Sober curious? Here’s what you need to know
Cheers to not drinking.
Whether you’re sober curious, totally teetotal, or nursing a hangover that’s making you say ‘never again’, you’re one of a growing number of people rethinking their drinking habits.
Studies out of the US, the UK and Australia show young people are drinking “significantly less” alcohol than their parents did at a similar age, and at least one survey says that 40 percent of US drinkers are curious about cutting back.
We asked Centr nutrition expert Angie Asche about the health concerns driving the trend and whether those pricey alcohol-free drinks are worth it.
The main takeaways:
Reducing alcohol intake can have positive impacts on digestive health, mental clarity, fitness and gut health.
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to vitamin deficiencies and impair brain function, mood regulation and cognitive abilities.
Alcohol-free drinks can be a healthier alternative, but be aware of calories from carbohydrates.
Important: This article is for educational purposes only and should not be used in place of medical advice. If you’re concerned or have questions about your alcohol consumption, contact your health provider.
Taking the night off? Try one of our favorite healthy mocktail recipes.
What does ‘sober curious’ mean?
Being ‘sober curious’ means you’re questioning how alcohol impacts your life, and exploring the possibility of cutting back or cutting it out altogether.
There are no rules about how to explore sober curiosity, but there are some common questions people ponder when thinking deeply about the way they drink:
Do I rely on alcohol during social events?
Once I’ve started drinking, how hard is it for me to stop?
Have I recently made poor decisions influenced by alcohol?
Do my health goals ever take a back seat due to my consumption of alcohol (eg. missed training or not eating in a way that makes me feel good)?
Do I use drinking to manage stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions?
Our love-hate relationship with alcohol means we’re often driven to extremes, either giving up or going hard. But sober curiosity is less about prescriptive rules and more about having an open mind when it comes to your drinking.
Depending on how much you currently imbibe, reducing the amount you drink could have wide-ranging positive impacts from your digestive health to your mental clarity.
But Angie emphasizes that, when it comes to most health concerns, there’s no need to panic over the occasional wine or whisky.
“Ideally, limit yourself to 1 standard drink for women, and 2 for men, a few days per week,” Angie says.
How does alcohol impact fitness?
Angie says her clients are often motivated to cut back when they learn just how many calories are in their favorite tipple.
“When we conduct a nutrient analysis for them it can be pretty eye-opening – upwards of 800 calories per day, in some cases, coming just from alcohol. This is a big motivator to decrease, especially if their goal is fat loss,” she says.
Beyond fat loss, Angie says there are other fitness-related impacts to consider.
“Alcohol disrupts muscle protein synthesis and hinders sleep quality, which can impact muscle growth and training performance,” she says.
“Many of my clients also know they don’t eat as well when alcohol is involved. They might reach for more calorically-dense options that may also be higher in fat and sugar which also keeps them from reaching their goals.”
“If your goal is to increase muscle, cutting alcohol is a no-brainer,” Angie says.
What about alcohol and gut health?
Before it hits your liver, alcohol is absorbed by your small intestine. Nasty hallmarks of overdoing it – think nausea, vomiting, acid reflux, and heartburn – happen because of the road alcohol travels when it enters your body.
“When you drink alcohol in quantities beyond moderate intakes, it can overwhelm the gut, causing intestinal inflammation and increasing levels of harmful bacteria while reducing levels of beneficial bacteria,” Angie says, adding that if gut health is a big motivator then cutting back is a no-brainer.
“The most helpful change would be to cut back to that recommended limit of 1 drink for women, or 2 for men, at a time,” she says.
If you’re worried that you might be experiencing gut issues due to alcohol consumption, Angie says it’s important to speak to a health professional.
Can drinking alcohol lead to vitamin deficiency?
You might have heard that alcohol can mess with your body’s ability to absorb all the nutritional goodness from your food. And that’s true, to an extent.
“I wouldn’t be overly concerned about this if you’re a moderate or very occasional drinker,” she says.
“However, this can become an issue in the long term with excess alcohol consumption. With damage to your intestinal lining, your body does not have the same capabilities to digest and absorb micronutrients and dietary fats as easily. This can lead to a greater risk of deficiencies in B vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.”
Alcohol and brain fog: how drinking impacts your mind
“Alcohol can impair your brain’s ability to regulate mood,” Angie says. “While people may use alcohol to help suppress emotions, this is very short-term. With heavy use this can cause dependence and increase the risk of both anxiety and depression.”
If you’re looking for a brain boost, Angie says that cutting back could include cognitive health benefits like “improved mental clarity, focus and mood, which are likely assisted by better sleep quality as well”.
But, again, Angie notes that it’s important not to demonize alcohol entirely.
“One study on older women found that up to one drink per day did not impair cognitive function, and some research indicates that limited amounts of certain alcoholic beverages such as red wine could be beneficial thanks to the antioxidants they contain,” she says. “But keep in mind that most of this research is discussing the impact of those recommended limits of 1 glass for women, or 2 glasses for men.”
Once you move beyond those limits, Angie says, alcohol’s impact on cognition can start to look more serious and may include:
- Greater memory decline among moderate or excessive drinkers, when compared to occasional drinkers.
Worse task performance, reaction time, concentration and decision-making skills.
Increased chance of making risky decisions.
In the case of heavy and chronic use, long-term cognitive decline.
Is that alcohol-free wine worth it, or should you stick with your tea?
Are alcohol-free drinks healthier?
A decade ago, non-drinkers were often stuck with limited options on a night out: water, soda or (if you were lucky) mocktails loaded with syrups. But as the sober-curious movement has grown, the market for alcohol-free drinks has exploded.
“It’s great to see more alcohol-free options for those that still want to partake in social events and indulge without the alcohol,” Angie says.
And while Angie says anything that helps you to consume less alcohol is “worth it”, you should be aware the nutritional value of these drinks can vary quite a bit.
“They often contain fewer calories than alcoholic beverages, but they still contain calories from carbohydrates that can add up. For example, a 12oz (350ml) non-alcoholic beer could have around 30 grams of carbohydrates,” she says, adding that her clients often go for sparkling water or homemade mocktails with antioxidant-rich tart cherry or pomegranate juice.
Are ‘nootropic’ drinks a good alternative?
Sometimes marketed as a healthier alternative to alcohol, nootropic drinks claim to boost your brain health with functional ingredients.
Normally that’s done through the inclusion of adaptogens – plant-based ingredients that might be beneficial for boosting alertness and stress resilience, among other things.
But Angie recommends exercising a little caution before you buy.
“It’s important to remember that even though these are marketed as beverages, they’re a supplement,” Angie says. “There is no regulation of the ingredients in the product, manufacturing, or the claims being made.”
Read more of Angie’s advice on nootropics here.
If you’re concerned about your drinking, speak with your doctor or contact:
USA: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Australia: The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
Other: Look into substance support for your country, or make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your options.
Sports dietitian Angie Asche will power your plate with no-nonsense food advice. Founder of Eleat Sports Nutrition, Angie works with MLB, NFL and NHL athletes to get the best from their bodies. With a Masters of Science in Nutrition & Physical Performance, and as a certified exercise physiologist and personal trainer, she’s got the expertise you need to achieve your goals.
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