Health Trends Explained: Dry January

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It’s that time of year again: time for New Year’s resolutions. If you’re looking for a way to boost your health and well-being in 2022, you may be considering Dry January. The charity group Alcohol Change UK started this alcohol-free challenge back in 2013. And now, millions of people worldwide start the year with a month-long break from drinking alcohol.

But does Dry January live up to the health hype? Join us as we dive into the health benefits of short-term sobriety.

It’s No Secret that Alcohol Can Harm Your Health

You probably already know about the health risks of drinking. Over time, drinking alcohol can raise your risk for serious health problems like:

  •  Liver disease
  •  Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Certain cancers

Drinking during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects, so experts recommend that pregnant people avoid drinking any alcohol at all.

Drinking also raises your risk for getting injured. And alcohol is addictive — so drinking too much can put you at risk of alcohol use disorder (also called alcoholism).

Okay, Drinking Too Much Is Bad. But How Much Is Too Much?

Heavy drinking comes with even more health risks, but even moderate drinking can raise your risk for some types of heart disease and cancer. So, now you may be wondering what kind of drinker you are: heavy or moderate?

The answer may surprise you! Experts define moderate drinking as:

  • One drink or less in a day for women
  • Two drinks or less in a day for men

Why the different rules? In general, women metabolize alcohol differently than men, which makes their blood alcohol level rise more quickly.

If you usually have just one or two drinks a night, you may think you’re safely under the moderate limit. But not so fast — first you have to figure out what counts as “one drink.” According to expert guidelines, these all count as one drink:

  • One 12-ounce regular beer with 5% alcohol
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine with 12% alcohol
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of liquor

Now think about what you’re actually drinking. Lots of craft beers are over 5% alcohol. When you pour a glass of wine, you may pour more than five ounces. And if you order a cocktail or a mixed drink, it might have more than one shot of liquor in it. So even if you stop after one, you may already be over the limit for moderate drinking.

Does a Short Break from Alcohol Really Make a Difference?

First things first: Taking a break from drinking may be good for your liver, but Dry January will not magically or permanently rejuvenate your liver… or any other body part. Many of the harms of alcohol use build up over time — and for serious health risks like liver disease and cancer, it’s really your long-term habits that matter.

More research is needed to understand how a short break could affect your health. One small study found that a month-long break had measurable health benefits, including weight loss, lower blood pressure and lower levels of two proteins tied to cancer risk. And more recently, a larger study found that people who participated in Dry January experienced improvements in their overall well-being and felt more able to cope with stress.

Of course, those benefits likely go away if you start drinking again. But a short break can still be worthwhile, even if you don’t last the whole month. Taking a pause can help you reassess your drinking habits. For example, you may not be aware of how drinking is affecting your moods, relationships and even your bank account —  until you take a break. And some research suggests that Dry January may help you drink less in the months that follow by improving your ability to self-regulate your drinking.

You May Notice Benefits of Dry January Right Away

Drinking doesn’t just post a long-term risk to your health. It can also affect your day-to-day life in lots of ways. And we’re not just talking about hangovers — drinking can also mess with your sleep, mood, energy level, appetite, and skin appearance.

There are no guaranteed immediate effects of quitting alcohol, as your body may need some time to adjust. But after a week of sobriety, you may notice some of these benefits:

  • Sleeping better
  • Feeling more clear-headed
  • Having more energy
  • Finding it easier to eat healthy and be active

If you replace alcohol with water, you may find that your skin looks brighter and clearer. And you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t need alcohol to have fun or enjoy social events.

Try to reflect each day and notice how you’re feeling. If you find that you feel a lot better when you’re not drinking, you may decide to keep it up after January is over. And that could make a big difference in your long-term health.

Is It Safe to Stop Drinking Cold Turkey?

If you drink heavily and regularly, you may experience alcohol withdrawal. This happens when your body gets used to constant drinking, and then you suddenly stop. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can range from mild symptoms like headaches and sweating to serious problems like hallucinations and seizures.

Remember, heavy drinking is bad for your health — so it’s still a good idea to stop. But if you’re concerned about withdrawal, talk with your doctor in advance about symptoms to watch out for. If you have serious symptoms like seizures or hallucinations, call 911 for help.

And if you or a loved one has an alcohol use problem, call the National Helpline at 1.800.622.HELP (4357). This is a free, 24-hour, confidential resource that can help you find the treatment you need. You can also use this online tool to find different treatment options.

For a Successful Dry January, Make a Plan and Get Support

Studies show that people who sign up for Dry January challenges and engage with Dry January support groups are more likely to make it through the whole month without drinking. Alcohol Change UK offers a free app to help you stay motivated throughout the month.

Some people find that mocktails or flavored seltzers make for a nice evening treat in place of their regular beer or wine. Try drinking sparkling water with some fresh fruit or herbs for extra flavor. There are also lots of non-alcoholic beers, wines and even non-alcoholic liquors on the market.

And if you’re concerned about visiting bars or restaurants where you may be tempted to drink, find ways to socialize that don’t revolve around alcohol. Invite friends and family to join you for a walk or hike, or a movie or board-game night. You may find that you have even more fun when you’re not drinking.

Finally, success during Dry January is also influenced by how much you drink in the month before. So it’s a good idea to get a head start on your New Year’s resolutions by drinking less in December as well. But even if you overindulged in December, it’s not too late to start the new year off with a healthy break from drinking.

So, Bottom Line: Is Dry January Really Healthy?

Yep — Dry January is one health and wellness trend that’s really worth a try.

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Of course, like most New Year’s resolutions, the benefits depend on how you approach it — and on what happens when February rolls around. If you use this brief break as an excuse to drink more heavily the rest of the year, that’s not a net benefit for your health. But if you use it as a way to reset your relationship with alcohol and drink more moderately and mindfully all year round, that’s a huge win.

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