Should you stop drinking?

Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB), words by Claire Chamberlain
Photo credit: Thomas Barwick - Getty Images

From Netdoctor

Many adults in the UK view drinking alcohol as a fun way to unwind. In fact, for a lot of people, socialising goes hand in hand with alcohol consumption – an image of a night out with friends seems incomplete without a glass of wine or bottle of beer in your hand, right?

But with 24 per cent of adults in England and Scotland regularly drinking more than the low-risk guidelines recommend, what is this alcohol consumption doing to our health? Does the damage exceed merely having to battle through the following day’s hangover? We investigate the harmful effects of drinking to excess, the life-affirming benefits of going sober, how to quit alcohol, and why you don’t need to have hit rock bottom or view yourself as alcohol dependent before considering sobriety…

What is moderate drinking?

According to current NHS guidelines, ‘moderate drinking’ is classed as not drinking more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, for both men and women (14 units is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small [125ml] glasses of low-strength wine)

The guidelines also state that you should spread your drinking out over three or more days, if you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, and aim to have several alcohol-free days each week.

The harmful effects of alcohol

However, while it can be easy to view this as a ‘safe’ level to consume, it’s worth bearing in mind that in 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, putting it up there alongside tobacco and asbestos in the cancer-causing leaderboard. The organisation describes alcohol as ‘a toxic and psychoactive substance with dependence producing propensities’ and cites that it contributes to 3 million deaths globally each year.

On top of this, a long-term 30-year study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 found that even moderate alcohol consumption has an adverse effect on the brain, causing hippocampus atrophy (shrinkage). Unsurprisingly, those consuming more than 30 units a week were at the highest risk.

‘Alcohol, especially binging and drinking to excess, puts stress on your internal organs, affects your quality of sleep, your skin, your energy levels and can often cause anxiety,’ says Dr Andrew Thornber, chief medical officer at Now Patient. ‘It is also full of empty calories that have no health benefits, which can cause your waistline to expand as well as your bank balance to dwindle!’

Photo credit: Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman - Getty Images

Do you have an alcohol problem?

While it's normal to enjoy the odd tipple, if you drink in excess of the NHS guidelines on a regular basis and you struggle to stop, you might have a problem. ‘Obviously drinking more than the guideline units per week can be a sign of excessive drinking,’ says Dr Thornber.

The following may also indicate you have a problem with drinking, outlines Dr Thornber:

  • Drinking daily
  • Thinking about drinking on a regular basis
  • Finding that your drinking is causing issues such as anger, or is the source of fights
  • Finding that alcohol is affecting your moods, work and/or relationships
  • Your alcohol consumption is increasing
  • Drinking is starting to cause you health issues

‘If you notice any of the above behaviours, then it’s worth looking into cutting down or getting advice on stopping drinking,’ advises Dr Thornber.

Why go sober?

The fact is, cutting down on your drinking or stopping completely, whether for a short period of time or permanently, can only bring positive health benefits, both mentally and physically.

You don’t need to have a problem with alcohol for sobriety to be an option – these days, many people are realising the seriously attractive benefits of not drinking and are giving booze a miss.

The health benefits of sobriety

There are a number of health benefits from cutting down your drinking or going sober. 'You will likely notice many of them quite quickly,’ says Dr Thornber.

‘Drinking is linked to a host of diseases and cancers, so prolonged and excessive drinking can increase your chances of getting health complications. Giving up will allow your liver to recover, get rid of the excess fat and start repairing itself.’

Dr Thornber states that other important health benefits of giving up alcohol include:

✔️ An increase in energy levels

✔️ Improved mood (especially if drinking makes you feel anxious)

✔️ Better sleep quality

✔️ Clearer skin

✔️ Improved concentration levels

✔️ The whites of your eyes looking much brighter

✔️ Lower blood pressure

✔️ Weight loss

And of course, you will be free from crippling hangovers and dehydration the morning after!

How to start with short-term sobriety

The thought of giving up alcohol for good can be somewhat daunting, so why not break it down into smaller chunks of time? This can make the process of stopping drinking seem more achievable (This may only seem easier for some – everyone is different and others may feel they need the finality of ‘never again’).

Campaigns such as Dry January and Macmillan Cancer Support’s Go Sober for October are both great ways to get on board with the idea of going booze-free, but of course you don’t need to limit yourself to these months of the year – start whenever feels right for you! If you feel you would benefit from tracking your sober days, apps such as I Am Sober offer you the chance to pledge to stay sober, log your sober days, track your triggers and review your day each night.

Alcohol withdrawal: how to cope

If you have been battling with an addiction to alcohol and have decided to go sober, you’re taking a courageous and important step. The first few weeks can be the hardest, but it’s vital to stick with it.

‘Alcohol withdrawal includes both physical and psychological symptoms, especially if you drink a lot and often,’ explains Dr Thornber. ‘These can include hand tremors, sweating, anxiety and insomnia. Make sure you look after yourself and eat well, rest and don’t drink too much caffeine.

'The first four to five days are the worst but after seven days, symptoms should subside, so don’t give up! It may be worth getting medical advice if you’re finding it difficult.’

Self-care tips while going sober

Looking after yourself, both mentally and physically is vital while you go sober. Try the following self-care tips to help you navigate your first steps into sobriety:

✔️ Eat well

Fuelling your body properly will help to boost your energy and provide you with all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to feel good. Alcohol can deplete you of B vitamins, so stock up on this vital mood-regulating miracle worker by eating plenty of eggs, leafy green veg, salmon, legumes, natural yogurt, sunflower seeds and fortified cereals.

✔️ Move more

Exercising regularly gives you something positive and proactive to do while you go sober. So grab your running shoes, get on your bike, head to the pool or sign up to a class – the natural endorphin rush you get from exercising will help you feel happier and calmer.

✔️ Get more sleep

If you’ve been suffering from disrupted sleep while drinking, now is the time to catch up on some shut-eye. Aim to get eight hours of sleep each night, and the odd power nap, when possible, won’t go amiss either.

✔️ Get out into nature

Numerous studies have shown that spending time in the natural world is good for our mental health. Heading for a walk in the woods or the park can help you feel calmer and more peace.

✔️ Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of noticing what is happening right here in the present moment, without judgement, rather than focusing on past or future worries, anxieties and stress. By spending time noticing the world around you, without feeling the need to change or judge anything you witness, you can begin to feel a sense of inner peace – the past cannot be changed and there is no point worrying about the future. Mindfulness can be helpful when it comes to forgiving past mistakes.

✔️ Try meditation

Spending time meditating each day has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and lower anxiety levels, and several studies have also shown that it could help fight addiction, by helping to redirect attention, increase willpower and control impulsive behaviour.

✔️ Treat yourself

All that money you’re saving by not buying booze? Treat yourself to something that will truly make you feel happy, such as a massage, theatre trip, spa day or weekend away.

✔️ Start a gratitude diary

Counting your blessings by keeping a gratitude diary has been shown to improve feelings of emotional wellbeing. What’s more if you’ve been drinking to counteract the perceived negatives in your life, changing your mindset by consciously focusing on everything you have to be grateful for can hep to stop the cycle.

Additional help and support

Accessing professional support while going sober is a good idea if you are worried you have an addiction. Visit your GP and ensure you are open and honest about the amount you have been drinking. They will be able to offer you non-judgemental support, advice and even medical help, should you need it.

‘There are also lots of support groups around to help people wanting to go sober for either a short period or long-term,’ says Dr Thornber.

Check out the following website for more information, support and advice:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous – a free, 12-step get-sober program, with regular meetings.
  • Alcohol Change – offers help, support and advice.
  • Drink Aware – an independent charity working to reduce alcohol misuse and harm in the UK.
  • Hip Sobriety – a blog and ‘Hip Sobriety School’, an eight-week group coaching virtual course.
  • Refuge Recovery – a recovery programme grounded in the belief that Buddhist principles and practices create a strong foundation for a path to freedom from addiction.
  • Tired Of Thinking About Drinking – anonymous support to quit drinking.


Last updated: 29-10-19

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