Many women drink alcohol to relax, feel good and take the edge off life, but recent evidence suggests skipping that daily glass of wine is a better way to boost their mental health.
First, some sobering new statistics. Alcohol-related deaths are on the rise in the U.S., increasing by 43% from 2006 to 2018, a report published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. The impact was greatest on women.
Experts are also linking pandemic stress to a spike in alcohol use in 2020, with women's stress drinking increasing significantly. The most problematic alcohol use happened around March and April of this year, one expert told NBC News.
The findings come as many Americans have been trying out an alcohol-free life as part of the “sober-curious” movement, a break that may benefit women's health in particular.
Women who quit alcohol improved their mental well-being, researchers reported in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).
“Our findings suggest caution in recommendations that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life,” Herbert Pang, one of the study co-authors and an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at The University of Hong Kong, told TODAY.
“The risks and benefits of moderate drinking are not clear.”
Instead, quitting drinking may be a better way to go when it comes to feeling calm and peaceful, added co-author Michael Ni in a statement.
For the study, researchers analyzed the drinking habits and self-reported levels of mental health of more than 10,000 people in Hong Kong; and more than 31,000 people in the U.S. Heavy drinkers were excluded from the analysis.
In both groups, men and women who were lifetime abstainers — those who didn’t drink any alcohol at all at any point in their lives — reported the highest levels of mental well-being.
When the others were followed over time (about two years for the Hong Kong group and about three years for the U.S. participants), quitting alcohol was linked with a more favorable change in mental well-being among women in both groups, but not in men.
In fact, women who stopped drinking approached the highest levels of mental health reported by lifetime abstainers within four years. It’s not clear why, but it’s possible that abstinence reverses alcohol-related brain injury or that it reduces life stresses, such as family conflict, the study noted.
Trying out the 'sober-curious' movement
“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,’” said Dr. James C. Garbutt, a psychiatry professor at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina, who was not involved in the study.
He has observed the beneficial effect in both men and women.
Alcohol does relieve anxiety at first, but it also helps activate systems in the brain that make anxiety worse later, leading to a cycle of, “I need more alcohol to relieve my anxiety, which makes my anxiety worse, so I need more to relieve it,” Garbutt added.
Over time, alcohol can also be a factor in experiencing depressed mood, irritability, poor sleep and stress sensitivity.
Like the study authors, Garbutt said it’s difficult to answer why women’s mental health in particular might improve when quitting alcohol. Women tend to have higher rates of depression than men and they tend to have more physical adverse effects from alcohol that happen faster, at lower levels, than men, which could be factors, he noted.
Still, the growing use of alcohol among women has become a public health concern in recent years.
Some are sampling sobriety as part of the “sober-curious” trend that has prompted alcohol-free bars and events to pop up across the country. In a heavy drinking culture like the U.S. such a shift in perspective is positive, Garbutt said. Sober-curious participants usually aren't addicts and they may not be seeking to avoid alcohol forever, but they're interested in a break.
“We really want to have more spaces and occasions where being dry is something that’s encouraged and completely casual,” said Lorelei Bandrovschi, founder of Listen Bar in New York, where the entire menu is alcohol-free when it opens once a month. “Alcohol really does have a monopoly on how we socialize.”
Beyond mental health, alcohol’s impact on physical health has come under scrutiny in recent years. Studies have found a daily drink could shorten life, though some researchers still believe moderate drinking plays a role in helping people live longer.
But Garbutt was skeptical.
“The idea that a little alcohol is good for your longevity, that’s not really considered the take-home message now,” he said.