From after work to dinner to bottomless mimosas at brunch to the-kids-are-finally-in-bed, alcohol is here, there, and, well, absolutely everywhere. Its sheer prevalence in our lives means that, for most of us, when, where, and how much we drink is a topic that belongs solidly in a gray area. So, while we can’t definitively answer if dry January is worth it for you, what we can share are three ways alcohol negatively affects your hormones—so you can decide for yourself.
1. How your estrogen could benefit from dry January
From hot flashes to dryness, the side effects of low estrogen in menopause get discussed a lot. But can the opposite happen—too much estrogen, or too much estrogen compared to progesterone? It absolutely can and does occur. It’s becoming more and more common among women between the ages of 35 and 50. In some ways, this trend toward estrogen dominance can be considered natural. After all, progesterone begins its descent in your mid-30s, and estrogen doesn’t always follow suit. But there’s plenty about the ever-growing numbers of estrogen dominance that are made much worse by lifestyle choices. In particular, whether or not you drink alcohol and how much you drink.
So what happens if your drink on the regular? The alcohol gets to work changing how your body breaks down, uses, and eliminates the hormone estrogen. The result? More of it circulates in your bloodstream, which isn’t good. This puts you at a higher risk of breast cancer. It also leads to symptoms of estrogen dominance, like more frequent and heavier periods, weight gain, and worsened PMS. (If avoiding that doesn’t make dry January worth it, we don’t know what does.)
2. How alcohol raises stress hormones… which might be high already
Regularly relying on a drink to unwind seems and feels like a good idea. After a few sips, we can feel the stressors of the day falling away. But even though alcohol relaxes us in the moment, heavy drinking actually makes stress hormone levels higher. (What’s heavy drinking? You might be surprised to know it’s just 8 or more drinks per week for women.) The reason alcohol increases cortisol has to do with how it activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. It essentially tells your body to up your cortisol secretion, which affects your thyroid hormone production, insulin levels, progesterone, serotonin, and more.
So can giving up drinking for a month—for dry January—be worth it for cortisol levels? Absolutely. Within 2 to 6 weeks, cortisol values go back to their normal levels. And, if you keep up with your reduced drinking, your HPA axis function returns to normal too.
3. Dry January could improve your ability to create melatonin—and fall asleep
Melatonin is a beautiful hormone—and it’s essential to fall asleep, keep your bones healthy, and so much more. (Read about all the things melatonin does for your body here.) But, if you’re a regular drinker, it’s difficult for your body to produce the melatonin you need. Okay, but why does that matter, if alcohol makes you drowsy anyway?
It is true that alcohol can make you feel sleepy. But it actually disrupts your sleep cycle more than it helps because it affects your rapid eye movement sleep, or REM. Stopping it can allow you to fall asleep faster and experience more restful sleep.
Other benefits of dry January and reducing drinking
Even beyond the benefits with your hormones, cutting back on alcohol can make a big difference in how you feel and your health. Fewer drinks mean better blood pressure, less indigestion and heatburn, and improved skin appearance, and much more.
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