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What happens when we stop drinking?

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Most of us drink moderately and responsibly. But according to a recent report from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), what the study dubs as “super consumers” are drinking the lion’s share. In exact terms, the top 10% of Australian drinkers, or more than 1.9 million of us, consume a staggering 53.2% of all alcohol in the country. That’s in excess of 27 litres of pure alcohol per person.

Paying the price for excessive alcohol consumption

The report, titled Risky Business, also revealed the following:

While medical science tells us that one standard drink per day may be advantageous, high consumption can cause all manner of physical problems – and hit your bank balance.

According to a survey by moneysmart.gov.au in 2012, Aussies are collectively spending around $14.1 billion on alcohol per year. The ABS records our population at this time at 22.72 million, working out to an average expense of $620 per drinker per year.

If we check back on our Risky Business stats, we can work out a volume and average cost for beer, wine and spirits for heavy drinkers, based on the amount they drink each year. Let’s look at a 9 litre slab of beer (414ml of pure alcohol for $43, at time of writing), a standard 750ml bottle of wine (90ml of pure alcohol for $20) and a 700ml bottle of vodka (262ml of pure alcohol for $39).

Here’s what our top 20% of drinkers in the country are paying per year (hover over the bars to see the price):

Cutting back would undoubtedly equal instant monetary savings. But what would happen to our health if we decided to stop? We decided to investigate.

Related: The price we pay for drinking

Meet Daniel

Daniel is in the top 10% of drinkers in Australia – and for the purposes of this exercise, he’s fictitious. Daniel is in his mid-30s, and is gainfully employed. He likes to drink decent wine and spirits, and because he has a healthy income, he chooses $30 bottles of wine and $60 bottles of spirits. Using the report figures, Dan could save $4,593 on wine and $2,630 on spirits, for a combined savings of $7,223 per year – provided he didn’t drink.

So, let’s say that Dan has decided to quit. Here’s what happens to him.

After 1 month of sobriety

According to the New Scientist, small test groups have shown that even moderate drinkers benefit from alcohol abstinence after 1 month. Liver blood glucose levels decreased by 15-20%, blood glucose levels decreased by 16%, and blood cholesterol dropped by 5%. Even sleep and concentration levels improved, though the group reported less socialising.

For someone like Dan, whose body may be particularly damaged by his alcohol consumption, he would benefit from medical supervision when he initially abstains in order to control physical withdrawal. This may not sound pleasant, but let’s extrapolate this out over a longer time period.

After 1 year of sobriety

A whole year sounds like a long time to be ‘off the sauce’, but many people – anecdotally, at least – seem to experience significant upsides.

Sportsman Glen Martin, for example, told the ABC in an editorial that his recovery time after exercising sped up during the year he quit alcohol. Kelly Fitzgerald explained to Huffington Post that her “senses were heightened”, including her emotions, physical sensations, taste, smell, and more. And when Nicole Cliff quit drinking for a year, she discovered her free time had previously been monopolised by drinking sessions – that time was now hers again.

Of course, these are just three people’s experiences, and aren’t broadly representative of what it’s like to quit drinking for everyone. However, their universally positive reactions to a year without grog beg the question: what could you get out of cutting back?

And – more importantly – will the positive effects compound as the years roll by?

After 10 years of sobriety

An entire decade without alcohol: it’s quite the goal! However, it gives us an opportunity to see some of the larger benefits of abstaining. If Daniel quits for a whole decade, he’ll benefit from…

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For all our theorising, Daniel represents an ‘edge case’. Most Australians drink far less than this hypothetical person, and so the health benefits may not amount to anything as significant as we’ve outlined above.

But our little ‘thought experiment’ demonstrates that there are some real benefits to cutting back even a few beers during the week, or a glass or two at dinner parties. If anything, our call to action is this: take a look at your relationship with alcohol. How does it affect your life?

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