It was Memorial Day weekend, and I was on what I believe to be my fifth glass of wine. Byrdie's news editor, Victoria, and I had jetted up to Santa Barbara for a day of wine tasting to celebrate the start of summer. We'd spent the day ambling from winery to winery, sampling a smorgasbord of pinots, both noir and gris, and at our last tasting of the day, we were both sporting a festive buzz. But that day, we were not just drinking to the holiday. It was really more of a goodbye party because starting June 1, I would be embarking on a sober 30 days.
I almost couldn't believe it, but for the entire month of June, I was not allowing myself so much as a sip of a friend's rosé. I know that for some people, going 30 days without drinking doesn't sound like a big deal, but I'd never done it before. In fact, when I thought about it, I hadn't gone more than a dry week since high school. At 24, alcohol still played a fairly present role in my life. I certainly didn't get as sloppy drunk as I did in college (my gut-wrenching hangovers wouldn't allow it). But alcohol was still deeply intertwined with my life. As an experiment, I simply wanted to see how I could function without it.
Victoria and I were heading to the winery's outdoor patio to finish up our final glass when we stumbled (quite literally) across a chalkboard sign that read, "No wine past this point." The symbolism seemed almost too perfect. Standing on the front steps, I downed my last sip, and we caught a Lyft home. The following day, I'd wake up a sober woman.
Why Quit Drinking?
Before getting into my 30-day experiment, I want to delve a little deeper into why I decided to go booze-free. First off, I was eager to minimize some of the negative effects of alcohol that I definitely still experience. According to registered dietitian Jenny Champion, even casual drinking can cause sugar cravings, excess calorie consumption, dehydrated skin, fuzzy concentration, and crummy moods. Snacking less, feeling peppier, and having healthier skin certainly all appealed to me.
Another motivator was that I'd started eating a plant-based diet about six months before, and much of the vegan community is also sober. It goes hand in hand with the clean-eating mentality. The vegans I know who don't drink seem extraordinarily vibrant and healthy, and I was curious to see if giving up alcohol would do the same for me. I was also intrigued by stories from friends who'd gone long periods without drinking before. My boyfriend went sober for 30 days once, and the effects were impressive. He lost weight, his rosacea and eczema subsided, and by the end, he seemed like an overall happier, more productive person. He told me that the first week was tough, but after that, you don't even miss alcohol anymore. You don't even remember why you liked it.
Lastly, when I thought hard about it, it just seemed plain eerie to me that something as simple as a beverage could have such mind-altering, life-changing effects on human beings. Alcohol seems to have cast this spell over us. We tip our glasses for so many reasons: as a reward, as a medication, as a social lubrication, as an escape. When something good happens, we drink. When something bad happens, we drink. Sometimes we drink for no reason at all. I decided I didn't want to be under that spell anymore.
What Does It Do for Your Skin?
It needs to be stated: My sober month was tough. At the start, I was most excited to see the positive effects it would have on my skin. Perhaps this is unreasonable, but I was expecting to notice massive changes right away: a brightened complexion, a dewier finish, fewer breakouts. When nothing seemed different a week into the challenge, I started questioning why I was doing it in the first place.
The before and after images above compare what my skin looked like two weeks into my sober month with what it looked like during a time when I was drinking at least one alcoholic beverage every day. To be honest, it's hard to say whether the massive breakout on my cheek in the "before" photo was alcohol-related or not. I actually experienced a breakout toward the end of my sober month that rivaled this one. An esthetician later told me that my blemishes likely had more to do with hormones and stress than anything else. A little anti-climactic, I know.
But what certainly was alcohol related was that rough, pinkish patch of skin right next to my eye. See it? That is a nasty spot of eczema that I'd been battling for almost a year. My eczema doesn't hurt or itch; it's just unsightly. The scaly texture is such that I really can't hide it with makeup, and not even prescription steroid creams have been able to make it go away.
So far, giving up alcohol is the only treatment that's worked to clear my eczema. As you can see, about two weeks in, the inflamed, crinkled skin softened for the first time in months. Certified nutritionist Dana James says my eczema might be caused by a sensitivity to yeast. "By taking the alcohol out, you've decreased your contact with it and reduced the symptoms," she told me.
