Dry January, as in ditching alcohol in the first month of the new year, is an annual tradition for many people. For some, it’s part of a New Year’s resolution to drink less, while others claim it’s a way to "detox" from excessive drinking over the holidays.
Participating in Dry January might be especially appealing after the isolation, stress, and loneliness of 2020. A lot of people report drinking more than usual, and evidence suggests people are using alcohol to help cope with stress caused by the pandemic. Perhaps you’re one of them, and would like to kick off 2021 by intentionally not using alcohol to cope for a period of time.
At SELF, we’re not usually fans of fad diets or gimmicky health changes that may not be sustainable for the long haul. That’s because any type of deprivation with an expiration date tends to not have a lot of benefits once it’s over (if at all). But, as far as wellness trends go, Dry January seems pretty harmless—in fact, taking a one-month hiatus from drinking could actually do really great things for your well-being. You’ll get the most out of Dry January, however, if you use the month as a chance to reassess (and possibly adjust) your drinking habits and relationship with alcohol after the month is up—as opposed to a license to drink as much as you want the rest of the year. With that in mind, let’s talk about what Dry January might look like for you.
First, consider how much you’re actually drinking these days.
In most cases, the benefits of Dry January will depend on what your baseline drinking behaviors are, George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells SELF. Someone who drinks occasionally probably won't notice as much of a difference as someone who has four or five drinks in one night—several nights a week. So, for our purposes, let's assume we're talking about someone who drinks more than what's considered "moderate," which actually depends on who's defining "moderate."
The NIAAA uses the USDA Dietary Guidelines to define moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking, according to the NIAAA, means consuming more than three drinks in a day for women or more than four drinks for men. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a slightly different definition, describing heavy alcohol use as binge drinking (four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on the same occasion) on at least five days in the past month, the NIAAA explains. So if your drinking habits are closer to “heavy” than “moderate,” per these guidelines, keep in mind that this transition may be a bit harder for you than someone else.
You should also be careful—and possibly give your doctor a heads up—before abruptly stopping drinking if you've been drinking heavily. Whenever you go cold turkey after heavily drinking regularly, it’s possible to experience mild-to-moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that feel like a nasty extended hangover, such as anxiety, irritability, nausea, fatigue, headache, and shakiness, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. (People with a history of heavy drinking may be at risk of a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, which is why alcohol-dependent individuals often need medical support to stop drinking.) And if you’re someone with a higher risk of seizures, you need to touch base with your doctor and be especially cautious. "Most people are going to think of it like a hangover, but if you have a predisposition to seizures or you're on seizure medication, abruptly stopping alcohol could trigger a seizure," says Koob.
Why people do Dry January, and the health benefits you can reasonably expect
1. Your general health may improve.
It’s not news to anyone that excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to several negative health effects, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. “Excessive drinking also impairs your sleeping patterns and increases the risk for certain diseases, including breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and liver problems,” she says. (Read more about the negative health effects of drinking too much alcohol over the short- and long-term at the NIAAA.)
Even though abstaining for one month won’t treat or prevent long-term health issues, it likely couldn’t hurt as far as your health is concerned. While we don't know exactly what lasting effect (if any) Dry January will have on your health, it's reasonable to assume that abstaining from drinking is generally good for your overall health—as long as you don't use this hiatus as an excuse to drink heavily during the other 11 months of the year. When it comes to your liver, for instance, we do know that alcohol puts metabolic stress on the liver and that about half of all liver disease deaths are from alcoholic liver disease, says Koob. Given the increasing incidence of millennials dying from alcohol-related liver diseases, taking a load off this vital organ certainly isn't the worst idea.
And while there aren’t many large, rigorous studies on the health effects of short-term abstinence, there is some evidence that one month off drinking can lead to health benefits, at least temporarily and in the near-term. In one observational study, published in the British Medical Journal in 2018, researchers tracked 94 healthy moderate-to-heavy drinkers who abstained from alcohol for one month and found improvements in various health markers like blood pressure, liver function tests, insulin resistance, and molecules that play a role in cancer growth. (The authors point out, however, that these short-term findings do not establish lasting health effects from one month of abstinence, and that one month off drinking doesn’t “refresh” your liver.)
Then, there's also the fact that more and more women are ending up in the emergency room from alcohol-related causes, which means that cutting back on alcohol (or cutting it out completely) may lower your risk of an acute health emergency as well.
2. You’ll see how your body feels without booze.
"The biggest benefit is learning where your body is in relation to alcohol and what you want your relationship with it to be," says Koob. If, for instance, you've been feeling not your best lately and you suspect that your regular (or excessive) drinking habits might be contributing to that, it could be helpful to see how you're feeling (mentally, physically, socially, etc.) when you don't have booze for a month.
