April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and Sheila Specker, MD, an addiction psychiatrist with University of Minnesota (M Physicians), says that it serves as a helpful opportunity for individuals and communities to reexamine their relationships with alcohol, and how doing so can lead to a healthier life.  

When thinking about alcohol consumption, Dr. Specker notes the importance of understanding what alcohol is and how it can affect mental health, saying, “It is important to keep in mind that alcohol is a sedative — a depressant,” adding, ”And that persons with depression can be particularly affected by it.”

Headshot of University of Minnesota Physicians Addiction Psychiatrist Sheila Specker, MD
Sheila Specker, MD

One way individuals can start to think about their relationship with alcohol is by taking an opportunity, such as Alcohol Awareness Month or Dry January, to limit or abstain from consumption. During this time, those who seldom drink can look at their health choices and renew their commitment to healthy living, Dr. Specker explains. 

"Heavier drinkers might critically examine the role that alcohol has in their lives, weighing the pros and cons, and making preparations for the next step after it’s over, or if it is a struggle to stop,” Dr. Specker says, noting that if a someone is a heavy daily drinker, there are medical risks to abruptly stopping so seeking medical advice is important.

According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), as of 2019 there are 14.5 million people in the U.S. with alcohol use disorder, which is an illness characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use, despite adverse social, occupational or health consequences. Dr. Specker says that for those who struggle with alcohol addiction, making time to think about or try abstaining from alcohol may provide insight into what drives alcohol use, such as boredom, low mood, conflict or stress.

Benefits of limiting or abstaining from alcohol consumption

There are a number of continuing benefits for those who choose to continue abstaining from or limiting alcohol consumption after this period. Dr. Specker cites a U.K. survey that found among those who participated in Dry January, after six months 75% of people were able to keep harmful episodes down and almost 25% of those who were drinking at harmful levels were now in the low-risk category. “Low risk drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as no more than one drink/day for women and two for men,” she adds.

The definition of low-risk drinking, however, is also under new consideration by experts. A recent study in Cardiology examined a common belief that one drink a day is healthy and may even include cardiovascular benefits. The study, which analyzed about 400,000 individuals’ genetic records, looked at the association between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular diseases like hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, heart failure and atrial fibrillation. 

The study found that any amount of alcohol consumption was associated with increased cardiovascular risk, but that there are differences in risk across levels of intake, including those currently described as “low-risk.” There were still modest increases in risk with moderate alcohol intake, and this risk grew exponentially at higher levels of consumption. 

According to Dr. Specker, additional physical health advantages of abstinence can include: 

  • Liver fat reduction
  • Lower blood pressure 
  • Reduced cholesterol 
  • Lower blood sugar 
  • Weight loss
  • Improvements in concentration
  • Better sleep patterns

Dr. Specker says that individuals’ mental health can also benefit, including improvements in mood and reductions in anxiety. 

“Some of these benefits would be most profound in those who drink heavier,” she says, ”But even those who drink less often can find improvement in sleep, mood and general well-being.”

Seeking help for alcohol use

Dr. Specker emphasizes the importance of reaching out for guidance when dealing with alcohol use and the many resources that are out there for addictions of any kind. 

“For sobriety to be long term, there must be acceptance of the fact that it is a problem, decide to change and obtain help — whatever form that may be — and get support from others.”

“Addiction is a chronic condition and there can be recurrences and return to use, but what is important is continuing to work towards abstinence,” she says. “We are fortunate in Minnesota to have many resources and telehealth has broadened the ability to get support.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, consider taking a next step and talking to a doctor.