6 ways to cut back on alcohol

by Kaiser Permanente |
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This is the second of 2 articles about alcohol and your health. Learn why drinking too much alcohol can be harmful in article 1.

If you're rethinking your relationship with alcohol these days, you're not alone. A lot of people started drinking more during the pandemic. With the start of the new year, it’s a great time to change your drinking habits.

One thing to remember, says Reham Attia, MD, an addiction medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente, is that changing your relationship with alcohol can take time. You don’t have to quit cold turkey. Depending on a few factors, there are recommended drinking limits you can aim for to stay safe.

But at the end of the day — less booze means better health. Whether your goal is to cut back a little or quit altogether, here are some tips to help you get started.

Assess your current habits

Take an alcohol self-assessment to see if you’re drinking more than a safe amount. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a moderate amount is no more than one drink a day or 7 drinks a week for women and no more than 2 drinks a day or 14 drinks a week for men.

If your habits feel risky or you know you need help stopping, make an appointment with your doctor to talk about your health history and the right next steps for you. “It never hurts to be evaluated for a disorder,” Dr. Attia says.

Lower your intake over time

To start, Dr. Attia suggests keeping a journal of how much you drink each day for one week. When working from memory and guessing at amounts, people tend to underestimate how much they drink. It's a good idea to learn the standard drink sizes before you log them.

Then, cut back one glass a week until you’re drinking in moderation — or if you prefer, until you stop drinking. Lowering your intake over time gives your body and mind a chance to adjust while you create healthier habits.

Consider drinking only on specific days of the week. On the days you drink, aim to stop 3 hours before going to bed so your body has time to metabolize the alcohol before sleep. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and the next day.

Try going sober at social events

Most drinking happens socially. Meals, sporting events, holidays, and even children’s parties often include the option to drink. Next time you’re at a social event, be curious — ask yourself if you really want or need alcohol. You may be responding to social cues that it's time to drink or simply looking for something to hold in your hand. Try reaching for something else, like a bottle of water or a snack.

Let your friends and family know that you're thinking about drinking less and exploring how you feel with less alcohol in your life. If you think they won’t understand, tell them your doctor told you to cut back for health reasons, Dr. Attia says. Having their support will help keep you accountable — and some people may decide to join you.

Find healthier ways to relax

Alcohol has a depressive effect, slowing your brain function to give the illusion of calm. You can replace drinking with new skills, routines, and activities listed below that are good for your mental and physical health.

  • Walk or ride your bike before dinner.
  • Meditate or stretch for 20 minutes at the end of the day.
  • Color in a coloring book.
  • Play a game on your phone.
  • Reach out to a friend or neighbor to connect.
  • Go to bed early (aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night).

Don’t rely on alcohol-free drinks

There are several brands of nonalcoholic beers, wines, and even spirits available today. And while these can be a fun substitute at a special occasion, don’t rely on alternatives to replace a daily habit. “The flavor, the smell, and the bottle all prime your brain to have the real thing,” Dr. Attia says. That can lead you to break down and switch to alcohol. Concentrate instead on creating new habits that don’t involve drinking.

Get the support you need

Talking to people who are also exploring their alcohol use can help. Try a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous. Online video and phone meetings are still popular and offer more flexibility when you’re busy.

If you need support and advice around your drinking behavior, we’re here for you — and members don’t need a referral to get started. Learn more about treatment and recovery options at Kaiser Permanente.