Somewhere between Dry January and Cali Sober lies a more sustainable semi-drinking lifestyle.
In an attempt to start off a new year on the right foot, improve your health, or set and meet a goal just to prove you can, it’s tempting to jump on the Dry January bandwagon. But this year, more and more people are opting for moderation over abstinence by going “damp” — with the goal of making it a lifestyle instead of a one-month challenge. (Which usually fails anyway.)
Three years ago, Sasha Dookhoo, then 30, began to notice that drinking was affecting her differently than it used to. Her recovery time was longer and if she drank “just a tad more” than she should have, she’d feel it — and regret it ‚ the next day. She initially flirted with the idea of cutting out alcohol altogether. “But I’m a social drinker,” she says. “I had quite a few friends hitting the big 3-0 and promised I would drink to them on their birthdays.”
So she decided to strike a balance, setting a resolution to simply consume less alcohol throughout the year. As opposed to going dry, or entirely sober, setting the goal of simply drinking in moderation felt actually achievable. And it worked for her. She could still have a drink at all those 30th birthdays without feeling hungover the next day.
Dookhoo’s far from alone in forgoing the dry January bandwagon and opting for moderation over abstinence. More and more TikTok creators, like Hana Danly who’s credited for coining the term “damp lifestyle,” are sharing their experience with drinking on occasion.
“Going damp may be helpful for those who want to find a middle ground, one that would allow for consumption of alcohol in moderation,” says ob-gyn Karina Celaya, M.D., an assistant professor at Harbor UCLA Medical Center. “Other people may find going damp as a transition to going dry without the pressure to do it all at once.”
Not to mention, research shows that for some people, going cold turkey — even for one month — isn’t the most effective way to cut back on drinking. One-third of people who attempt Dry January fail to make it the whole month without a sip of alcohol.
“It’s about recognizing the reasons for and the ramifications of drinking. It’s about improving your relationship with alcohol so you maximize enjoyment and minimize negative side effects like hangovers, regrets, and anxiety.”
Ultimately, going damp is about drinking more mindfully, a term often used by those following the lifestyle. “It’s about being aware of how much alcohol you’re drinking and its impact on you in the moment,” says Ian Andersen, co-founder of Sunnyside, a tracking and coaching app focused on mindful drinking and moderation. “It’s about recognizing the reasons for and the ramifications of drinking. It’s about improving your relationship with alcohol so you maximize enjoyment and minimize negative side effects like hangovers, regrets, and anxiety.”
How Going Damp Allows Women to Strike an Ideal Balance
According to the latest data from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), American adults drink an unhealthy amount of alcohol, and the pandemic only made things worse, leading to a 41% spike in heavy drinking for women, according to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open.
That said, the case for cutting back to some degree — whether entirely or to some degree — became clear for many women. Lauren Manaker, a 43-year-old from Charleston, South Carolina, says that it was actually during COVID lockdown that she was drinking more than she “was proud to admit.”
“I was getting in the habit of pouring a glass of wine every day around 5 p.m., and if I felt stressed, I would lean on wine to help myself unwind,” she recalls. “Getting to the point where you need a drink is not OK. I wanted to get away from that feeling.”
As a registered dietician-nutritionist, she knew there were healthier ways to deal with stress than by leaning on alcohol — not to mention that drinking made her feel dehydrated. Still, she felt like “enjoying a social drink or cozy cocktail once in a while” would be OK.
“Having a glass of wine with friends at happy hour or enjoying a spicy margarita on taco Tuesday is fun and enjoyable, and many people like to ‘grab a drink’ with a friend or co-worker as a social outlet,” she points out.
For Manaker, going damp ended up creating space for her to socialize and prioritize her wellness. She’s also found that it teaches moderation and forces people to consider if they really need that second drink. “Going damp opens your eyes to how much you drink out of habit,” says Manaker, who recommends taking the time to be mindful about why you are reaching for a drink to get clear on your motivation. For instance, if you’re stressed, sipping tea might be a better choice, says Manaker. Or if you’re lonely or bored, you might call a friend and go for a walk.
Hana Danly shared in a TikTok video posted last summer that drinking less has been a major boon for her mental health, and that alone has kicked off a “domino effect.” “I have more energy, I'm sleeping more, I'm working out more, my skin's better, I'm happier, I'm more confident in social settings, etc.”
