Pandemic boozing either makes Dry January sound like a really good idea or a really painful one. Either way, it’s likely you won’t be alone if you attempt it.
With the last 10 years, Dry January has gained traction as a resolution. And we’re betting it won’t slip too far down the resolution list this year, since alcohol sales soared when the pandemic first broke out, and many of us are drinking more than we did before.
The concept of Dry January is straightforward: Give up booze for the entire first month of the year. And yes, January is a month with 31 days, so no getting off easy at a nice, round 30.
There are health benefits associated with Dry January—and there’s also this: Lots of experts have issues with the quit-alcohol-all-at-once approach. If you’ve moved your alcohol consumption up to three or four drinks a night, experts warn against going cold turkey. If that sounds like you, try cutting back first to avoid potentially serious withdrawal issues. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has some useful strategies for cutting back. If those don’t feel right for you, consider getting professional help, which is often only a phone call away via teletherapy.
So is this the ultimate year to do Dry January? That depends. Dry January might be harder to do this year, if your office is your happy hour space is your relax-and-Zoom-with-friends space is right next to the refrigerator or bar cabinet where those drinks live. On the other hand, it might be easier without the vibrant bar scenes of yore tempting you to have a cold one (and another, and another) and friends rolling their eyes at your Dry January resolution.
If you’re going try Dry January, here’s what to know about what it can do for your body—and how to make it just a little easier.
First, What Is Dry January?
Created by UK-based nonprofit Alcohol Change UK, the first official “Dry January” began in 2013. That year, more than 4,300 people pledged not to drink any alcohol for the month. And yes, “dry” means abstaining from alcohol for a month—no cheat days.
In 2017, that number spiked to more than 5 million, with the enthusiasm for the campaign spilling into the United States. Dry January participants claim that giving up drinking for one month can reverse the negative health impacts of regular drinking, like fatty liver disease and elevated blood sugar. They also champion that not drinking can improve sleep and enhance energy.
How Alcohol Affects Your Body
Your body breaks down alcohol via a number of organs, including your stomach and pancreas, but your liver bears the biggest burden of turning alcohol into less damaging forms.
Through that breakdown process, the toxic byproducts from alcohol may lead to inflammation in your pancreas, which could potentially harm your insulin-producing cells and impair your fat metabolism.
Constantly living in the drink/repeat cycle may also lead to fatty liver, a silent disease that’s relatively benign in its early stages, although more research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms. (Your liver isn’t the only thing at risk: drinking too much can damage your entire body, including your heart, skin, penis, and muscles.)
Even though fatty liver is common in those who drink at or above the guidelines (“moderate” is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men), there is evidence that it’s reversible when you abstain from alcohol or even drink less, says Rotonya Carr, M.D., hepatologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
With continued drinking, about a third of people with fatty liver go on to develop alcoholic hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, which eventually leads to scarring and the life-threatening condition of cirrhosis in 10 to 20 percent of people. Even in these advanced stages, research suggests that giving up alcohol can reverse scarring and improve the chance of survival.
“The liver is a very forgiving organ,” adds Dr. Carr, “it can heal itself when the insult, in this case alcohol, goes away.”
So, does Dry January erase all those nights of drinking?
Not quite. It’s going to take more than one month to completely heal your liver and the rest of your body, points out Aaron White, Ph.D., senior scientist at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“But taking a month off from drinking is never a bad idea, and is a great time to evaluate your relationship with alcohol,” says White.
Dry January Benefits
Which of the supposed benefits of Dry January really holds up under scrutiny?
Dry January helps you sleep better.
True! Anecdotally, people often credit alcohol with helping them sleep. However, a review of studies in 2013 found that alcohol may help people fall asleep quicker and sleep more deeply during the initial stages of sleep, but is likely to disrupt sleep later in the night.
“Alcohol on the whole is not useful for improving a whole night’s sleep. Sleep may be deeper to start with, but then becomes disrupted,” study co-author Chris Idzikowski, Ph.D., and sleep specialist, said in a statement. “Additionally, that deeper sleep will probably promote snoring and poorer breathing. So, one shouldn’t expect better sleep with alcohol.”
Dry January helps you drink less the rest of the year.
Also true! It sounds weird, but you may not realize how often or how much alcohol your drink until aren’t drinking it.
While drinking in moderation isn’t all bad — and is, in fact, associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and death — taking a month off may help you drink less throughout 2021. In fact, a 2016 study of adults who participated in Dry January found that up to six months later, they were drinking on fewer occasions and drank less when they did imbibe.
Making Dry January Easier
Some men find it hard to change the habit of having a drink in their hand at 6PM, so they first change what’s in their glass. Fortunately, there are now lots of flavored alcohol substitutes that let you dream up some really interesting alcohol-free cocktails. These would include products like Kin and Seedlip.
Also on your side are the growing numbers of surprisingly good non-alcoholic beers. Check out the ones that passed our taste test here.
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