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The health benefits of Dry January: Why you should try a break from alcohol

Dry January has become a post-holiday tradition as people start the new year focusing on their health after weeks of drinking and overeating.

The campaign to skip alcohol for a month fits right into expert advice: No level of alcohol consumption is safe for health, the World Health Organization warns, so abstaining is the healthiest option.

Still, Americans keep drinking, with women's alcohol habits of particular concern.

Alcohol is still killing more men, but more women in the U.S. are drinking themselves to death, according to a study published in July 2023.

Women have increased their alcohol consumption at a higher rate than men, particularly their heavy drinking days — those when they have four or more drinks within a couple hours, Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist in the division of alcohol, drugs and addiction at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, previously told TODAY.com.

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So experts say a break from alcohol can make a big difference.

"Trying a period of sobriety such as Dry January can be very positive," Dr. James C. Garbutt, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina, tells TODAY.com.

What is Dry January?

Dry January is a month when many people voluntarily stop drinking alcohol after the excesses of December and start the new year on a sober, clearer, more refreshed and healthy note.

About 41% of U.S. adults surveyed intended to take part in Dry January 2023, though only 16% actually managed to abstain from alcohol all month, according to CivicScience, an opinion analytics platform, which followed up with them at the end of that period.

If you’re asking why you should face the world without a sip of wine, beer or spirits for a month — especially during the coldest, darkest, dreariest time of the year — there are some compelling health reasons to do it.

Why do people do a dry month?

“It’s a kind of self-diagnosis of how important alcohol really is to you,” Sharon Wilsnack, an expert on drinking behavior in women and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota, tells TODAY.com.

“Can you go a week or can you go a month without any alcohol? And if you can’t, why not? What is it that’s driving your need for alcohol?”

Dry January lets people “sample sobriety” without being overwhelmed by the concept of skipping alcohol forever, Garbutt notes.

“Sometimes, within four weeks people will say, ‘I’m sleeping better, and I feel less irritable and less anxious. I like this; maybe I’ll just keep this going for a while longer.’”

Alcohol is not ‘benign’

Dry January began in 2012 as an initiative by Alcohol Change UK, a British charity, to “ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days.”

Millions of people now take part in the challenge, with more Americans taking notice each year.

The growing awareness comes as experts say the notion that drinking may somehow improve health is misguided.

In fact, alcohol consumption is a leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to a 2022 study published in JAMA Network Open.

“Alcohol is not completely benign, but people want to forget that,” Garbutt noted.

Women may be especially vulnerable, yet they are drinking more than before.

“Alcohol use is increasing among women in the United States at a time when it’s decreasing among men,” Aaron White, a biological psychologist and senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, previously told TODAY.com.

Drinking too much alcohol is a serious health issue for women

Women are at greater risk for some of the negative effects of booze.

Biological sex differences mean women’s bodies absorb more alcohol than men’s and take longer to break it down.

Alcohol increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast among women, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. Women who drink are also more vulnerable to brain and heart damage than men. Their risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher than for men.

Drinking is such a big factor that the CDC has listed limiting alcohol intake as one of its four “totally doable New Year's resolutions” that will reduce the risk breast cancer.

Benefits of giving up booze for a month

Even a brief break can make a difference.

Regular drinkers who abstained from alcohol for just one month were found to have a “rapid decrease” in certain chemical messengers in the blood that are associated with cancer progression, a study found. The participants also saw improvements in their insulin resistance, weight and blood pressure.

Almost three-quarters — 71% — of people who took part in Dry January said they slept better and 67% had more energy, according to a University of Sussex study. More than half, 58%, lost weight and 54% reported better skin.

People have a sense of achievement and they feel better and mentally sharper, said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Heavy drinkers who take a break might also notice they have less heartburn and reflux, feel less irritable and anxious, and have fewer headaches, Garbutt notes.

He and Wilsnack caution a 30-day abstinence from alcohol won’t erase the damage years of heavy drinking can do.

“But if women are more vulnerable, which I think they are, then when they cut back, they should see proportionally a greater gain in those health consequences. ... But I would recommend it for both women and men. It’s a good idea,” Wilsnack says.

Dry January tips: How to stay motivated

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie has called it “dryish January” — a little more dry than December. The goal is to consciously drink less even if you don’t give up alcohol altogether.

Find a substitute to drink: Fill your wine glass with water that's infused with fruit or flavored sparkling water.

Cultivate a new way to cope in social settings: Delay and distract, or walk out of the room and do some breathing exercises — maybe you won't need the drink anymore. Remember, it's easier than ever to socialize without booze: The "sober-curious" trend has prompted alcohol-free bars and events to pop up across the country. Companies are also offering more non-alcoholic beverages.

Create a strong support network: Let friends and loved ones encourage you, keep you accountable and perhaps do the challenge with you.

Write about it: Wilsnack advised journaling during Dry January to help you see patterns: When did you have the strongest urges to drink? When did you miss it the most?

If you vow to make it through the month booze-free and still end up having a drink at a party or with dinner, don’t feel like you’re a failure and don’t get too down on yourself, Garbutt says. But if you’ve noticed you’re drinking more frequently and the amount is increasing over time, think about exploring that, he adds. Perhaps try another “dry” month.

“If you can’t even make it through a week without saying, ‘I’m going crazy; where is my wine when I get home from work?’ then that seems to me a red flag that you may be developing a dependence on alcohol,” Wilsnack says. That’s when it may be time to talk with your doctor.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com