Sober January, Dry February: are you giving up booze?

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The indulgent holidays are behind us and for many, the new road season is looming. Whether you’re trying to make race weight, detox after the holidays or stick to your clean eating new year’s resolutions, I know many of you are thinking about, or have committed to, decreasing your alcohol intake. Maybe you are even practicing alcohol abstinence during Sober January or a Dry February.

It’s a practice that’s increasingly common among cyclists and non-cyclists alike, and from a health perspective, abstaining from alcohol has been said to improve sleep, improve liver function, clear up skin and help you lose weight.

While evidence of these benefits are inconclusive and long-term health benefits are even harder to find, giving up alcohol for a month certainly can’t hurt, nutritionist Julie Cornelius told Ella CyclingTips.

Of course, the benefits are highly dependent on how much the individual is currently drinking and what their goals are. Heavy drinkers will notice more change than those who drink in moderation already.

For reference, the current guidelines for alcohol consumption for an average person recommend no more than 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. This does vary a bit between countries, and in Australia one drink is defined as anything with 10g of alcohol. In the US, a standard drink is defined as anything with 14g of alcohol.

What happens to the body when you give up alcohol for a month?

An experiment conducted by British researchers showed compelling results after their subjects gave up all alcohol for a month.

“They found that their liver was healthier, the study participants had lost weight, had lower blood pressure and had better sleep,” said Cornelius. “They also had results suggesting risk for cancer was decreased.”

One thing to note, however, is that the study participants had regularly been drinking on average about two drinks per day before cutting out alcohol, which is a relatively high amount.

“The liver is the main organ involved in metabolising alcohol. It normally secretes enzymes that work to break down alcohol and get rid of what’s left over,” explained Cornelius. “When cutting out alcohol, the liver is able to function better. The above study found that any damage done by drinking alcohol regularly had started to repair itself.”

Will you feel better?

“Yes,” said Cornelius. “Research shows that you will sleep better, might lose weight, have better focus and memory, be less stressed and overall happier.”

What about on-the-bike performance? Will you perform better when cutting out alcohol?

“Possibly,” said Cornelius, stating that while there is not yet enough research to pin-point exactly the effects of alcohol on cycling fitness are, there are negative side effects to alcohol on fitness in general.

“Drinking alcohol has been shown to decrease the production of human growth hormone, the chemical in the body that is responsible for building muscle,” explained Cornelius. “Also, better sleep can contribute to better recovery from training. Alcohol can also throw blood sugar out of balance, which can be a huge factor in performance. Blood sugars that are too low contribute to bonking and fatigue.”

Will I lose weight?

“There is a lot of evidence that cutting out alcohol contributes to weight-loss, but that’s more likely due to the consumption of extra calories,” said Cornelius.

Alcohol has around 7 calories per gram, almost double that of carbohydrate and protein. A standard pint of beer contains around 210 calories. Cocktails, with sugary mixers, tend to be even higher in calories.

“Cutting out alcohol alone won’t necessarily lead to weight-loss. It needs to be paired with a whole lifestyle approach,” warned Cornelius.

But what about the health benefits associated with wine?

“Moderate consumption does have some health benefits,” Cornelius said. “There is a lot of research that shows that there are benefits to moderate drinking. A few drinks a week, and wine in particular, has been shown to decrease cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which can reduce risk for heart disease and stroke. Depending on how much you consume before cutting out alcohol, cutting back to one drink per week might still have significant health benefits.”

Is alcohol abstinence a good idea?

“Personally, I’m much more a fan of moderation versus cutting things out all together,” said Cornelius, flagging that it all depends on an individual’s current alcohol consumption, fitness goals and what the person will do upon completing the month of abstinence.

“But it can’t hurt. And January and/or February is a good time to try it because of the added motivation around new year’s resolutions. It’s also the end of the off-season during which people may have let loose a little. However, I do think it’s better to moderate consumption year-round to contribute to a healthier lifestyle in general.”

An avid mountain biker, Julie Cornelius has a Masters of Science in nutrition from University of Arizona and focuses on nutrition for active individuals through her work as nutritionist and coach with ADST Fit and Potential Energy.

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