Over thousands of years, drinking alcohol has become embedded in human culture. But an increasing amount of evidence shows that even a casual relationship with alcohol can come at a cost. While scientists aren’t lobbying to enforce sobriety, there now appears to be a shift in their thinking: The body can be changed by booze, even without the extremes of alcoholism.
The effects of moderate drinking — and quitting — were evaluated in a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. In it, scientists observed how changing drinking habits shifted the mental and physical well-being of 10,385 Chinese people, comparing those results to data from a representative survey of 31,079 Americans.
Over the four-year study period, lifetime alcohol abstainers reported the highest level of mental well-being. But the people who drank and then quit — females in particular — approached the same level of mental well-being as lifetime abstainers within four years of going sober in both the Chinese and American populations.
The study suggests that even if you’re just a casual drinker to begin with, going sober can have profound benefits.
How Quitting Alcohol Affects Mental Health
In the study, both Chinese and American participants answered previously established questionnaires on physical and mental well-being twice over a four-year period. These people included lifetime abstainers, persistent moderate drinkers, and those who drank when they were first surveyed and had quit by the second survey. Throughout, moderate drinking was defined as 14 drinks or less per week for men and seven drinks or less per week for women.
On average, the mental well-being of the women who quit drinking approached the level of lifetime abstainers within the four-year period. There was, however, very little change in the mental well-being of the men who quit. These results were persistent even after the scientists adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, body mass index, and smoking status.
Study co-author Herbert Pang, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, explains to Inverse that by validating the findings across both Chinese and American populations, the team showed that their observations were indeed the result of people’s drinking habits and not cultural factors. Since alcohol consumption isn’t as common in China as it is in the United States, any patterns that emerged from the data would demonstrate the effects of drinking, not of local social norms.
Understanding Male and Female Differences
It’s not clear why quitting led only women to experience a favorable change in mental well-being. “It is possible that alcohol cessation may reduce stressful life events, such as conflict within a family, difficulties in employment, and legal troubles, resulting in improved mental well-being,” Pang says.
“Further studies are needed to establish clearly the impact of alcohol use on mental and physical well-being before alcohol is recommended as part of a healthy diet.”
Co-author Mary Schooling, Ph.D., a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, who advised on the study, says any explanations for the sex difference the team observed remain speculative.
“It could be that men and women react differently to giving up alcohol, because of physiological differences,” Schooling tells Inverse. “Alternatively, alcohol use is a complex activity that may represent more than intake of alcohol. For example, it could be an indicator of active social life in men, but of a guilty pleasure in women.”
“As such, giving up alcohol would also represent different things in men and women, and hence have different associations with well-being.”
In part, the incomplete understanding of these effects is due to the fact that light drinking has been studied a lot less than heavy drinking. Heavy drinking is well known to be harmful; lighter drinking less so.