“For some people, it can be a great way to hit the reset button and get their systems back on track,” New York–based registered dietitian Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., tells SELF. “It's not a bad idea, especially if you are trying to cut down on your drinking.”
3. You might sleep better and feel more energized.
Dry January may also be good for your sleep and energy levels, which in turn have their own positive effects. “It may help you feel more clear-headed and experience better sleep along with regular digestion,” Cording says. “This can help you feel more energetic and stay motivated to get in your workouts and stick to overall healthy eating habits.”
And the sheer fact that you're not staying up late drinking most nights can lead to sleeping more and skipping workouts less. All of that can impact how productive you are, how focused you are at work, and how you feel overall, says Koob—a kind of snowball effect.
4. Your immune system may be in better shape.
Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, according to the NIAAA. According to Koob, being intoxicated can acutely suppress immune function, making you more vulnerable to pathogens, while chronic drinking can lead to inflammatory reactions throughout the body. Even one night of heavy drinking can impede your ability to fight off infections up to 24 hours later, per the NIAAA. (And while being more vulnerable to getting sick is never good, it’s especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Kenneth Leonard, Ph.D., director of Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at SUNY University at Buffalo, told SELF earlier this year.)
What’s more, those positive behavior changes we mentioned above—like eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly—are healthy habits that can support your immune system in the long term, as SELF has previously reported.
5. If weight loss is a goal of yours, cutting back on drinking may help.
First, it's important to note that cutting calories with weight loss as a goal isn't necessarily the right choice for everyone, because the relationship between weight and health is more complicated than that (and weight-loss diets generally don’t work in the long term).
With that being said, if you're having several drinks a week, one result of Dry January could be a decrease in your overall caloric intake, since a standard drink typically has around 150 calories, says Koob. And unlike, say, cutting out a certain food group or restricting caloric intake from food, cutting alcohol is not going to compromise on any of the fuel and nutrients your body needs to feel satiated and nourished.
"Alcohol contributes calories but doesn't make us feel more satisfied—it often amps up hunger,” Cording explains. And, of course, its ability to impair your judgment may lead you to make impulsive food choices that sound great in the moment—like ordering enough takeout for three, for example—but can make you eat way past the point of fullness and/or feel kinda crappy the next day. (If you’ve ever suffered from a sugar hangover and an alcohol hangover at the same time, for instance, you know exactly what we’re talking about.)
6. You might reevaluate your relationship with alcohol.
Once Dry January is over, check in with yourself to see how the experiment went and what that might mean for your drinking habits going forward. Here are the kinds of questions you might pose to yourself: Do you feel better? Healthier? More productive? Not as different as you thought you might? Have your sleep, mood, or exercise patterns changed? Have you saved money? Do you have a newfound appreciation for the ritual of having a glass of red with dinner? Maybe you've found that you're more energized without all those hangovers, or you're less anxious after a night of drinking. Or, hey—maybe you've found that you basically feel the same and just miss the social aspects of drinking with friends over a Zoom happy hour. All of these are helpful takeaways to consider after your experiment.
Bottom line: Dry January can have some great health benefits if you go about it the right way.
Obviously, it doesn't hurt to participate in Dry January. But you'll reap the most health benefits if you think of it as a springboard to revisit your overall relationship with alcohol. Again, ditching alcohol for a month and then resuming your usual drinking habits isn’t going to do much for your long-term health if you tend to overdo it when it’s not Dry January. “This isn’t a great pattern: binge/abstain, binge/abstain,” Dr. Wider says. “Just like other substances, alcohol in excess has health consequences, regardless of whether you go dry for a month.” That's why she says it’s better for your overall health to be a moderate drinker in general—rather than going from one extreme to the other.
So after Dry January is over, use what you’ve learned about your relationship to drinking to inform how you approach it moving forward. "Learn from the experience," says Koob. "What is your relationship with alcohol, and where do you want to be?" Cording agrees. “This is a great time to think about what a realistic amount of alcohol is for your lifestyle,” she says. “Think about how to fit it in in a way that feels balanced.”
One more thing to keep in mind as you wrap up Dry January: Your tolerance to alcohol's effects will often be lower after a month without drinking, Koob says, so be careful not to overdo it the first time you have a drink again.
If you're thinking about cutting back on alcohol beyond January or interested in reevaluating your relationship with alcohol, here are some related stories that you might find useful or thought-provoking.
And you can find more information about cutting back on drinking—or giving it up altogether—at the NIAAA. Their Rethinking Drinking site is full of resources to support people who are re-examining their relationship with alcohol—whether you’re not quite ready to make a change yet, still deciding whether to quit or cut back, or ready to make an action plan.
Originally Appeared on SELF