It's that time of year again, when thousands of Australians put down their beer, say cheers to sobriety and swear off the booze – well, for a few weeks at least.
Every winter, Dry July challenges Australians to take a month off alcohol, for their own health, and to help raise funds for Australians with cancer.
The event, now in its 14th year, is part of a growing wave of interest in sobriety and moderate drinking, with data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing alcohol consumption in Australia has been steadily dropping over the past 50 years since its peak in the 1970s.
The market for booze-free drinks has also blossomed in recent months, with Canberra label Heaps Normal now a best-selling beer at many bottleshops and bars across the country. In May, Australia's first alcohol-free bottleshop opened on Sydney's northern beaches and the first alcohol-free cocktail bar opened in Brunswick East.
Even during the early days of the pandemic, when many parts of Australia were in lockdown, a roughly equal proportion of people reported cutting back on alcohol (14.7 per cent) compared to increasing their intake (13.9 per cent), figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show.
Why cut down on alcohol?
So what do people have to gain from signing up for a few weeks of booze-free living? Dietitian Jessica Spendlove from Health and Performance Collective in Sydney says the obvious short-term benefits include a better mood, healthier skin, increased energy and a clearer head.
People may lose weight and save money, and could use the month to improve their daily fitness routine by waking up earlier and moving more.
"If they are someone who's training regularly they may have better recovery," Spendlove says.
"We know for people who are trying to build muscle and training to get stronger that alcohol can impact recovery and what we call muscle protein synthesis."
In the longer term, Spendlove says alcohol intake is linked to an increased risk of illnesses including liver disease, cancer (gastrointestinal, stomach, bowel), cardiovascular disease and some mental health conditions, as well as alcohol-related injuries and accidents.
While a few weeks of sobriety may not significantly affect these conditions, Spendlove suggests using the time to reflect on your lifestyle and be a little more mindful towards drinking. The advantage of a one-month period is it's short enough to be achievable, yet long enough to see the benefits of not drinking and be challenged at the same time.
Taking a month off is a really great time to press pause and reset.Dietitian Jessica Spendlove
"Taking a month off is a really great time to press pause and reset ... and gain a bit of perspective and awareness," she says.
"For a lot of people a few glasses here and there is very much a part of people's lives. Eating out, celebrating with friends … depending how regularly and how much alcohol they normally consume, [Dry July] gives them an opportunity to re-evaluate that."
Sleep is one area many people might be surprised can be improved by reducing alcohol intake, Spendlove says.
"Often people will think they'll have a few drinks and that will help them get to sleep, which it may initially," she says.
"But we know alcohol intake can interfere with deep sleep, what we call REM sleep, and so that's often why you can wake after you've had a few drinks or more and you don't feel very rested, or why you wake up regularly throughout the night."
And while many people think of alcohol as a social lubricant, it can also harm relationships and trigger "hangsxiety" if we overdo it.
"[That's when] you wake up the next day after you've had a few drinks and you're feeling a bit down and reflecting on a few things," Spendlove says.
"It's definitely about listening to yourself and [thinking about] how you're behaving and how you feel the next day as well."
Even so-called lighter cocktails with tonic water can pack a sugary punch. Photo: iStock
All in moderation
But what if you don't want to abstain completely? While you won't be able to sign up for Dry July, any reductions will bring benefits for your health, Spendlove says.
Either way, it's important to understand limits. Current Australian guidelines recommend healthy adult men and women should have no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than four standard drinks on any one day.
Alcohol is an energy source too, so if you're watching your weight, it's important not to overdo it, particularly if you're mixing spirits with sweet drinks. This includes tonic water, which can have as much sugar as soft drinks or juices.
And while it is true that some alcohol – red wine in particular – contains health-giving antioxidants called polyphenols, drinking more than one glass negates the benefits of those compounds, she says.
Survive and thrive
Spendlove says the growing curiosity in sobriety comes down to increasing awareness of mental and physical health, particularly brain health, after a year of people staying at home.
Her advice for those taking up the month-long challenge is to sign up with friends and family, and make it a social occasion. Either by going on walks, coastal hikes or weekends away if you can, or through social media or online catch-ups if you're in lockdown.
"Go somewhere you wouldn't normally go or book an activity or tick something off the bucket list," she says.
"It challenges people to do other things they can do outside of the norm. You still want to be social and doing things that you love."
Use the month off alcohol to try new things and move your body more. Photo: iStock
The co-founder of alcohol-free drinks shop Craftzero, Sherif Goubran, agrees it's a good time to try new things, particularly those you wouldn't normally associate with alcohol, such as pottery or weekend breakfasts.
You could also prepare yourself for questions from people who may not understand why you're not drinking alcohol, he says. That way, you won't be caught off guard.
"People will make presumptions regarding your relationship with alcohol and why you are 'giving it up' for the month, so be sure to have some responses locked and loaded," he says.
You don't need to replace your usual wine or beer with water either, Spendlove says. Try non-alcoholic drinks such as mocktails, soda water or herbal teas, preferably from a fancy glass.
"There's a lot that can be said about that psychological action of drinking from a really nice glass," Spendlove says.
"Make the process really enjoyable and, if you save a bunch of money, treat yourself with something at the end like a facial or massage or staycation. Have something there to reward yourself."
Grapefruit thyme fizz mocktail recipe
- 1 cup water
- 1 tbsp Stevia or sweetener/sugar of choice (see note)
- ½ cup thyme
- ½ cup grapefruit juice
- ⅓ cup soda water
To make the thyme syrup
- In a small saucepan, combine water and sweetener/sugar of choice over medium heat. Stir until the sweetener/sugar is dissolved.
- Add thyme and simmer on very low (barely bubbling) for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit it for at least half an hour, or up to 3 hours. Strain and cool.
To make the mocktail
- Add 1 tablespoon thyme syrup and ½ cup grapefruit juice to a glass. Add lots of ice, top with soda water and stir gently. Garnish with extra thyme and serve.
- You'll have enough thyme syrup for 4-5 mocktails.
Note: Stevia was used for this recipe and 1 tbsp was plenty as Stevia is so sweet. If you are using regular sugar, use a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water, so 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. If you use a different sugar replacement, check their recommendations on the pack.