'I Quit Alcohol for a Month and Was Shocked at What Happened to My Memory'

I am a drinker. I'm British and I think in some senses it comes with the territory. I enjoy a laid-back glass of wine and a beer with friends at the weekend.

But I still do Dry January, a whole month of ditching alcohol after what is often an over-indulgent Christmas period. This is my third year, as giving up for a month does—I'll reluctantly admit—always make me feel better.

This time, though, I was curious to see if ditching the drink could have any measurable positive impact on something I use every day—my brain.

Dry January Feature 1
Reporter Alice Gibbs with a glass of wine. She says she enjoys a drink with friends at the weekend.

I read some studies suggesting that alcohol abstinence can improve memory function, and as someone who often struggles to recall their own phone number, I'm interested in anything that might help.

Matt Huentelman, division director and professor of Neuro at the NeoGenomics Division at T Gen in Phoenix, told Newsweek: "It's important to understand the basics of memory first. We have long-term and short-term memory. Your short-term memories become long-term memories through a process of encoding. Then when you recall those memories, your brain can return them."

It is understood that alcohol has an influence on the encoding section of memories—this is why some people will recall experiencing a "blackout" after drinking.

"Some people just completely lose big chunks of memory, and that's because alcohol is impairing the ability to encode those memories," explained Huentelman. "It's stopping them from becoming long-term memories, and then when you try and recall them the next day you can't."

I am a drinker. I'm British and I think in some senses it comes with the territory.

While there is no debating the impact that getting drunk can have on brain function and memory—what about the impact alcohol has on your memory function in the longer term?

"There are long-term effects, but most of these take very long periods of time," said Huentelman. "However, there is a lot of research coming out now that is suggesting that even one drink is damaging."

While I'm pleased to hear that the long-term impacts of drinking would take a long time, I am a little worried that I'm about to be told I should quit my favorite drink.

"But let's face it, we're humans," said Huentelman. "Even if we know one drink is bad, we're probably still going to have a beer with our friends, right?" Right.

Week 1

After a heavy New Year's Eve, I'm pleased to be avoiding the drink for a while. The thought of another glass of anything isn't appealing—so that helps.

To test whether my month of sobriety could have a positive impact on my memory, I'm using a tool created by Huentelman and his team.

Mind Crowd is a long-term study available for anyone online to participate in, consisting of miniature tasks that test memory and attention.

"We try and study the diseased brain. To fix Alzheimer's disease for example," explained Huentelman. "But we don't yet know how the brain in a healthy person works. So that is Mind Crowd."

The goal is to have large numbers of people participate in the study to gain data about the healthy brain. Available for free on a phone or web browser, Mind Crowd can be picked up with ease so that people can join the study.

While I'm not sure if I'm remembering things any better, I do feel like my brain is in a generally better place.

With the understanding that my self-assigned testing isn't technically scientific, I set to work finding a baseline for my memory and took part in a test on Mind Crowd.

I try out "Word Pairs," a test that spends time showing the participant pairs of words before asking them to recall the matching word pair later. To test yourself, visit https://mindcrowd.org.

I'm shocked by how difficult this task is, and when I've finished, I get a result. Just 44 percent.

It isn't awful, but it isn't great either. In fact, I'm below average for all other participants on the site. With over 10,000 participants joining the study every month, the Mind Crowd team have a reasonable data set to compare scores against, and as a result can tell participants how their score compares to others.

Where I scored 44 percent for the memory test, the average score for people like me (women in their late 20s) is 69 percent, while the average for all participants is 47 percent. This under achievement spurs me on to avoid alcohol for a little longer.

Week 2

I'm still not missing drinking really, and while I'm not sure if I'm remembering things any better, I do feel like my brain is in a generally better place.

After a particularly stressful day I suffer a dip and I'm struggling to figure out how I can make myself feel better without my usual vice—an evening drink. But knowing I've committed to Dry January means I can't stop now. Instead, I decided to do a bit of exercise and do an at-home aerobics class. An hour later, my stress levels are lower and endorphins higher.

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Week 3

Our friends came over for dinner this weekend and it was my first real challenge. Without realizing it, I seemed to have avoided socializing for the entire month so far.

I find I'm having better conversations (am I more interesting without drinks? Surely not), and I find I am better at following the train of conversation than when I'm six beers deep. No real surprise there, but it's still something I notice, although it is some sort of magic.

My new-found positives in forgoing alcohol are important, too.

"The neat thing about Dry January is that a lot of the things we do when we are drinking aren't good choices," said Huentelman. "We make bad dietary choices, we stay up later, have bad sleep. Our social interactions aren't as rich—even though we think they are in the moment."

Am I more interesting without drinks? Surely not.

Changing the habit of drinking can quickly lead to bigger lifestyle changes. "That's where the real benefit is, in my opinion," said Huentelman. "Going dry for a month—your memory and cognition and intelligence isn't going to improve. But setting a path toward a generalized improvement in health can be really beneficial for brain health."

Week 4

I feel like I'm within touching distance of the end now, and, if I'm honest, I'm looking forward to it. So much so that I've booked a table at a local bar for the first weekend of February. My usual wine-drinking partner is very supportive of this move.

But I'm determined. With just a few days to go, I'm busy focusing on other things in the evenings. Clearing out drawers full of clutter or playing a video game—I've got this.

Dry January Feature 2
Alice Gibbs has a sip of wine. After a month off booze, Alice says she will be more mindful of her drinking in future.

Week 5

As I reach the end of a month with absolutely no alcohol, I sit down to have another go at the Mind Crowd "Word Pairs" game. This is the moment of truth, have I improved?

On Huentelman's advice, I take a test that offers different word pairs than the one I did at the start of the month. While I can't completely discount some of what Huentelman calls "practice bias," this will limit it.

"Using the test with different words helps decrease the practice effect bias a bit," Huentelman explained. "But that doesn't completely remove it. The bias that may still be there is related to your familiarity with the test and the 'rules of the game' if you will—you also might have used a different strategy to help you remember the word pairs the second time."

At the end of the test, I am awarded with a 78 percent score—a 34 percentage point increase on my previous score, and much better in-line with the averages, putting me above the average 69 percent scored by people in my demographic and much further above the average 47 percent for all users.

But does this improvement mean that not drinking has made my memory better? Likely not really, said Huentelman: "You knew what to expect, so a lot could be going on," he said. "But I think the positive effects of not drinking can be a long list."

While it isn't completely possible to draw a straight line between my month without drinking, the wider positive impacts of forgoing alcohol could have contributed to my improved score.

"Better sleep, more exercise, better eating habits, improved richness of socialization, better tolerance to stress, lowered brain and body inflammation. These are all great things that could have been happening during the month." said Huentelman.

I feel inspired by my month off drinking. Not so inspired that I won't be reaching for a much-earned glass of wine this week, but inspired to think more about the impact that my drinking habits have on my body and mind.

The positives are undeniable, and if forgoing a drink can give me a better social experience, clearer head and more productive lifestyle—that's something I can get on board with.

Update 02/02/23, 2:12 a.m. ET: This article was updated with a new headline.