Dry January: Does Abstaining from Alcohol for a Month Help as Much as Hoped

“Dry January,” the practice of abstaining from alcohol for the first month of the year, is a long-standing tradition. It typically follows a calorie-packed December, a New Year’s resolution and a healthy dose of gluttony-induced guilt.

Whatever the reason for abstaining, cutting back on alcohol is generally a positive goal as the impacts of excessive consumption are numerous.

Weight gain, high blood pressure, increased levels of blood sugar and diabetes, poor sleep and insomnia are all symptoms of too much alcohol. It can exacerbate mood and anxiety disorder and heightens the risk of certain diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, fatty liver disease, liver failure and osteoporosis. Plus, it can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Some believe that temporarily eliminating alcohol detoxifies the body and can help turn around its impacts. But is it as effective as it might appear?

Things to consider before taking part in Dry January

A single-month’s break from alcohol may not reverse the effects of years’ worth of drinking. It also does not give licence to “make up” for it by throwing back a few extra in February. From a physiological perspective, there is little to gain by going dry for one month, alone.

Instead, you might do well to consider why you wish to take a break from alcohol. Is it the calories? The discomfort felt the morning after? The potential health issues? All of the above?

Try to become aware of when, where and how much you drink. If you are drinking too frequently, are there other activities that you could do with your friends and colleagues that don’t require alcohol?

If you’re unsure of whether you are, in fact, drinking too much, consider Canada’s “Low-risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.” This document recommends no more than two drinks per day, 10 per week for women and less than three drinks per day, 15 per week for men.

The recommended limit may differ depending on your age, medical conditions or medications. Make sure to discuss what amount is considered safe for your clinical condition with your doctor.

Also, pay attention to the alcohol levels and the volume of drinks you’re having. The guidelines are based on standard drinks of 12 ounces of beer (5% alc./vol), 5 ounces of wine (12% alc./vol) or 1.5 ounces of distilled alcohol spirits (40% alc./vol), such as vodka, whiskey, etc. Keep in mind that the impacts of climate change and variations in consumer preferences have caused the alcohol content in wine to rise in recent years.

Can Dry January be good for you long term?

A study by de Visser et. al (2016) in Health Psychology looked at the correlation of the completion of planned short-term abstinence on subsequent alcohol consumption. A group of 857 British adults took part in a Dry January challenge. The authors found that participation in Dry January was related to reductions in alcohol consumption at a six-month follow-up. However, it’s possible that was due to the participants’ new awareness of what and how much they were drinking.

Other benefits of alcohol abstinence or reduction can include weight loss and improved sleep. The average alcoholic beverage has 150 calories, so eliminating liquor can be an excellent way to shed a few pounds without compromising nutrition. You may also find yourself more motivated to exercise with better sleep and improved energy.

If you did decide to take the Dry January challenge and are a heavy drinker, then you may be at risk of withdrawal. Symptoms can include tremors, nausea, vomiting, headaches, increased heart rate and seizures and can even be fatal. Be sure to talk to your doctor before abruptly stopping daily alcohol consumption. You might also consider keeping a journal tracking how much you’re drinking for a week prior to the challenge.

Refraining for a month, only to resume your regular drinking habits, is unlikely to improve your long-term health. However Dry January can yield healthy results if used as an opportunity to assess your overall relationship with alcohol and reset your health priorities in the new year.