With 6.5 million of us having embarked on Dry January in 2021, Sofia Tindall investigates a new trend in sober curiosity…
The New Teetotal: How and Why I Opted For Sobriety
It was my face that was giving the game away: lacklustre complexion; under-eye circles; a forehead often concertinaed over Zoom meetings trying to cajole my befuddled brain into action. I knew a steady drip-drip of lockdown wine was the culprit, so by January 2021, when the New Year’s champagne had gone flat, I reluctantly vowed to take a month off in a bid to reclaim jurisdiction over my skin and energy levels. What I hadn’t predicted was that Dry January would turn into Dry February, Dry February to Dry March, and that after three months without a drop of chardonnay passing my lips that my perspective on alcohol would change so radically. I’ve been (mostly) sipping elderflower pressé ever since.
I’m not alone: lockdown saw six per cent of the UK drinking population – the equivalent of around four million people – change their habits and quit drinking. Meanwhile, the Nolo (no- and low-alcohol) market saw a 30 per cent spike in sales. According to a 2019 survey now more than one in two Millennials (nicknamed ‘soberennials’) consider themselves to be ‘mindful drinkers’. With that has evolved a new drinking terminology of abstinence like ‘sober curiosity’, ‘mindful drinking’ and ‘sober-ish’. With an estimated 6.5 million of us having embarked upon Dry January last year, I went to the experts to learn why rewiring your drinking habits is the most effective health hack of 2022.
SCIENCE vs ALCOHOL
Let’s get the scientific bit out of the way first – it will come as no surprise that alcohol isn’t an elixir of youth. On top of being in the same carcinogenic classification as cigarettes, it’s a known contributor to seven different types of cancer and a 2012 study by the BMJ showed that even moderate drinking can shrink the hippocampus region of your brain associated with memory and learning. Research in 2017 also suggests drinking prematurely ages your cells (sorry – that £80 retinol serum can’t save you here). The good news is that the body is marvellously elastic and most of the damage done to the brain, liver and skin caused by drinking starts reversing within weeks of abstinence.
Like me, it was when 30 was on the horizon that author and editor Rosamund Dean found hangovers were taking more of a toll. ‘I was looking and feeling more lethargic,’ she explains, ‘and I wanted to cut down without giving up completely, because I do enjoy the odd glass of wine or celebratory fizz.’
After changing her habits, she wrote her book Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life as a guide to rebooting your relationship with alcohol. In it she recommends taking an initial 28-day breather from booze to clear the decks. ‘Dry January is brilliant, because like being pregnant, it’s a very straightforward excuse.’ From there, Rosamund says pinpoint the triggers that make you reach for a glass (social anxiety, lethargy and stress unsurprisingly are common culprits) and prepare a plan to re-enter the world of drinking on your own terms.
‘The thing to understand is that drinking less doesn’t happen by itself,’ she explains, ‘because it’s so habitual, you can slip back into old habits really easily. You have to make a conscious decision, and back it up with a plan.’
She now sticks to the ‘rule of three’ – no more than three nights a week drinking, and no more than three drinks at a time – but she’s a believer that there are no hard and fast rules. ‘It’s something that’s totally unique for everyone so the job is to find what works best for you.’
When it comes to the positive impact mindful drinking has had in her own life, Dean is adamant that creating boundaries has had a transformative effect on her own life. ‘Now I try only to drink when I’m in a good mood, and for positive reasons. If I do drink, it’s never to get drunk or drown my sorrows.
’I’m curious (having forlornly trudged my way through many a flat Diet Coke at the pub) as to what alcohol-free options she reaches for when out with friends or looking to scratch that 6pm itch for a pinot grigio. ‘I love kombucha,’ she suggests, ‘because it’s fermented, it’s also good for your gut. Luckily, there are so many sophisticated alcohol-free options now. I also love shrubs [a non-alcoholic spirit made with cider vinegar and botanical syrup].’
ALCOHOL vs THE ENVIRONMENT
So: radiant sense of wellbeing? Check. Glowing complexion without an aesthetic doctor’s bill? Check. But cutting back drinking is also a surprising sustainability win. A medium glass of wine just once or twice a week over a year wastes 1,077 litres of water and enough energy to heat a UK home for three days. Beer is an even worse offender: one or two bottles a week will create more than double the greenhouse gases of wine, gobbling up the same energy as heating a home for eight days or driving a car 133 miles.
When Samantha Moyo gave up drinking, thinking more conscientiously about taking care of herself and the environment came naturally. ‘I became much more conscious of the planet,’ she tells me. ‘I started to look after myself more, I felt like I wanted to take action, I even started picking up litter in my street,’ she adds. At the same time – seeing a gap in the market for a sober festival – she started Morning Gloryville, the UK’s first sober rave that, since its inception in 2013, has grown to have a presence across 23 cities worldwide, with a 200,000 strong following. Through the Morning Gloryville community, Samantha also started encouraging random acts of kindness and attributes this sense of collective purpose to giving it more of the energy of a global movement.
She went on to found a creative expansion coaching business, where she reflects many of her clients wanted to change their relationship with alcohol (‘Many were sobering up or coming off medication or going through a transition, it’s often the precursor to the start of a project,’) and now runs a consulting business and immersive wellness company, Moyo Experiences. However, she reflects that the pandemic was a ‘very stressful time’ (48 per cent of the UK reported drinking more over lockdown in 2020 and there was a 19.6 per cent increase in alcohol related deaths). An invaluable part of staying centred for Samantha was reconnecting with nature by going on walks and tree climbing, and also painting and poetry.
ALCOHOL vs WELLBEING
Strangely, I found giving up drinking in lockdown easy – no after-work drinks, no parties with trays of champagne whirling around. As an introvert masquerading as an extrovert (meaning I come across as sociable, but quickly expire without time to recharge my batteries), I know that I’m far more likely to slip when I’m at a party than alone at home with a book.
From behind a glossy door in Harley Street, Malminder Gill coaches clients on how to drink more mindfully through hypnotherapy. Interestingly, she tells me, the majority of her clients are women in their 30s to 50s who ‘have every other area of their life under control. They’ll wake up, go to the gym or a pilates class and eat really well – it’s just their midweek drinking that isn’t under control.’
To avoid my usual knee-jerk reaction of grabbing a glass of champagne when at a party, Malminder schools me to ‘not forget to eat, and if you are drinking, alternate each glass with a glass of water’. And when you’re at home alone? ‘Make a genuine effort to find alternative activities in the evening,’ she says – which could be anything from cooking to getting out the yoga mat.
It’s a sad reality though, that for many mindful drinking just isn’t an option. Alcohol is phenomenally addictive and if you’re struggling to curb your habits, says Malminder, it’s time to think about getting support. ‘Sometimes being mindful doesn’t stick,’ she reflects, ‘in those instances, therapy can really help to get to the root of the problem.’
All in all, if your reward at the end of a tough day is a glass of pinot noir, the bad news is that there’s no short cut. Breaking up with alcohol is hard work. But many more of us are waking up to the fact that re-evaluating our relationship with alcohol should be as much a staple of our wellness routine as exercising, hydrating and eating healthily. And the Nolo drinks market is stepping up to the mark – with so many more delicious alcohol-free alternatives on offer, who needs a G&T anyway? Whatever dry January brings for you, I hope I’ve proffered some food for thought. I’ll raise a glass (of Oddbird’s sparkling zero percent ABV prosecco) to that.