Though my eczema reemerged slightly at the end of the month, that initial disappearing act was substantial. I did also notice that by week two of my experiment, the sections of my face that tend to get flaky looked a bit more hydrated. This makes sense, as a study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science on the effects of alcohol on skin showed that one should start noticing significant improvement right around that two-week mark. The most noticeable difference appears four weeks in.
Personally, my skin quality seemed to stay pretty consistent for the last two weeks of my sober month. But once the 30 days ended and I started drinking again, it promptly reverted back to its compromised state. Simply put, there's no denying alcohol's effect on our skin—you just have to be patient to see it.
What Does It Do for Your Body?
I'm going to say something that will disappoint you, but not nearly as much as it disappointed me: I gained weight during my month without alcohol. About three pounds, to be exact. I think the main reason is that I found myself eating out at restaurants a lot during those 30 days—indulging in rich Thai curries and oily pastas three or four nights a week. I told myself I was saving so many calories by not drinking that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. This logic did not serve me well. Sure, the meals were plant-based and accompanied by sparkling water instead of wine, but consuming those hefty restaurant portions was enough to tip the scale. (As a note, I don't actually own a scale and never weigh myself; I just did so for the sake of this experiment.)
Speaking of eating out, my social life didn't seem to suffer from my sobriety, like I worried it might. When making plans with friends, we simply opted to grab a bite to eat instead of a drink at a bar. (This probably contributed to my increased intake of restaurant calories.) I got home at a decent hour every time, never woke up hungover, and everyone still had fun.
Waking up feeling fresh and well-rested every day was one of my favorite parts of not drinking for a month. Like I mentioned, I rarely get drunk enough these days to result in debilitating hangovers. But sometimes two drinks is all it takes to make me feel foggy and bloated the next day.
Eliminating the option of winding down with a drink after work also encouraged me to go to bed earlier. This mostly had to do with boredom. 10 p.m. would roll around and without any sort of light, happy buzz on, I'd decide I might as well hit the hay. I didn't wake up any earlier than normal, but I probably squeezed in an extra half hour each night.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that there weren't more drastic changes to my body after 30 days without drinking. All my friends' experiences seemed to be so much more worthwhile. The reason for this, I believe, has to do with another unexpected but important lesson I learned from this experiment.
What Does It Do for Your Mind?
A faded patch of eczema and an extra 30 minutes of sleep are valuable takeaways, no doubt. But the most noteworthy thing that I discovered from my 30 days without alcohol—the thing that made it all worth doing—is that it taught me exactly what purpose alcohol serves in my life.
There were two occasions during the month when I missed alcohol the most. The first was after walking in the door at the end of a long workday when all I wanted was to put my feet up and have a glass of wine. The other was during social outings when I was in a big group, and everyone else was drinking but me. Everybody uses alcohol for different reasons, and apparently, these are mine: I use alcohol as a small, private reward to myself and as a way to bond in large social settings. I didn't crave a cocktail when something bad or frustrating happened. I didn't miss it on date night with my boyfriend or during unfamiliar social situations when I felt uncomfortable and needed to relax. These aren't the roles alcohol plays in my life. And I'm fascinated to have learned that.
Going a month without alcohol also teaches you about your drinking pattern. This is useful information if you want to try cutting down on alcohol again in the future. Personally, I discovered that I do drink often, as in three or four nights a week, but I only tend to have a glass or two when I do. On those occasions when I go past two glasses, that's when alcohol starts to be a problem for me. So, since my 30-day experiment, I have put myself on a strict two-drink maximum. Considering my individual drinking pattern, this has been a much easier way for me to make sure I'm drinking in moderation.
After all, according to experts, it is possible to lead a healthy lifestyle as a moderate drinker (as long as you're not struggling with an addiction or drinking problem, that is). "If you're living an active and healthy lifestyle that includes a nutrient-rich diet, the occasional drink shouldn't be a problem," assures John Ford, a personal trainer at Find Your Trainer. The trick is to identify what purpose alcohol serves in your life and to address any unhealthy habits. That's exactly what going sober for a month helped me do.
In the end, my 30 days without drinking didn't lead me to lose 10 years off my face or 10 pounds off my body. But it allowed me to learn more about my personality, my behavior, and my health. As far as I'm concerned, that's something worth clinking to.
Have you ever tried to go 30 days without drinking? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!
This story was originally published on July 18, 2016.