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Giving up alcohol has many benefits to health and wellbeing. Here’s how to pause the habit

This opinion piece was featured on ABC Health & Wellbeing on 11 February 2023.

What if I told you I’d found a tablet that could make you sleep better, think clearer, concentrate longer, run faster, and help your immune system?

That doing one simple thing could bring such a wide host of health and wellbeing benefits.

Well, what if I told you that instead of taking something new, you just needed to pause something instead?

February is here, and this means I have joined febfast alongside thousands of Aussies to pause a habit in my life — drinking alcohol — while raising money for young people facing significant disadvantage.

Why alcohol?

Alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, is a psychoactive substance. It’s produced through the fermentation of sugars by yeast, and commonly found in beer, wine, and spirits.

It is also a toxin that affects every part of our body. When alcohol is consumed, it quickly enters the bloodstream through the digestive system. In the liver, enzymes work to metabolise ethanol, breaking it down into less harmful substances.

However, our liver can only process a limited amount per hour, and excessive alcohol can overwhelm this process, leading to the accumulation of toxic by-products.

Why pause?

When alcohol enters the bloodstream and reaches your brain, the short-term effects are varied. The central nervous system is particularly affected by alcohol, as it acts as a depressant, slowing down brain function and inhibiting neurotransmitter activity.

This means it changes our mood and behaviour, slows our thinking, affects our brainwaves, interrupts the cleaning process of our brain tissue, and impairs our decision making and cognitive function. This results in impaired coordination and altered judgement.

In addition to its effects on our brain, alcohol also affects our metabolism and our weight. It’s packed with calories which our brain doesn’t recognise in the same way as food, meaning we can consume a lot more. It also changes the way we digest food, and even our appetite directly.

In the end, we often eat more without realising and consume greater energy overall.

But the effects of drinking don’t stop there. Even small amounts of alcohol can lead to our immune system taking a beating, and we might find ourselves at higher risk of catching a cold or coming down with something.

Alcohol can also have a significant effect on sleep patterns and quality. It disrupts the natural sleep cycle by reducing the amount of rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, a crucial phase associated with dreaming and cognitive restoration.

Additionally, it can contribute to fragmented and lighter sleep, leading to increased wakefulness during the night. This in turn affects our concentration, mood and alertness in the days following. Even moderate alcohol consumption close to bedtime can interfere with the body’s ability to enter deeper, more restorative sleep stages.

Longer term, alcohol increases the risks of breast cancer, heart disease and weight-related diabetes.

How to pause

Despite the clear health benefits, giving up alcohol isn’t simple for most people. A non-drinker is often met with suspicion or accusation in the social context, and ads prompt us to drink every time we drive by a bus stop, log onto social media, or watch our favourite TV show.

If you’re considering joining me on febfast, or pausing alcohol as we kick off a new year, think about three things to boost your chances of success.

First, set clear and realistic goals. Define specific, achievable objectives for reducing or pausing alcohol. Establishing realistic targets, like pausing for one month, can help you stay focused and motivated.

Second, share your decision with friends and family so that they can support your decision at every step. Having reliable support systems can provide encouragement, understanding, and accountability. Surrounding yourself with people who respect your choice can significantly increase your chances of success.

Finally, invest time in developing alternative coping mechanisms. Identify healthy substitutes for the roles alcohol may have played in your life, such as stress relief or socialising.

Engage in activities that promote wellbeing, such as exercise, hobbies, or spending quality time with loved ones. Developing alternative coping mechanisms helps replace old habits with positive, fulfilling alternatives. With busy lives and budgets under strain, we’re all looking for simple and affordable ways to be healthy and feel great.

Instead of adding yet another tablet, workout, or commitment to your schedule, consider the multiple benefits of pausing or giving something away. With one small but powerful change, it’s possible to bring a host of wellbeing benefits that will keep you sleeping better, thinking clearer, and feeling great — now and into the long term.

About febfast

This February, you get to choose how you’ll change young people’s lives.

Across Australia, thousands of people take on the month-long challenge for the month of February to raise funds for young people experiencing serious disadvantage to access the resources and support they require to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Find out more or register at www.febfast.org.au

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