It’s pretty typical to kick off January with the best of health intentions, whether it be a goal to eliminate sugar from your diet or to work out more. But for some, the commitment to better health means nixing alcohol for 31 days as a way to reset their drinking habits, change their relationship with alcohol, and just feel better as a whole. Otherwise known as “Dry January,” the trend began in 2013 in England, but has become more commonplace in the United States.
But are there really Dry January health benefits?
“While there's nothing wrong with an occasional adult beverage, and even one drink per day doesn't necessarily signal a problem, forgoing alcohol every once in a while can only do your body good, especially after a particularly indulgent period like the holidays,” says Barbie Boules, R.D.N., founder of Nyoutrition.
Excessive drinking and/or binge drinking can definitely take a toll on your body in the long run. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking too much can cause several health issues, including high blood pressure, mood disruption, increased risk of cancer, and a compromised immune system.
Dry January is not a solution for people who have dependency issues. As the British Journal Of General Practice noted in a 2016 report: “Instead, it’s aimed at the huge numbers of people who are steadily drinking alcohol a bit too much, too often, (exceeding recommended guidelines of alcohol consumption) without realizing the effect it may be having on their health.”
Thinking of taking the plunge for the first month of 2019? Here are some of the health benefits you could expect if you cut out alcohol.
Your body will respond.
A 2015 study by the University of Sussex and Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School found that participants who stopped drinking over a five-week period saw an average 15 percent drop in liver fat — known for leading to liver damage — as well as improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels, according to Medical Daily.
“What you have is a pretty average group of British people who would not consider themselves heavy drinkers, yet stopping drinking for a month alters liver fat, cholesterol, and blood sugar, and helps them lose weight,” Kevin Moore, an experiment consultant, told the publication. "If someone had a health product that did all that in one month, they would be raking it in."
You will drop extra pounds.
Boules notes that the empty calories in alcohol can add up quickly and, therefore, cutting alcohol can lead to weight loss. “I've had several clients who dropped those last stubborn five pounds in one month just by abstaining from their nightly cocktail or glass of wine,” she says.
You’ll sleep better.
“A dry period could also be in order if you have several drinks a week and are experiencing poor sleep,” Boules says. “Alcohol seriously interferes with quality sleep, especially if consumed right before bed.”
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. writes for Psychology Today that while many people rely on alcohol to fall asleep, it actually does quite the opposite, acting instead as a major disruptor to the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
“Circadian rhythms regulate nearly all of the body’s processes, from metabolism and immunity to energy, sleep, and sexual drive, cognitive functions and mood,” Breus writes. “In the body, alcohol disrupts circadian functioning, directly interfering with the ability of the master biological clock to synchronize itself.”
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You’ll become more aware of your habits.
Boules says that eliminating alcohol for a month can also help you to notice a pattern of harmless behaviors related to drinking.
“If you notice that you're drinking more than usual, or that a drink has become a mindless habit rather than something to be savored and enjoyed, then taking a break could reset your impulse,” Boules says.
After completing Dry January during the University of Sussex study, participants were drinking less, drinking less often, and not getting drunk as much, according to psychologist Dr. Richard de Visser, perhaps the result of the time they had to assess their alcohol consumption habits.
“What’s really interesting to see is that these changes in alcohol consumption were also seen in the participants who didn’t complete the whole month alcohol-free,” Visser said. “Even if participants took part but didn’t successfully complete the 31 days, it generally led to a significant decrease across all the measures of alcohol intake.”
Your mood will improve.
“Alcohol makes us feel good in the moment because it gets the happy hormones pumping,” Boules says. “But, in truth, especially if consumed regularly, alcohol is a depressant.”
In fact, Drinkaware notes that it doesn’t matter how good you feel upon first consuming alcohol, continuing to imbibe can lead to a negative emotional response, including anger, aggression, depression, and anxiety long term.
While Boules says you may feel your mood lighten and energy improve as a result of abstaining from alcohol for a period of time, it’s important to note that a Dry January challenge is not a solution to treating clinical depression or other mental health conditions.