Dry January Brings on Benefits That Last More than One Month

mid adult male road biker enjoying water break are their benefits to dry january
Benefits of Dry January Last Longer Than a MonthAzmanJaka - Getty Images

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Every year, with the best intentions, we set new goals. We vow to make smart lifestyle changes and ring in the new year with a fresh start. One of the most popular ways to kick off a year of healthy habits: “dry January,” which involves avoiding alcohol for the entire month.

Ditching alcohol, at least for a little while, is always a smart choice, especially considering a recent survey conducted on Bicycling’s Instagram found that 52 percent of respondents said alcohol is a prominent part of cycling culture, while 44 percent consider themselves to be regular drinkers. At least one study also shows that athletes tend to imbibe more than their peers.

With alcohol so ingrained in our lifestyles, sometimes taking a break helps us reassess our relationship with drinking and stopping might reveal some surprising benefits that go beyond that cursed hangover.

To help you understand why dry January or giving up booze for any extended period of time might benefit athletes, Bicycling spoke with medical experts to learn what you gain from ditching that postride brew for a month—or more.

4 Ways You Benefit from Dry January

1. Improved postworkout recovery

Your body needs a healthy dose of inflammation in order to bring healing and growth factors to muscles so they can repair after a workout, says Christine Marschilok, M.D., director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship Program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital tells Bicycling. However, “alcohol changes the balance of the normal inflammation process that occurs after exercise,” she says.

When you exercise, you stress your muscles, creating micro tears. As your body repairs those micro tears, inflammation increases. When you drink, the alcohol interferes with that process, slowing down your recovery. What’s more, alcohol causes oxidative stress and interrupts protein synthesis, which messes with your ability to build muscle. “We often see muscle atrophy in folks who use alcohol chronically,” Marschilok says.

While some people think beer is a great postride recovery beverage—it has carbohydrates after all—alcohol actually decreases glycogen stores, because your body needs the extra energy to break down the booze. “When the body doesn’t need to use glucose for energy, it stores it in the liver and muscles,” Marschilok explains. This stored form is called glycogen, and your body calls on it for fuel when you exercise. But if you had a night of heavy drinking, and your body used that fuel to metabolize alcohol, then you won’t have the energy you need to perform.

Considering how you feel the morning after drinking, you probably know alcohol is also very dehydrating. If you’re already dehydrated after working out, and then drinking alcohol, you’ll further deplete your fluid and decrease your body’s ability to bring nutrients to your injured muscles for recovery, Marschilok says.

On the flip side, when you stop drinking, you body can carry on its normal processes, like repairing and rebuilding muscles and allowing your body to maintain the glycogen and fluid it needs to recover and perform again the next day.

2. Better sleep

Ditching that evening glass of wine or beer can have a positive influence on your sleep, which in turn, can lead to better performance on the bike, says Akhil Anand, M.D., an addiction psychiatrist who runs an inpatient alcohol detox unit and also does outpatient treatment for alcohol addiction at the Cleveland Clinic. Even if you think alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it won’t help you stay asleep, Anand explains.

Marschilok echos that alcohol impairs sleep, particularly your REM sleep, which you need for healthy brain development and emotional processing, according to the Sleep Foundation. “Quality sleep is incredibly important for healing and recovery,” Marschilok says.

The problem with having alcohol before bed is that our body metabolizes alcohol with time and so the amount of alcohol in our system decreases throughout the night. Changes in the sedating effect of booze can affect sleep, Marschilok says, which is why you might feel tired enough to pass out at 11 p.m. but then wake up at 4 a.m. and multiple times after.

Also, alcohol and its metabolites (or substances created during the breakdown of alcohol) can affect the neurochemical known as milieu, as well as the types of brain waves you experience during sleep that help you reach different stages of shut-eye. “This will affect your sleep architecture, often leading to decreased REM sleep, especially in the first half of the night,” Marschilok explains.

Ditching those nightly drinks allows your body to get quality rest and the stages of sleep that help you recover properly, so you’re ready to ride tomorrow. Even a few drinks can lead to anxiousness, irritability, and that “hangxiety” (or alcohol-induced anxiety) feeling the next day, which are likely a result of poor sleep quality, Anand says. So cutting back altogether, like you do in dry January, will give you the most benefit.

Hilary Sheinbaum, author of The Dry Challenge, who has been doing the dry January challenge since 2016, says she typically notices changes in her sleep after eight to 10 days without alcohol. “Instead of sleeping four to five hours each night, I sleep seven to eight, and as anyone who gets a full night’s rest knows, my mood and everything else in life is more upbeat and feels so much better,” she says.

