Americans love to drink. In fact, 66 percent of Americans admit to enjoying an occasional alcoholic beverage, and over half say they drink at some point in the week. We at Medical Daily are not exempt from these figures and embarked on our 30-day challenge with more than a drop of reservation. Going without alcohol, for even a period as long as a month, came with few physiological changes, but it was the psychological insight that truly surprised us.

Life Before The Challenge

Dana

I’m 23 years old and, technically, have only been able to legally drink for a little over two years, but my relationship with alcohol reached far beyond this.

I moved to England a few weeks after my 18th birthday and could legally drink wherever whenever I wanted with no age restrictions. It was here that my relationship quickly became a love affair. Thankfully, this phase soon passed, but alcohol is still a very present part of my everyday life. Prior to this challenge, I would drink an alcoholic beverage about four days a week, every week. On most weekends, my husband and I could easily finish a bottle of wine, and although I don’t go out often, whenever I would, copious amounts of alcohol were almost always involved.

So I began my 30 days sober on Sept. 6, 2014, ironically enough, the morning after a night of binge drinking. I woke up the next morning sad, hungover, and vowing to never drink again — only this time, I actually meant it, for 30 days at least.

Susan

What I know about alcohol is this: Like the proverbial good and evil twins, it can either be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Guilty of causing death for those who overdo, alcohol also provides medicinal healing for those who know how to say "no" once they’ve reached their limit.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been in the habit of drinking once, maybe twice a week. While for the most part, it’s one or two beers (or glasses of wine) spread out over the course of an evening, I have developed the unfortunate tendency, on occasion, of binging. Not all the time, not even frequently, but often enough to make me unhappy with myself, and not just during the bleakest hour of hangover.

Every study I’ve ever read straight up says this is bad, unhealthy behavior — a strain on every organ in your body that can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and liver disease. For the life of me, though, I cannot color within the lines every single time.

I am not alone, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In 2012, a quarter of people over 18 reported they had been binge drinking (four or more drinks for women, five or more for men) during the past month, while seven percent reported heavy drinking (eight or more drinks — hello! — for women, 15 or more for men). Not only does excessive drinking lead to mental health problems, such as depression, it can lead to alcohol poisoning.

So, when the most encouraging of all social media directors, one Mr. Nalin Kaul, suggested a story idea based on not drinking for one entire month, I told myself this would be a terrific opportunity for me to think about why I, a person who knows better, persists with this on again, off again tendency to binge. So I began, the day after a party in the final week of August.

Making It Through A Dry Month

Dana

Starting my challenge took a great deal of self-control, because you never want something as much as when you know you can’t have it. What struck me most odd was not my own personal response to not drinking, but other people’s reaction to my sobriety. Nearly everyone who I told about my 30 days without alcohol responded in the same way: “Wow, good luck. I would never do that.”

My first night out during the challenge, a friend of a friend noticed I was sipping a seltzer and jokingly said, “You know, there’s meetings for people like you.” The comment, although obviously said in good fun, revealed the harsh reality that people who don’t drink alcohol live outside of society’s norms and must have some reasoning behind their “bizarre” life choice.

On the other hand, those closest to me seemed to love my new drink-free lifestyle. “You should keep this up forever,” my husband told me, “so I can have a designated driver for the rest of my life. How romantic. I soon realized that being sober involves a whole lot of driving people around.

Susan

I told myself there would be little drama involved with putting the brakes on drinking. After all, I’m no longer young, and in the past I’ve stopped for months, even years at a time. In the first week, all went well as I had expected. I had two occasions where I was out with people who were drinking, and both times I nearly forgot and had to remind myself to order seltzer water instead of a glass of Pinot. I also noticed how it took me about half an hour longer than usual to get into the mood of being sociable. But it happened, just at a slower pace. First lesson learned.

To keep myself inspired, I did some research. Alcohol contributes to over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, including dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancer, and injuries. Those who drink more than a moderate amount may be doubling or even tripling their risk of specific forms of cancer, including head and neck, breast, liver, and colorectal.