Hrishikesh Belani, M.D., Associate Medical Director of the South Los Angeles Health Center Group and advisor to Sunnyside, agrees that going damp can have a positive ripple effect on your overall health. “Benefits can be silent,” he notes. “Over time, lower intake of alcohol can reduce the risk of early aging, liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.” The pros can also be more obvious. Think: improved sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, better skin, supporting your reproductive health, and feeling better overall, says Dr. Belani.
“Going damp can significantly reduce the burden that alcohol puts on our entire body, allowing it to heal and work efficiently, as it should."
The reason: Alcohol, in any amount, affects brain and liver function, says Kavita Desai, Pharm. D., a brain health specialist and founder of female-focused health and wellness brand, Revivele.
“Going damp can significantly reduce the burden that alcohol puts on our entire body, allowing it to heal and work efficiently, as it should,” she notes. Desai has seen women who’ve chosen a damp lifestyle find that their skin glows, their gut is healing, and their thinking is more clear.
In other words, going damp ultimately ties to overall bolstered vitality, which is definitely a reason to stick with it.
How to Follow a 'Damp Lifestyle'
For women like Dookhoo and Manaker, going damp is more doable than going dry. But Desai points out that making the call between the two options is a highly personal decision and depends on your current — and ideal — relationship with alcohol.
“Each one of us is unique in our journey, and this is a good way to move towards where you ideally would like to be,” she notes.
Jill Carnahan, M.D., the Medical Director of Flatiron Functional Medicine in New York City, recommends considering whether you’re the type to stick to hard and fast rules. If so, you might find that going dry is actually more freeing and less stressful, because, as Dr. Carnahan says she’s found for herself, you’ll never have to grapple with a decision in real time. However, if you feel “overly confined and restricted” by non-negotiable boundaries, going damp can be a great option.
A few expert tips for adopting the damp lifestyle:
Reflect on Your Why
Georgia Foster, a world-renowned clinical hypnotherapist and author of Drink Less in 7 Days, recommends tracking any negative emotions that come up for you before you drink. Maybe you’re feeling tired, angry, bored, restless, or lonely.
“Over a week, you will clearly see a connection to feelings that drive you to drink when you know you don't want to,” points out Foster.
Once you’ve noted the negative, you can bring in the positive — specifically, thoughts, feelings, or memories that make you feel good such as love, laughter, or something that makes you feel safe. “Keep bringing emotions that ignite the logical, intuitive you before you drink,” suggests Foster. You’ll find you’re calmer before you drink and you’re able to curb “fast and furious fearful-based drinking.”
Commit to Alcohol-Free Days
If you tend to drink socially throughout the week, Foster encourages committing to several alcohol-free days (AFDs) per week. “It’s a beautiful way to balance weekly drinking — and also good for healthy sober sleep too,” she notes. If you’re a less frequent drinker, maybe you do a certain number of AFDs per month.
Although Dookhoo found that lots of weddings and vacations made it tough to be damp in 2021 and 2022, she’s recommitting to the lifestyle this year and, instead of AFDs, she’s committing to having just 10 drinks this year to stay damp. “While I have a few upcoming weddings and vacations, this number helps me stay accountable,” she says. “I’m in the process of mentally mapping out my ‘drink days.’”
Dr. Carnahan says switching up where you’re hanging with friends can make a world of a difference. “You may want to choose different environments, like a coffee shop instead of a nightclub or bar or different groups of friends doing something you enjoy — hiking, camping, skiing, cooking, book club, etc. — that involves other activities you find enjoyable besides just drinking alcohol,” she notes.
And if you feel like you need to have a drink in your hand at a party, find a mocktail you like or another alternative (Dr. Carnahan likes San Pellegrino in a martini glass with lime) that makes you feel like you’re still participating in the festivities even if you’re skipping alcohol that day or have reached your limit.
Be Compassionate With Yourself
If you're struggling to cut back, acknowledge that there may be underlying pain, sadness, or trauma that’s driving your substance use, suggests Dr. Carnahan. “There are healthier ways to deal with pain, but we must be compassionate with ourselves in the process,” she points out, encouraging people who are going damp (or dry) to be gentle with themselves as they’ll feel previously-numbed, painful emotions creep back in.
In times like these, she says you might spend time in nature, play with your pets, connect with friends or loved ones, meditate or engage in another spiritual practice in an effort to get connected and comforted.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail to keep your commitment,” says Dr. Carnahan. “If you are creating a new habit, it may take an average of many tries to successfully ingrain the new habit into your subconscious.”
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