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Dry January is over, but are ‘sober drinks’ a healthy way to keep it going?

A year ago, Corrina Montejano decided to take part in Dry January and completely remove alcohol from her life for a month. She had attempted the challenge in the past but would typically throw in the towel after about a week.

But in 2023, Montejano became aware of the firm grasp alcohol had on her life.

Montejano, 30, a fitness coach and content creator living in San Francisco, says she was having two or three drinks a night when she decided to quit. Heavy drinking for a woman is defined as having eight or more alcoholic beverages per week, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For men, the threshold is 15 or more drinks per week.

“I was on the verge of being truly addicted to alcohol,” she said. Dry January “was the perfect eye-opener.”

Now sober, Montejano has adopted several tactics to keep herself on track: talking to a therapist, journaling and drinking nonalcoholic beverages like mocktails.

“The nonalcoholic spirits, wines and beers were probably the biggest factor in helping me maintain sobriety,” she said.

Choosing a “sober beverage” over an alcoholic drink has its advantages, according to Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in Seattle.

“The benefit is, it just doesn’t have the alcohol,” she said. “So it doesn’t have any of the intoxicating effects or depressant effects.”

Still, nonalcoholic drinks might not be right for everyone, and experts say there are several things to consider before diving into the world of sober beverages.

How nonalcoholic beverages differ

Several brands have recently entered the beverage market with alcohol alternatives such as craft mocktails, dealcoholized wines and nonalcoholic spirits and beers.

Hilary Sheinbaum, a trend journalist and author of “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” says there were very few nonalcoholic options available to her when she participated in her first Dry January in 2017.

“It wasn’t readily available at the bar or even at my local grocery store,” she said. “There wasn’t this conversation that there is now.”

In recent years, major alcohol companies including Heineken and Molson Coors have joined the sober trend with nonalcoholic options.

In the US, a beverage is labeled nonalcoholic if it contains between 0.0% and 0.5% alcohol by volume or ABV, according to regulations enforced by the US Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

By comparison, a 12-ounce glass of beer contains about 5% alcohol, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, 1.5-ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor — gin, rum, vodka or whiskey — contains 40% alcohol.

Sober wines can also be labeled as nonalcoholic or alcohol-free, the Tax and Trade Bureau says. Many are often labeled as dealcoholized or alcohol-removed because of how they are made.

“They are first made as a wine, and then the alcohol is extracted from it,” Sheinbaum said, adding that most “alcohol-removed” beverages are made with the same ingredients as their alcoholic counterparts and taste like them.

Craft mocktails contain zero alcohol and are made from ingredients such as carbonated water and fruit concentrate and are packaged to look and taste like alcoholic cocktails.

Regardless of the alcohol content on the label, Hultin says, all nonalcoholic beverages come with a nutrition label that should be read carefully before consumption.

“You get to see what’s in there and what the ingredients are,” she said. “And then you can make more informed decisions.”

Sober drinks can limit health risks

Nonalcoholic beverages can help people limit alcohol consumption and its associated health risks, according to Dr. Lara Ray, a clinical psychologist who also runs the UCLA Addictions Lab, which studies the clinical neuroscience of drug and alcohol addiction.

“Someone might think, ‘Oh, I’m just a regular drinker. I’m not a problem drinker,’ but one may still be elevating their risk and the specific mechanism by which alcohol elevates cancer risk,” she said.

In January 2023, the World Health Organization said in a statement that “no level of alcohol consumption is safe” because it increases a person’s risk of several types of cancer, including bowel and breast cancer.

Alcohol “causes cancer through biological mechanisms as the compound breaks down in the body, which means that any beverage containing alcohol, regardless of its price and quality, poses a risk of developing cancer,” WHO said.

High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and liver disease are also associated with excessive alcohol consumption, according to the CDC, as well as cognitive issues such as dementia and mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

Many mocktail products are designed to relieve anxiety and stress, Montejano says, with some brands offering “calming relaxation spirits” that help consumers unwind. Other products have “energizing” and “euphoric” effects, she says, ideal for a night out.

Some mocktails include immune-active botanical extracts such as echinacea and adaptogens, herbs and roots that may help the body manage stress.

Although these ingredients can offer some health benefits, the amount is probably not enough to make a positive impact on the body, says Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not healthy or anti-inflammatory, but you’re always better off getting health or anti-inflammation from whole foods, not just isolated ingredients,” she said.

When it comes to mocktail brands, Hunnes says, you want to look for ingredients that are real foods, such as turmeric or ginger.

Botanical extracts and adaptogens are typically not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, she added, so you should speak with your doctor or pharmacist before consuming them.

“There are plants and plant extracts that can negatively or positively interact with medications,” she said. “It’s important to inform your health care provider if you’re taking supplements or foods with higher levels of plant extracts.”

Placebos aren’t for everyone

Nonalcoholic beverages may not be the “healthier” option for people with alcohol use disorder, according to Ray, because they often look and taste the same as alcoholic drinks.

“The nonalcoholic beverages have a lot of the cues that are associated with real alcoholic beverages,” she said. “For some people, all of those cues together become really powerful, and they’re like, ‘I want the real thing.’”

Some beverages with as little as 0.5% ABV can still be harmful to people with cirrhosis of the liver, a condition in which the organ is scarred and permanently damaged, research shows.

Additionally, some mocktails sold at bars and restaurants can contain a lot of refined sugar because they’re made with sodas and fruit juices, Hultin adds, which may not align with a specific person’s health goals.

Replacing alcohol with a glass of water would be ideal, Ray says, but it’s important for people to have options if they want to cut back on overall alcohol consumption.

“Some people say, ‘I am more comfortable just sticking to one drink, and I don’t feel like I need to pay for mocktails. I’m fine with the iced tea,’” She said. “Other people feel like, ‘No, it really helps me to have what looks like a drink.’”

Staying sober successfully

Although removing alcohol can lead to a healthier lifestyle, Hultin says, it’s important to understand that doing so can be incredibly difficult due to its addictive qualities and its involvement in daily life.

“Alcohol has been consumed in human cultures around the world since the dawn of time,” she adds. “We can’t just negate that.”

In order to be successful, Ray says, everyone needs to evaluate their own goals before beginning a sober journey.

“Are you reaching those goals with nonalcoholic beverages?” she said. “What are the pluses and minuses for you?”

Montejano recommends starting off slowly, abstaining from alcohol for a short time before moving forward.

“I committed to 30 days last year,” she said. “I did work with a therapist who helped me build a roadmap on tackling my first Dry January, and that helped me stay sober for that month and then prolong it.”

Montejano says her health changed for the better, and she was able to build a fitness company online while getting certified to teach yoga.

“I focused so much on ‘what am I doing to fill up my time’ and learning and growing as a person, versus ‘how am I going to get through this next week without drinking?’” she said.

Getting past the daily cravings is the biggest challenge, she admits.

“If you just look at it as ‘I’ve got to win that 30-minute-a-day fight,’” she said. “You’ve won, and you’re in control.”

During this period, Montejano recommends going for a walk, listening to a podcast or calling a friend. Journaling about your journey can also be a useful tool.

Ultimately, going sober can have social ramifications, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who can support you.

“It’s a challenging time, removing alcohol, because you might lose out on friendships, and dynamics definitely change,” Montejano said.

Find a group of people who enjoy taking part in activities that don’t involve alcohol like going on hikes or attending alcohol-free mixers.

“Just doing different things really, really helped me stay excited,” Montejano said. “Doing everything I can to be the best version of myself.”

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