Cirrhosis, probably the most legendary of all health problems caused by alcohol, occurs when scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue due to chronic injury. As the scarring develops and progresses, it changes the liver’s structure and interferes with function. The end? Death.

But let’s not be hasty: Many scientific studies suggest moderate drinking — up to one drink per day for women, two per day for men — has positive health effects, such as decreasing your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Consistently, in fact, large studies have shown how moderate drinking can reduce mortality due to heart disease, diabetes, and ischemic stroke, especially for middle-aged and older people.

30 Days Later: The Takeaway

Dana

Thinking about the changes, or what I took from the challenge, I wish I could tell you that stopping drinking made me feel amazing, but I would be lying. In my pre-challenge research, I read that abstaining from alcohol could result in weight loss, a clearer complexion, improved digestion, and an all-around better mood. What I experienced was nearly the complete opposite.

Unable to have my usual wine on Friday nights, I became cranky watching family and friends sipping away. I wasn’t constantly in a bad mood, just on the occasions I had to turn down a drink offer. Also, I didn’t lose a single pound. In fact, I think I gained weight eating more to compensate for the fact I wasn’t drinking.

I also experienced slight constipation, which at first I brushed off as not being related to my challenge, but soon found that others who recently abstained from alcohol also experienced this strange side effect. Other than that, there were not any noticeable physiological changes. My skin, sleeping habits, concentration, and overall health remained relatively unchanged.

Thankfully, none of these unwanted side effects lasted very long. Eventually, my mood picked up as I transitioned from thinking “I can’t drink alcohol” to the less restrictive “I don’t drink alcohol.” My weight gain went completely unnoticed by anyone else, and my digestive problems resolved on their own within a week or so.

My first drink after the challenge was a shot of Patron immediately followed by a beer ( I know, classy). I felt the effects immediately, a clear indication I had lost the tolerance I never realized I had. I felt extremely proud for completing the challenge. It was a real boost to my self-esteem.

Yes, I drank alcohol because I liked it, but I also drank because I didn’t think that I could possibly have as much fun without it. Thirty days sober, I realized this just wasn’t true. I went to parties, bars, even went camping, all completely sober, which was something I had not done for some time. The most important thing I learned from my 30 days without alcohol was that not only could I have fun without drinking, but other people still thought I was fun when sober.  

Susan

During the second week, I felt a strong urge to drink on a random night. I want one glass of wine, I thought to myself as I packed up my stuff, turned off the computer, and prepared to leave work. One glass. Probably Moscato. At home. Lights low.

I didn’t succumb to the urge, and soon enough it passed. But I will say this: The feeling was, as the doctors say, acute. Sharp and strong and swift. Experiencing this desire, I realized the occasional drink had become an essential reward for me. A pat on the back, a gift, a raw plate of praise.

To compensate, I ate a small piece of chocolate. Second lesson learned: Drinking is not the only way to go. Around this time, I also noticed one unpleasant physical detail involved in not drinking. It was more difficult, on one or two days, to go to the bathroom. However, this was easily overcome. It took longer, but eventually happened without extreme difficulty.

Fortunately, this was the extent of physiological effects brought on by cutting alcohol from my life, excluding no hangovers, of course. During the final two weeks, all went well, though it was difficult to watch the guy I spend time with have a beer and feel the delirium of drunkenness while I remained Susie Sober. So I asked him to stop drinking, too. I bought a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water and we made dinner, and all the while I felt grateful to him for saying he would keep me company by not drinking. I guess Sobriety, along with Misery, loves company.

Strangely, I didn’t drink immediately after the challenge was up, I continued on the sobriety road for a few extra days, just because I had no urge, no real occasion. My first drink, a glass of unidentified white wine at a party, was delicious. I followed it with a sip or two of beer, and all the while I smiled, smiled, smiled. The next day, I felt extremely nervous but no hangover.

Is this what it means to be a “moderate drinker?” I'll take it!