Why Dry January Can Have Huge Health Benefits
If you haven’t heard of “Dry January” before, you may wonder what in the world it means.
Quite simply, it means abstaining from any alcoholic drinks for the first month of the year. Whether it’s a glass of wine with dinner, a couple of beers after work, or a celebration cocktail, more and more people are volunteering to take a break from booze for a full 31 days.
This is a new tradition for some to learn how to “reset their relationship with alcohol” and an annual “detox” for others after perhaps overindulging a bit in December. But does this short-term change really have any notable benefits? Are there any Dry January benefits? After all, we wouldn’t advocate for a short-term diet over a long-term lifestyle change and expect real, lasting results.
Why Dry January?
As the New Year rolls around, folks have a wide range of resolutions. Along with cutting out sugar (and often, carbs in general), cutting down on booze is often a biggie.
Dry January as most people know it comes to us from the United Kingdom. It began there as a public health campaign to encourage folks to drink less, and it was started by the charity Alcohol Change UK in mid-2013 with Public Health England getting onboard for the 2015 campaign. It continues to gain traction every year, and an estimated 4.2 million intend to take part this upcoming January.
The goal of Alcohol Change UK is to help reduce alcohol harm—including poverty, health issues, mental disorders, and homelessness—rather than to boycott alcohol or shame people who choose to drink. 1
But giving up booze for the month actually has older roots. For example, the Finnish government launched its Raitis tammikuu, or “Sober January” campaign, as part of the war effort against the Soviet Union in 1942. 2
Australia launched a Dry July in 2008 to raise funds for cancer organizations. And Dry January is now a growing trend in numerous countries, including the United States. According to YouGov, 1 in 5 Americans are planning on participating in Dry January with another 21% saying it’s a good idea. 3
To be clear, Dry January is meant for people who think they are regularly drinking too much, too often, without realizing it may harm their health. It is not designed for those who have dependency issues, alcohol use disorder, alcoholism, or who consume five to eight drinks or more per day who likely need much stronger support and probably need to work with a health-care practitioner as quitting on their own may be dangerous due to serious withdrawal symptoms. 4
Are There Any Notable Benefits of Dry January?
Not surprisingly, there has been some controversy over how effective or beneficial it is to give up drinking for a single month. Is that long enough to make a real difference?
Perhaps the most significant Dry January benefit is that, unlike a short-term diet that often leads people to binging after they’ve decided to no longer restrict their diets, when a survey was done a full 6 months after the first official Dry January, it was discovered that 72% of the participants had “kept harmful drinking episodes down” while 4% had given up drinking the entire time.
In addition, according to Alcohol Change UK, 5 Dry January can help:
- Reset your relationship with alcohol and remind you that you don’t need booze to have fun, be social, or relax
- Learn about life without alcohol
- Develop new hobbies
- Reduce problematic drinking 6
- Enhance the capacity to say no to a drink 6
- Improve well-being
- Improve mood
- Increase focus
- Increase self-assurance
- Improve skin and hair health and appearance 4
- Increase energy levels (according to 66% of participants) 7
- Lower blood pressure 8
- Improve insulin resistance 8
- Lower glucose levels 4
- Reduce diabetes risk
- Lower cholesterol
- Reduce liver fat 4 (up to 40% in some people) and improve liver function 8
- Reduce levels of cancer-related proteins in the blood 8
- Save money (86 to 88% of the participants last year spent less) 7
- Sleep better (71% of participants reported sleeping better) 7
- Lose weight (54 to 58% of participants have reported losing weight) 7, 8
- Have greater control of your drinking (according to 81% of participants) 7, 9
- Improve concentration (according to 67% of participants) 7
- Improve overall health (according to 65% of participants) 7
- Build stronger immunity 10
- Have 0 hangovers!
- Drink more healthfully the rest of the year (72% participants have reported continuing to drink less even 6 months later) 8, 9
- Enhance the confidence to continue to refuse booze after the month of January 4
- Provide a sense of achievement (as it did with 93% of participants) 7
Of course, when you make any lifestyle change, it helps to have support, and Alcohol Change UK offers a free app to keep track of the benefits of a Dry January, including calories and money saved. Those who sign up to receive support are two times more likely to succeed than those who go it alone. 7 This perhaps explains why registrations for Dry January have increased by 15-fold in the first 4 years. 7
What About After the Month Is Done?
The benefits of a Dry January are compelling, but what happens after the month is done? You certainly don’t want to slide into a free-for-all February. After all, the real benefits come from cutting down your drinking over the long haul. Simply put, cutting out alcohol for only one month will have only short-term benefits.
Fortunately, much of the research found that “Dry January is unlikely to result in undesirable rebound effects.” 5,7
Research from the University of Sussex reported, for example, that Dry January participants drank fewer days per week (4.3 down to 3.3), consumed fewer drinks (from 8.6 units per drinking day down to 7.1), and decreased their frequency of getting drunk from 3.4 times per month down to 2.1 times per month. 7
As expert Katie Witkiewitz, who’s a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions, explains, “We know that reductions in drinking are associated with improved health and improved sleep and improved mood, and taking just a month to reduce your drinking reduces the overall pattern of consumption. By cutting it out for a month, you’ve consumed less for the year.” 11
Still, we are all individuals, and if you consider yourself an “all or nothing” type of person who will drink more after you detox, Dry January probably isn’t the right solution for you. For others, it can help them think not only about how much they drink but why they drink and whether or not they need to use other tools to relax, recharge, or relieve stress.
Remember, anything above moderate drinking (which the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism defines as up to 7 drinks a week, with no more than 3 drinks any single day, for women, and up to 14 drinks a week, with no more than 4 drinks any single day, for men) can be harmful. And doctors from the UK recommend having no more than 14 drinks per week with at least two days without any drinking. 5
Heavy drinking has been linked to more than 60 health problems, such as liver disease, high blood pressure, depression, and several cancers, including throat, breast, and colorectal. It can also interfere with many medications you may be taking and can contribute to anxiety, depressed mood, and weight gain. 4 And harmful alcohol use leads to 3 million deaths per year with a person dying every 10 seconds due to alcohol. It’s also a factor in 80% of gender-based violence. 1
Dry January: A Wrap Up
Dry January is a starting off point. A way to break old habits, spark new habits, re-evaluate why you drink in the first place, take charge of your drinking, and discover how much better you can feel without the booze. The successful end result would be to drink less the rest of the year, including at least two dry days per week.
With or without going all-in on Dry January, setting guidelines can help you more easily cut back on the booze. For example, decide that you’ll only drink on Friday or Saturday night, or you’ll pass on the wine every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday (and even better, hit an exercise class instead).
As the experts (even those who don’t necessarily recommend abstinence) say, the less you drink, the better. Any reduction in drinking is going to be beneficial. So, whether you choose Dry January, Sober October, or another month of the year (or you decide on at least a couple of dry nights every week), you’ll be taking steps to improve your mental and physical health, mood, energy levels, and more.
Yet, with Dry January, you can rest assured you won’t be going it alone, and there’s a lot of support, including a free app. So, if you’ve been sober curious, or you’re just ready to cut back on the cocktails, now is the perfect time to get started!
*Please note, if you do have difficulty quitting drinking on your own, there is no shame at all, and there are helpful services available to you. For example, you can contact SAMHSA or call the Helpline at 1.800.662.HELP (4357), or you can reach out to your personal physician. Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength and could be the first step to regaining control of your life and your health.