VOWING TO LIVE a healthier lifestyle is a common New Year’s resolution. And, many people start by giving up alcohol and doing Dry January.
The beginning of a new year is a good time to reassess your drinking habits. You may have partied a little too hard over the holidays and had one too many hangovers. So, dialling back the drinking might feel like the right thing to do to re-set and get some energy back.
You’re definitely not alone. Fifteen per cent of people planned to take part in Dry January 2023, and of those, 70 per cent were taking the whole month off of drinking, according to a Morning Consult survey.
“This month may serve as a profound step for individuals grappling with alcohol dependency,” says Ashley Pena, L.C.S.W., a licensed social worker and executive director at Mission Connection, a mental health telehealth program. “It unearths a fundamental aspect crucial to recovery—acknowledging the struggle with alcohol.”
“Dry January can help normalise abstaining from alcohol or even drinking less, which can help create a lasting behaviour change for some,” Nelson says. “Some may even be motivated by the health benefits obtained from abstinence and may continue down this path or try to drink less throughout the year.”
Whether you go full-on “no alcohol, no exceptions,” or do more of a damp January, cutting back on alcohol can benefit your health.
To get started, Pena suggests assessing your alcohol intake. This will help guide whether you should stop drinking altogether or slowly decrease your intake.
If you tend to drink a lot frequently, you might have withdrawals, which can be unpleasant, she says, and “seeking guidance from a professional is imperative to navigate this journey safely.”
Here are some things to know about what Dry January can do for your health—and how to make it just a little easier.
What is Dry January?
Created by U.K.-based nonprofit Alcohol Change UK, the first official “Dry January” began in 2013. That year, more than 4,300 people pledged not to drink any alcohol for the month. And yes, “dry” means abstaining from alcohol for a month—no cheat days. In 2017, that number spiked to more than 5 million, with the enthusiasm for the campaign spilling into the United States and Australia.
Participants claim that giving up drinking for one month can reverse the negative health impacts of regular drinking, like fatty liver disease and high blood sugar. They also champion that not drinking can improve sleep and enhance energy.
What are the benefits of Dry January?
Cutting out alcohol (or at least cutting back) can benefit your mind and body in many ways. Here are some of the health benefits of doing Dry January.
You may be in a better mood
You might feel a little irritable at first when you stop drinking, but long-term, you’ll see your mood improve.
“Consistent alcohol intake impacts the ability to authentically gauge one’s emotions without relying on altering substances,” Pena says.
Going alcohol-free can improve mental clarity, decrease invasive thoughts, and help you regulate your emotions. This will help you feel less moody, make your daily responsibilities easier to handle, and improve relationships.
You may sleep better
Anecdotally, people often credit alcohol with helping them sleep. However, a review of studies in 2013 found that alcohol may help people fall asleep quicker and sleep more deeply during the initial stages of sleep, but it’s likely to disrupt sleep later in the night.
“Alcohol on the whole is not useful for improving a whole night’s sleep. Sleep may be deeper to start with, but then becomes disrupted,” study co-author Dr Chris Idzikowski, and sleep specialist, said in a statement. “Additionally, that deeper sleep will probably promote snoring and poorer breathing. So, one shouldn’t expect better sleep with alcohol.”
You may drink less the rest of the year
You may not realise how often or how much alcohol you drink until you aren’t drinking.
Drinking in moderation, which the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Aged Care define as no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day, isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and death (although the healthiest option remains not drinking at all).
Still, taking a month off may help you drink less throughout the year. A 2016 study of adults who participated in Dry January found that up to six months later, they were drinking on fewer occasions and drinking less when they did imbibe.
That said, Dry January might not be the right approach for moderating your drinking in the long run if you’re not thinking about the future. You don’t want to pick up your old drinking-too-much habits on February 1.
Consistently limiting yourself to one or two drinks per day might be a better way to build healthy drinking habits than simply going cold turkey for a month without any plan for sustainable change.
Your organs will thank you
Several organs work to break down alcohol, including your stomach and pancreas. But, your liver bears the biggest burden of processing alcohol.
Constantly living in the sip-and-repeat cycle may lead to fatty liver. Even though fatty liver is common in those who drink at or above the recommended guidelines, there is evidence that it’s reversible when you abstain from alcohol or even drink less, says Rotonya Carr, M.D., a researcher and hepatologist at the University of Washington.
Research suggests that giving up alcohol can reverse scarring and improve the chance of survival.
“The liver is a very forgiving organ,” adds Carr, “it can heal itself when the insult, in this case alcohol, goes away.”
Dry January doesn’t necessarily erase all those nights of drinking. It’s a good start, though.
Also note that your liver isn’t the only thing at risk: drinking too much can damage your entire body, including your heart, skin, penis, and muscles.
Your metabolic health will improve
A 2018 study of moderate to heavy drinkers—ones who averaged 2.5 drinks per day—examined what happened when they quit drinking for a month. Even with no change in diet or exercise levels, the group saw many improvements, including reduced blood pressure and insulin resistance, which are important in regulating your blood sugar and reducing diabetes risk. On average, the group lost two kg and even had a reduction in cancer-related growth factors.
Six to eight months later, a good portion of the group had continued limiting their alcohol intake.
“Observational studies have shown that moderate-heavy drinkers who abstain from alcohol for one month experienced improvements in blood pressure, body weight, insulin resistance, and a decrease in concentrations of cancer-related growth factors,” Nelson says.
You’re less likely to keep drinking
A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology followed up with a group of Dry January achievers about their drinking habits one and six months after finishing. They found that the average amount of drinks participants consumed weekly decreased significantly, as did the number of days per week they drank.
Before completing the challenge, participants reported getting drunk nearly 3.4 times per month. Six months later, they reported only 2.1 times per month.
“Dry January often acts as a start to a new health journey for countless individuals, discovering a sense of enhanced well-being without alcohol and fostering the path to long-term sobriety,” Pena says.
Paying attention to your drinking patterns and why you’re reaching for another drink can help you make it a choice rather than a habit, she adds. That will help you improve your relationship with alcohol long term.
How to make Dry January easier
There’s no right or wrong way to do Dry January. Nelson says some people do better with going cold turkey on January 1, while others need a few days to work their way to abstinence.
“Each person should consider how they have successfully changed behaviours in the past and follow that regime. If you’re an individual who has not been very successful in making behaviour changes in the past, you might want to try a different way,” she says.
Here are some ways to make Dry January a little easier:
Sipping on something can be a fun way to still enjoy social situations. Just change what’s in your glass. There are now lots of flavoured alcohol substitutes that let you dream up some interesting alcohol-free cocktails. Also, try soda water with fresh fruit, juice, or other flavourings.
Sip on Non-Alcoholic Beer and Wine
Also on your side are the growing numbers of surprisingly good low alcohol beverages. Even some of your favourite brands, like Heineken and Heaps Normal are brewing an alcohol-free alternative.
Get Your Mind Off Drinking
Removing the temptation to drink is essential for some people, Nelson says. That might mean removing alcohol from your home or avoiding bars, nightclubs, or other settings where drinking is common.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Nelson adds.
Focus on your hobbies, exercise more, and surround yourself with supportive folks who will cheer you on. And, if you do end up drinking a little in January, don’t worry: just start Dry January again tomorrow.
If you find yourself really struggling with Dry January and feel like you need some extra help to stop drinking, seek professional help or contact the Alcohol and Drug Foundation: adf.org.au