3. Boosted mood and motivation

Motivation tends to feels low when we’re not feeling our best or riding on minimal sleep. But motivation is especially important when it comes to the demands of cycling—and life tasks in general. “While winter is usually pretty gloomy, when taking a break from alcohol for dry January, my mood is so much more elevated,” which makes sense because alcohol is a depressant, Sheinbaum says.

Beyond boosting your mood, a real benefit of eliminating alcohol is that oftentimes, people use drinking to self-medicate mental health conditions, Marschilok says. Eliminating alcohol use as a less productive coping mechanism can allow for more productive management of those issues.

Anand agrees, saying he sees improved mood and boosted self-confidence with patients who give up drinking. He also says it’s an opportunity for those who aren’t drinking to further their personal growth with new hobbies and learning new skills.

Sheinbaum says she experiences less anxiety and more productivity, too. “Without alcohol, my mind doesn’t suffer from the fog booze causes, and I can focus much better. Ideas come easier and I can work faster and figure things out more clearly,” she says.

4. Enhanced overall health

Research backs up the benefits of dry January and ditching alcohol even for just a month. In a study published in BMJ Open in 2018, researchers tracked 94 participants who considered themselves moderate to heavy drinkers (meaning they drank, on average, 2.5 drinks a day) and chose to remain abstinent from alcohol for a month, and 47 participants who didn’t change their drinking habits for the month.

At the end of one month, those who didn’t consume alcohol showed positive change in insulin resistance, lowering risk for type 2 diabetes. The non-drinkers also experienced weight loss, lower blood pressure, and improvements in liver function tests.

Participants didn’t make other lifestyle changes besides ditching booze, so diet, exercise, or smoking habits stayed the same. What’s more: The control group saw none of these improvements. This proves that even a month without drinking goes a long way in improving your overall health picture.

Perhaps what’s most interesting, though, is that at six to eight months after the initial study, the abstinence group maintained a decrease in their overall consumption of alcohol.

“I, like many other people who do dry January, end up drinking less in the months that follow,” says Sheinbaum. This has the potential to bring on even more positive changes.

5 Tips for a Successful Dry January

Ditching drinking can seem difficult—that’s why they call it a “challenge.” But a few tips, from Sheinbaum, will help keep your motivation up during dry January, or any period of time you want to abstain from alcohol:

1. Recruit a friend

Find an accountability partner to do the dry challenge with you. You’ll have someone to vent to if you’re getting peer pressure to drink and you can plan outings sans alcohol together. There’s strength in numbers.

2. Plan activities that don’t involve drinking

Think of it as having a new opportunity and more time to do activities you’ve always wanted to try but felt like you couldn’t squeeze into your schedule. For example, take a new yoga class, go for longer rides, test out rock climbing, or pick up an instrument you’ve been meaning to learn to play.

3. Opt for non-alcoholic drinks

There’s a wide selection of alcohol-removed wine, beer, and mocktails, giving you the option to have something that feels special, without the negative effects.

4. Be kind to yourself

It’s easy to get frustrated and give up because drinking can be a part of our culture–birthdays, celebrations, mourning, and sports games often involve alcohol. Remember the point of dry January isn’t to be perfect, but to evaluate and reevaluate your relationship with alcohol. So if you slip up, don’t get upset with yourself. As long as you’re cutting down, that’s a win!

5. Reward yourself

Making a lifestyle change for 31 days is an accomplishment! You probably saved money not buying alcohol for a month, so treat yourself to something special to commemorate your dry January.

The Bottom Line on the Downsides of Booze

As shown, skipping out on alcohol for a month can bring on major benefits. But even just moderate drinking, when it’s not dry January, can lead to problems. For example, Anand says that alcohol affects every organ in the body, from the liver to the skin.

Heavy drinking can also do serious damage to your heart, as Anand says it can cause dilated cardiomyopathy—essentially a fatty heart, which impacts the muscle’s ability to efficiently pump blood throughout the body. It can also stiffen arteries, which causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and can negatively affect blood flow.

Even small amounts of alcohol can cause damage to your body. If you’re consuming more than the recommended CDC guidelines of one drink per day for women, and two drinks a day for men, you’re increasing the likelihood of experiencing alcohol’s ill effects. But by abstaining from booze for a period of 31 days (a.k.a. taking on dry January)—or longer—you might be able to reverse some of the damage.

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