A study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong has provided new evidence that women who stop drinking alcohol experience improved mental health.
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Many women drink alcohol as a way to relax and unwind, but the new study suggests that stopping drinking altogether may be a better way to improve mental health.
“Our findings suggest caution in recommendations that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life,” says study author Herbert Pang. “The risks and benefits of moderate drinking are not clear.”
Co-author Michael Ni suggests that quitting alcohol altogether may be a better way to relax and feel calm and peaceful.
Reporting this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the team writes that although the link between moderate alcohol consumption and certain health problems such as cardiovascular disease and cancer has been well documented, the broader effect on health-related quality of life is less clear.
“Our objective was to examine the association of drinking patterns with changes in physical and mental well-being across populations,” writes the team.
For the study, Pang and team examined the association between alcohol drinking patterns and self-reported changes in physical and mental well-being among more than 10,000 people in Hong Kong and 31,000 people in the U.S. The analyses were stratified by gender and heavy drinkers were excluded from the study.
In both study populations, men and women who had abstained from drinking any alcohol across their lifetime reported the highest levels of mental well-being.
When those who were not abstainers were followed over time, which was around two years for the Hong Kong participants and around 3 years for the U.S group, giving up alcohol was associated with better changes in mental well-being among women, but not among men. The women who stopped drinking even reported levels of mental health that almost reached the levels reported by lifetime abstainers.
The team write:
The change in mental well-being was more favorable in female quitters, approaching the level of mental well-being of lifetime abstainers within 4 years of quitting in both Chinese and American populations.”
The authors say it is not clear why abstinence has this impact, but it is possible that quitting reverses alcohol-related brain injury or decreases stress factors such as family conflict.
The sober-curious trend
The finding comes amidst a growing public health concern over the increasing use of alcohol among women in recent years. It also follows the advent of movements such as Dry January and the “sober-curious” trend that have prompted many Americans to try the alcohol-free bars and events that have popped up across the country.
Professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, James Garbutt, who was not involved in the study says: “When people get sober, they a lot of times will feel calmer, their anxiety diminishes and there’s less irritability. They just say, ‘Wow, that’s a better place to be.’”
Garbutt has observed this beneficial impact among both men and women. He says that although alcohol can relieve stress initially, it also induces systems in the brain that worsen anxiety at a later stage. This leads to a cycle of “needing” more alcohol to relieve anxiety, which only worsens anxiety still and increases the need for more alcohol to further relieve it.
Eventually, alcohol use can lead people to feel depressed and experience difficulty sleeping and stress sensitivity.
Garbutt also thinks it is difficult to say exactly why the favorable changes in mental well-being were observed for women in particular. However, he notes that women tend to have higher rates of depression than men and that they tend to have more physical adverse effects from alcohol that happen faster, at lower levels, than men, which could be factors.
Many women are now trying sobriety movements such as Dry January or visiting the alcohol-free bars that have popped up as a result of the sober-curious trend, a shift in perspective that Garbutt thinks is very much a positive in heavy drinking cultures.
We really want to have more spaces and occasions where being dry is something that’s encouraged and completely casual. Alcohol really does have a monopoly on how we socialize.”
Lorelei Bandrovschi, Founder of the alcohol-free Listen Bar in New York
Abstinence improves sleep, helps weight loss and improves liver health
In one Dry January study that took place in 2016, nearly all of the 850 British participants reported feeling a sense of achievement as the month ended, with 62% saying their sleep had improved and almost half of them having lost weight.
According to Aaron White, senior scientific adviser to the director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, another study conducted in the Netherlands found that even people who drank about two drinks a day had livers that were less stressed after spending one month abstaining from alcohol.
White called this finding “surprising,” saying that we all know it’s a bad idea to drink heavily every day or regularly, but this study is among the first to show that the body can do well to have a break from even moderate drinking.
Aside from the impact on mental health, many studies have focused on the negative effects that alcohol can have on physical health. Some researchers have suggested that drinking on a daily basis can shorten lifespan, while others believe that moderate drinking can help increase lifespan.
However, Garbutt is skeptical:
The idea that a little alcohol is good for your longevity, that’s not really considered the take-home message now.”
Yao, X. I., et al. (2019). Change in moderate alcohol consumption and quality of life: evidence from 2 population-based cohorts. CMAJ. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.181583.