Many years ago, I gave up drinking alcohol for a month, and was so impressed with myself, I felt I'd cracked the Da Vinci Code. Of course, once the arbitrary 30 days were up, I returned immediately to my normal drinking pattern of "most nights". I didn't think about it again until five years ago, when a combination of nagging headaches and peri-menopausal facial flushing drove me to give up.
I've barely had a drink since, so Dry January and Sober October have passed me by. The latter, however, which raises funds for Macmillan Cancer Support by asking people to quit booze in return for sponsorship, is gearing up for a bumper month as many, mindful of drinking too much during the long nights of lockdown, are signing up.
Diageo, the spirits company, recently estimated that by the end of 2022, the UK alcohol industry will be worth £46.7 billion, with an estimated 29.2 million regular consumers, with over-30s in professional occupations drinking the most. In 2020, according to government figures, there were 8,974 UK deaths from alcohol-specific causes; an 18.6 per cent increase on 2019.
Countless studies have shown links between excessive drinking and cancers, heart failure and diabetes, among other chronic health issues.
No wonder, then, that so many of us are reconsidering our drinking habits. But does a month of sobriety really make any difference to overall health - or are habitual drinkers simply whitewashing the problem, without any discernible benefits?
Sober October may not just benefit physical health, says Dr Catherine Carney, of Delamere rehab clinic in Cheshire.
"Alcohol can also affect sleep quality, so you'll have more energy," Dr Carney says. "Regular and excessive alcohol consumption can also have a detrimental effect on mental wellbeing. While 56 per cent of the UK say they consume alcohol for relaxation, it's only temporary relief, and may leave your mental wellbeing in a worse state overall."
When it comes to physical health, "drinking large amounts of alcohol over a prolonged period of time can increase blood pressure to unhealthy levels", says Dr Carney, "and result in more health complications down the line. When you give up alcohol, your blood pressure will reduce, which can help to prevent heart failure, strokes and heart attacks."
She warns however, that "proving" you can quit for a few weeks doesn't necessarily suggest a healthy relationship with alcohol. "It promotes this negative mindset that if someone can go without alcohol for the duration, it means that they don't have a dangerous relationship, when in fact, they do have a substance issue," she says. "Heavy drinkers could use this month of sobriety as an excuse to abuse alcohol for the remainder of the year."
For some, though, a month off is the beginning of a full reset. Confidence coach Lucy Baker, 46, from Lincolnshire, gave up for a few weeks earlier this year, and has entirely reset her drinking habits as a result.
"I worked in advertising, and for 18 years, my social life was centred on alcohol - it was just the norm," she says.
Half-hearted attempts to cut down were met by friends insisting, "go on, just have one…"
"I stopped when I got pregnant, but went back to drinking socially," she says. Things changed on a holiday to Ibiza this year. "I met an old drinking friend, who told me he was now sober. It really resonated. When I came home I thought, 'Why am I still drinking?'''
Lucy decided to stop for a month. "I started to feel really good. I didn't drink a lot at home, but I made a choice to stop when out, too. I went to a hen party and drank tonic, and to a couple of work things without glugging white wine. Not having to wonder if I'd have a hangover felt so good, it took me by surprise."
GP Dr Ross Perry lists the benefits of a month off the booze. "After your last drink, the liver starts working overtime and the pancreas starts producing extra insulin," he says. "It's important to drink lots of water, as your body will be flushing out toxins via the liver and kidneys, so you're going to the loo more."
If you don't feel better immediately, he adds, "it takes up to 72 hours before you mentally and physically feel 'normal'."
After two weeks, "you will likely see a drop in body weight, eye bags reduced and far less overall bloating around the stomach, as well as clearer skin", he goes on. "After three weeks, blood pressure may reduce. A month in, skin and eyes will look brighter and clearer - liver fat reduces by up to 15 per cent, increasing its ability to flush out toxins.
Mild liver disease, such as fatty liver can be reversed completely [how long this takes will depend on the state the liver is in and how old the person is] over time, if a person stops drinking alcohol altogether, he concludes. "When there is no alcohol in your blood for several months, often, the liver cells can gradually repair and return to normal."
Most of us feel we drink "moderately" but counsellor and author of Sober on a Drunk Planet, Sean Gay, found his drinking was out of control and stopped at 31.
"We are conditioned by society to believe that drinking and hangovers are 'fun'," he says. "But for a lot of people, the empty wallets, shaky mornings and anxiety are far from it."
Sean believes "a lot of people have spent their entire adulthood using alcohol as an emotional aid - so just having a month off won't suddenly undo all the physical, mental, emotional and financial issues caused when they may have been using alcohol since their teenage years".
For him, as well as many others, "alcohol is a depressant, so it's no wonder that hangovers and depression go hand in hand", he adds. "Alcohol also releases cortisol, the stress hormone, into our systems. One big night out can leave cortisol in our bodies for a full seven days."
My own anxiety improved dramatically within a week of giving up alcohol. I can't pretend I lost any weight (because I replaced the calories with snacks) - but I slept better almost immediately. Now, my moods are more stable, the headaches have gone, and my skin is no longer flushed.
"The main benefit of going sober for a month is breaking a habit," says pharmacist Abbas Kanani, of Chemist Click. "It takes around 30 days to form a habit so not drinking for four or five weeks can help you stop." But in the long term, he warns, it's back to square one if you return to previous habits. "Thirty days without drinking is not long enough to reverse any long-term damage. If you go straight back to drinking, it will have been a waste of time."
Most Sober October participants might not quit permanently - but for anyone concerned about their health, finances or fluctuating moods, it's the perfect opportunity to take a step back, and reset their relationship with alcohol - perhaps for good.