You’ve heard of Dry January and Sober October. You’ve probably spotted trendy mocktails and non-alcoholic spritzers on restaurant menus and supermarket shelves. You may have seen TikToks on the perks of passing on booze. These days, all the buzz is around sober curiosity.
“Sober curiosity is a choice to reduce or abstain from alcohol, not because of an addiction, but because of a curiosity to explore how alcohol impacts your life,” says Lifeforce Physician Kimberly Hartzfeld, DO. “This may be a temporary or a long-term goal.”
More and more young people are giving this concept a shot. A report from Australia’s University of New South Wales found that 44% of people ages 18 to 24 drink less alcohol than older generations.
Dr. Hartzfeld attributes the phenomenon to increased social media awareness, more non-alcoholic options, and a general shift toward healthier lifestyles. “When it comes down to it, more people are looking to optimize their health and feel their best,” she says.
We’ll drink — or not drink — to that! But the question remains: Should we all take a page from Gen Z and pour one out for the happy hours and wine nights we once knew? We consulted the experts and scoured the latest research to find out.
Shifting Scientific Opinion
You’ve probably heard the age-old advice to sip red wine for your health. For years, drinking in moderation — defined as three to five drinks per week — was recommended by medical experts and backed by some research.
“It was popular scientific opinion that moderate drinking — like they’ve done for many years in countries that have centenarians — was protective of early death, cardiovascular disease, and dementia,” says Dr. Amy Shah, a double board certified MD and nutritionist. “Researchers believed that the toxic effects of alcohol occurred when you drank more than five drinks per week. That was conventional knowledge.”
That’s all beginning to change, says Dr. Shah. “Now we have mounting evidence that alcohol is causing problems in our bodies at moderate levels,” she says. “The threshold of what we consider healthy is now lower. Most experts say the negative side effects outweigh the benefits.” So, what exactly are these side effects? Let’s dive in.
How Alcohol Impacts Your Mind-Body Health
Recent research has changed how experts think about the brain and alcohol. A 2022 study in Nature Communications found that even a moderate level of drinking can interfere with the brain’s communications pathways and contribute to dementia, explains Dr. Shah. “We realized that the level that can contribute to brain damage and cause a reduction in overall brain volume is quite low. This study found that just two drinks a day can age your brain by two years.”
Drinking shifts your spirits. Dr. Shah explains that alcohol increases GABA, a neurochemical that makes you feel relaxed in the moment. “But when the alcohol is gone from your system, you’ll be wired to be more stressed and anxious than before you drank,” she says.
That’s why you may experience anxiety the day after drinking. “At first, experts thought this was just in people with underlying anxiety or depression, but research shows that it happens more and more to people who don’t have a previous diagnosis,” Dr. Shah says. “If you’re a regular drinker, your baseline for anxiety is higher.”
The medical community may be having a change of heart about alcohol and cardiovascular health. “In the past, studies showed that low to moderate alcohol consumption can have a protective effect on cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “But a more recent study suggests that there is no protective effect, even at low alcohol consumption when adjusted for exercise and health status.”
Dr. Shah points to a 2022 study in the journal JAMA, which found that alcohol consumption at any level can increase the risk of hypertension and coronary artery disease.
Gulping down drinks can also up blood pressure. Says Dr. Hartzfeld, “In both men and women, drinking more than one or two drinks a day is associated with high blood pressure. Alcohol affects the nitric oxide system in our blood vessels, which is responsible for relaxation of the vessel wall.”
Boozing before bed can disturb your beauty sleep. “The time it takes to fall asleep can decrease after alcohol consumption, however, there is an increase in sleep disruptions as the night progresses,” Dr. Hartzfeld explains. “Alcohol affects the GABA system in the brain, which is associated with sleep regulation. Blood sugar instability can also contribute to sleep disruption because alcohol contains sugar,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “Overall, alcohol decreases total sleep time and the time spent in REM sleep.”
“Alcohol has been shown in some studies to stimulate appetite. It is also calorie dense, which can lead to storage in the form of fat,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “Studies have shown that heavy drinking is associated with a higher BMI and waist circumference. Higher alcohol consumption is also associated with less activity, which often leads to an increased risk of weight gain.”
Let’s talk about some very unsexy side effects. “Alcohol reduces libido, as well as decreases the ability to get or maintain an erection. It can also make it difficult to orgasm,” Dr. Hartzfeld says.
She notes that moderate alcohol use in pre-menopausal women has been linked to irregular cycles, anovulation, and early menopause. In men, a study showed that chronic alcohol consumption significantly increased FSH, LH, and estrogen while decreasing testosterone, which is crucial for sexual function, energy, and optimal body composition.
The New Moderate
To prevent these side effects and optimize your health, Dr. Shah recommends limiting weekly intake to zero to three drinks for women and zero to five for men. “For some people, it’s really hard to stick to that limit once they start drinking, so it may be better not to drink at all.”
Curious About Cutting Down? 5 Tips to Get Started
1. Reflect on Your Alcohol Consumption
Consider journaling about your drinking habits, recommends Dr. Hartzfeld. “Explore why you drink, how you feel, and what you're looking to improve by reducing alcohol,” she says. Getting clear on the ‘why’ behind your sober curiosity will help you stay focused on your goal.
Understanding your reasons for drinking can also help you redirect your energy. Is it integral to your social life? Try connecting with friends who are also sober curious or who share your healthy lifestyle. Is going to the bar part of your weekend routine? Consider exploring new hobbies, outdoor activities, or exercise classes instead.
2. Start Small
Being sober curious doesn’t mean you need to completely eliminate alcohol. “Start with minor changes. Instead of sipping wine at home every night, have a drink once or twice a week,” suggests Dr. Shah. “You can also have half a glass. Think European serving sizes — they’re small!”
3. Swap in Mocktails
“Mocktails are a great substitute when you’re in a social situation or even at home,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. As we mentioned before, the options are practically endless for alcohol-free alternatives these days.
Dr. Shah suggests non-alcoholic spritzers, low-sugar kombuchas, herbal-infused drinks, and flavored sparkling waters.” You can experiment with recipes at home or check out all the trendy sips at your local store.
4. Be Mindful of Your Intake
Dr. Hartzfeld recommends a new app called Sunnyside, which helps you make a personalized plan to reach your goals. Each week, you’ll set an intention for your alcohol consumption. Then, you’ll track your drinks to create a mindful pause before you go for a refill.
Working one-on-one with a health coach, which is included in your Lifeforce Membership, will also help you set sustainable goals and hold yourself accountable. The personalized attention may be just what you need to make your lifestyle shifts stick over the long term.
5. Redefine Your Fun
"The best thing about transitioning off of alcohol is that you get to define your own fun,” Dr. Shah says. “Often when we’re young and impressionable, we think fun can only look like one thing.” And let’s face it — that usually looked like boozy brunches and late nights at bars. But that doesn’t have to be your version of a good time.
“Start really listening to your own body and ask yourself, ‘What’s fun for me? What’s making me happy as opposed to what everyone else is doing in a situation?’” Dr. Shah says. “It can be really empowering to define this for yourself and get sober curious.”
We’ll raise a mocktail to that!
This article was medically reviewed by:
Kimberly Hartzfeld, DO, ABOG American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, IFMCP Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism