Written by Sophie Scott


Dry January? Do it

Giving up the demon drink for January is a bona fide thing these days. Three of our writers reflect on their different decisions. Our resident cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott explains what happens to brains on and off booze.

hand pushing awayAlcohol is an extremely widespread drug. Most human cultures have discovered it and used it in a wide variety of situations, from rituals to celebrations to whatever words best describe what was going on in Manchester on New Year’s Eve.

Alcohol is very rapidly effective in the body, and has a number of complex effects in the brain that contribute to what we could loosely call its popularity. It has suppressive effects in the brain, which is why behaviour can be more disinhibited when people are drinking, as the control processes that mean, for example, we don’t laugh helplessly all the time become less effective.

Alcohol has a relaxing effect and when the amounts increase, it becomes a sedative, which may account for why people who have been drinking can fall asleep in unlikely places, like up trees or on toilets.

At the same time, alcohol has a stimulant effect on the brain, causing a release of adrenaline (which may correspond to that feeling a friend of mine used to call ‘getting a charge on’). This is behind the ‘pick you up’ uses of alcohol, or as my grandmother would call a drink at 11am, a ‘livener’.

Alcohol also acts as a painkiller, meaning that falling backwards into the bath in the course of taking off your coat IN ANOTHER ROOM, as I managed to do while celebrating the millennium, doesn’t hurt until the next day.

It is also linked with increases in cortisol release, a hormone associated with waking up (cortisol release is greatest in the mornings) that is also connected with stress. This means that despite the sedative effects of alcohol, sleep can be poorer and more disrupted after drinking.

“It has been interesting to find that I didn’t go back to drinking like I used to. If I’m honest, it feels like a lot of my drinking behaviour was a habit, and I broke the habit.”

Alcohol is a complex, fascinating drug, but like many people I decided to try to take a break from it a while ago – and it was really interesting. My sleep immediately improved, and I realised that all the effects of stress on my sleep were largely mediated by alcohol; when I felt stressed I would drink more, sleep worse, feel worse, get more stressed.

I developed a raging sweet tooth as what I had totally forgotten is that alcohol is a carbohydrate and if you have a drink every evening, independent of the effects of the drug, you’re basically drinking a glass of sugar. My body was quite clear that this needed SORTING OUT so I quite often ended up eating cake for breakfast. I am aware that this leads to its own class of problems, long term. I definitely felt less stressed out – but that might be the better sleep, as well as a reduction in the stimulant effects of the alcohol.

I also found that I simply didn’t miss drinking as much as I expected to, especially when I realised that often, at the end of the day, I am hungry and I am thirsty, and rather than rewarding this with alcohol, I could head the feeling off at the pass with a soft drink and some crisps (or more cake. Mmmm, cake).

I haven’t stayed dry – but it has been interesting to find that I didn’t go back to drinking like I used to. If I’m honest, it feels like a lot of my drinking behaviour was a habit, and I broke the habit. I like the taste of alcohol, but I dislike the sedated feeling. Possibly this is because at 49 I’m feeling sedated enough. So try Dry January and see it if works for you. My only advice would be to stock up on cake.


Alice Sanders is abstaining… reluctantly. She tells us why.
Karen Campbell, on the other hand, thinks January is the best time to get back to your favourite local.

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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott