After an indulgent holiday season (often in hopes of starting the year with a clean slate), many people sign up for “Dry January,” pledging to go alcohol-free for the entire first month of the year. “Dry January’s biggest benefit, in my view, is it allows you to evaluate your relationship with alcohol and where you want to be with that relationship,” says George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “If you feel better, you’re sleeping better, work’s going much better, your relationships are better, you’re not getting into fights with your significant other … and you extend that for a year and find that this year’s been a lot better than the previous year … any of those things are signals telling you maybe this was a good thing.”
HEAVY DRINKERS BENEFIT FROM A DRY MONTH
Research shows when heavy drinkers, who consumed alcohol on average 4.3 days per week (and an average of 8.3 units, aka roughly 4 glasses of wine per drinking day), participated in Dry January, 70% reported feeling their overall health improved; 71% reported sleeping better; 67% had more energy; 58% lost weight; 57% concentrated better and 54% noticed better skin. Additionally, 80% of people felt more in control of their drinking and 71% realized they didn’t need to drink to enjoy themselves. While it’s not surprising that cutting back from heavy drinking yields significant benefits, it turns out even moderate drinkers can benefit.
WHY CUTTING BACK BENEFITS EVEN MODERATE DRINKERS
“Current scientific consensus is that the safest level of alcohol consumption is none and that the risk of various detrimental health and social outcomes increases with increasing consumption,” says Richard de Visser, PhD, the study’s author and a psychology lecturer at the University of Sussex in England. “So even if people are drinking small amounts, they would be doing less harm if they drank less.”
This is backed by research published by Washington University School of Medicine. Researchers analyzed data from more than 400,000 people ages 18–85 and found consuming 1–2 drinks four or more times per week (an amount deemed acceptable by current guidelines) increases the risk of premature death by 20%.
DRINKING AND CANCER RISK
Other research shows alcohol consumption might increase the risk of cancer. Researchers examined the drinking habits of more than 63,000 people with cancer and an equal number of matched cancer-free controls. They found people who drank 1 serving of alcohol daily for 10 years increased their cancer risk by 5% and people who drank 2 servings of alcohol daily for 40 years increased their cancer risk by 54%. Those who abstained from alcohol use had the lowest cancer risk.
“People who want to stay healthier — I believe most of us, more or less, want to be healthy — they can start changing their drinking behaviors,” says Masayoshi Zaitsu, PhD, the study author.
“We are aware of the harm when we have a lot to drink; we have a hangover,” de Visser says. “If we have a few drinks, we may feel OK in the morning, but our liver would show evidence of harm. It is a bit like brushing your teeth: They will not show decay if you fail to brush for one day, but if you fail to brush for 10 years, then the accumulation of decay would be obvious.”
HOW TO GO ALCOHOL-FREE
If you’re interested in drinking less or giving up alcohol altogether, try tracking your intake on an app like MyFitnessPal. You can find recipes for mocktails and track your hydration to keep you motivated. You can also order bubbly water when out with friends or consider meeting people for coffee or a walking date instead of happy hour. Or maybe you pick three days a week you don’t drink. On occasions when you do imbibe, have a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage so you stay hydrated and give your system time to process the alcohol. Keeping track of all the extra money you’ll save can be a motivating factor, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While you may reap more health benefits from giving up alcohol altogether, even a dry month can have its advantages. People who abstain for a month drink less often after the conclusion of Dry January, according to de Visser’s research.
“Pay attention to the benefits you get from not drinking — for example, better sleep, more energy, better concentration,” de Visser says. “[And] don’t make a big deal of not drinking. Just order what you want and enjoy yourself.”