isn’t it, that we’ll engage in behaviours we don’t want to do, just to please others? Alcohol is the only drug in the world people actively encourage you not to give up!

Andy’s top tips

So Andy’s message is, just give it a go. Try a month without alcohol, see how you feel. Collect some personal data – write down how it affects your productivity, time, relationships, stress levels, sleep, BMI. If you like the results? Keep it up. Here are some of Andy’s tips to help you on your way:

  • Start today. Don’t wait for Dry January (and give yourself licence to drink even more in December). Don’t wait till your diary is empty. Make the commitment now.
  • When you’re out, know exactly what you’re going to drink and have a back-up plan if it’s not available. This makes you less likely to lose your resolve at the bar.
  • Choose one of the ever-growing range of ‘placebo’ drinks like alcohol-free beers or G&Ts. Holding something that looks and tastes like alcohol takes away some of the social pressure.
  • Surround yourself with people who’ll support you and cheer you on. Get your nourishment from connection with others, even if that’s online support (like the One Year No Beer or Feel Better Live More Facebook groups).
  • Don’t lock yourself away socially – this just feeds the mythology that you need alcohol to enjoy yourself. Throw yourself into your alcohol-free life, go to that work party, speak to that stranger. Have a visceral experience of what life without alcohol can be like.

You can listen to Feel Better Live More podcast episode 85 Is it Time for a Tactical Break from Alcohol? With Andy Ramage or watch the conversation on my YouTube channel.

Read about the effects alcohol can have on sleep in my book
The Stress Solution: The 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships & Purpose.

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DISCLAIMER: The content in this blog is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog or on this website.

Dr. Rangan Chatterjee MbChB, BSc (Hons), MRCP, MRCGP