Dry January is a concept that started in the United Kingdom and has been around for about a decade. Every year, it gains popularity as more and more people commit to trying to go 31 days without drinking alcohol.
That is the premise behind Dry January: to kick off the new year alcohol free–and to reap the physical and mental health benefits. But is Dry January for everybody? How can those interested in Dry January be successful? And what are the advantages of giving up alcohol for a month or longer?
As an addiction medicine physician, I see firsthand the drawbacks of excessive alcohol consumption. I encourage anyone (with just a few caveats) interested in attempting Dry January to give it a try. Here’s what to know about Dry January and some tips for abstaining from alcohol.
Who should not attempt Dry January?
Anyone with a history of significant physical withdrawal symptoms from alcohol shouldn’t attempt Dry January. That means those who have tried giving up alcohol before and experienced tremors, excessive sweating, insomnia, high anxiety and/or significant changes in blood pressure should cut back on alcohol only under close supervision of a medical professional. The same goes for people who have had seizures or have been previously hospitalized as a result of alcohol withdrawal.
Do I have to be completely alcohol-free to participate in Dry January?
Dry January means completely abstaining from alcohol during the month of January. This might work well for some, but others may prefer a more gradual approach. Dubbed Damp January, this initiative focuses on drinking alcohol only on occasion and only in small amounts. Any reduction in alcohol consumption is great for your health.
How can people interested in Dry January be successful?
Whether starting a new exercise routine, embarking on a new diet, or cutting back on alcohol, one of the best ways to succeed is to do it with a friend. You will have someone else with you who isn’t drinking when others may be. That way, you won’t feel singled out.
Even if you don’t attempt Dry January with a friend, share with a friend or family member that you are giving up alcohol for a month. When you tell someone else, you gain an accountability partner, someone who can gently remind you of your goals.
Another tip: Find an app that can help you stay motivated. There are apps that connect you with other people who are in recovery, apps that help you monitor how much you’re drinking each day, and apps that offer motivation and ways to overcome cravings.
I also recommend that anyone trying Dry January find a substitute, nonalcoholic beverage to drink as a replacement. Many patients like to try carbonated, bubbly drinks. I recommend finding ones that are sugar free. A word of caution about nonalcoholic beers: These beers do tend to contain a small amount of alcohol. That might be a great substitute for those who are trying to reduce their alcohol consumption, but those who are trying to be completely dry should find a beverage that truly is alcohol free.
In addition to finding an alternative beverage, consider finding an alternative replacement activity. If drinking socially and going to bars usually occupies a lot of your time, look for other fun activities that are booze free.
What else can I do?
I recommend making two lists. One list should include your strengths that will help you stay sober. Make this list as long as possible. You can include family members who are there to support you, friends a text away, or anything intrinsic about yourself that will help you succeed.
The second list should be a list of triggers and vulnerabilities. Take stock and figure out what might make you turn to alcohol. It might be being with certain people or going to certain places, for example. Try to think up ways to respond if confronted by triggers.
What are the benefits of reducing my alcohol consumption?
Drinking alcohol has many drawbacks, including:
- Increased risk of most cancers, including breast cancer.
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Increased risk of liver disease.
- A decline in immunity. With COVID-19 still a threat, we want all of the immunity we can get, but alcohol consumption suppresses and impairs the immune system.
- Poor sleep quality. Though alcohol has a depressive effect, and you may feel tired immediately after drinking, the quality of your sleep will suffer.
- Weight gain. Many alcoholic beverages have a lot of calories.
Even if you reduce your alcohol intake a little bit, you will make a profound positive impact on your health.
Will cutting back on alcohol improve my mental health?
In all likelihood, yes. Your mood will likely improve if you drink less.
Many people who abuse alcohol also struggle with anxiety and depression. They drink to feel better, and though that might work temporarily, in the long term, the feelings of anxiety and depression will come back stronger. Then they will feel like they need even more alcohol to feel better. It’s a vicious cycle. But people who reduce their alcohol consumption feel their highs and lows balancing out. They feel more in control of their mood.
I tried Dry January but ended up having a drink. Should I give up?
No! Try to get back on track. Recognize at the onset that you may have a day when you drink. Treat it as a learning experience. Take a look at what may have prompted you to drink. What was it that made the day different? Then learn from it rather than punishing yourself. Be kind to yourself and remember to take this one day at a time. Any big change is usually more doable in baby steps. So set expectations for yourself and be realistic. It’s not all or nothing.
I made it through Dry January. Now it’s February 1. Now what?
Now ask yourself why you did Dry January. Was it for the health benefits or to prove to someone else that you could do it? Hopefully you reaped health benefits and are enjoying improvements in your physical and mental health. Keep it going. Don’t quit just because the calendar turned a page.
Just like committing to getting more exercise or eating a more nutritious diet in the new year, making a goal of cutting back on alcohol is a great step you can take to improve your health. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more isolation and stress for many of us, and that has led some people to drink more alcohol. Taking steps to cut back in January–or any month–will pay off now and in the future.
Lauren Grawert, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Falls Church Medical Center.
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