Dry January: What Doctors Need You to Know

Quitting alcohol—even for just a month—can help you examine your relationship with alcohol, and may have some physical and mental benefits too.

What is Dry January?

Between the sparkling excess of the holiday season in December and the romantic booziness of Valentine’s Day in February, there are a lot of occasions during the winter months to celebrate with an alcoholic beverage or two. (And that’s not even including Fat Tuesday at the end of February.) Cue Dry January, the season of sobriety. It may not be as exciting as the other holidays but for a lot of people, it’s an annual tradition as a way to detox, reset, and start the New Year off right. (Considering any type of detox? Read our guide to detoxing first.)

By the numbers

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Why Dry January? Nearly 90 percent of American adults say they drink alcohol, with 55 percent saying they drink once a month or more, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. They also found that over a quarter of adults say that they participated in binge-drinking (drinking four alcoholic beverages for women or five beverages for men, consumed at the same event) during the past month. Plus, alcoholism is up 50 percent in the US. These stats likely don’t even give the full picture as people often under-report how much they really drink.

Who should try Dry January?

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That’s a lot of people downing a lot of booze, yet what exactly constitutes a “problem” with alcohol? Some people have an alcohol use disorder and may be physically dependent on alcohol. For those people, abruptly stopping alcohol can be dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted without medical supervision. However, you can still be a problem drinker even if you can stop drinking for extended periods of time, according to Alcohol.org. That said, temporarily stopping drinking, like during Dry January, can help you examine your relationship with alcohol. “Lots of people say, ‘I can stop drinking anytime I want’ but for many people, it’s easier said than done,”says Keith Heinzerling, MD, an internist and addiction medicine specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and the Medical Director of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine. “Dry January can give you a fresh perspective on this, helping you see exactly how much alcohol is playing a role in your life.”

You don’t have to be an alcoholic for drinking to cause problems

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One of the most common myths out there is that unless you’re a full-blown alcoholic then there’s no need for you to quit drinking, even for a month. The truth is that even light or social drinkers can experience ill effects from drinking and will benefit from a 31-day break, Dr. Heinzerling says. “Doing a month-long ‘trial quit’ is a lot easier to handle mentally for most people than saying they’re going to give up drinking forever,” he says. Here’s what happens to your body when you drink just one glass of wine a day.

You may not realize how much drinking is affecting you until you stop

Think that once the hangover wears off and you’re feeling normal that your body is back to normal? Not necessarily, says Taylor Graber, MD, an anesthesiologist at the UC San Diego medical school, and founder of ASAP IVs, and who has participated in Dry January for the past three years. He explains that alcohol causes inflammation and has immediate effects on almost every system in your body, from your digestion to your circulation to your brain. This can lead to both short and long -term complications with your physical and mental health. You may not even realize how much it’s affecting you until you stop for a period of time and Dry January is a great way to do that, he says.

The psychological addiction can be powerful

Drink often enough for long enough and your body will become physically dependent on alcohol to function in your daily life. For most drinkers, however, this isn’t the case; rather, they become mentally addicted to drinking, making them psychologically dependent on alcohol to deal with difficult feelings, Dr. Heinzerling says. “Dry January is the perfect way to break the habit of using alcohol as a crutch and learn healthier ways to manage your anxiety, feel comfortable in social gatherings, be able to relax after work, and other tricky emotional situations,” he says. Not sure if you’re an addict? Read these 20 secrets addiction counselors want you to know.

You’ll see immediate improvements in your health

“One of the great things about this challenge is how quickly you can start to see positive health changes,” Dr. Heinzerling says. “Within just a few days of not drinking you’ll have lower blood pressure and heart rate, improved blood sugar regulation, better sleep, and less anxiety and depression.” Another bonus is that quitting alcohol often makes it easier to start and maintain other good habits, like daily exercise and healthy eating, which in turn leads to even more health benefits, he says.

You will lose weight

Dry January can help you accomplish some of your health-related New Year’s resolutions, says John La Puma, MD, an internist, author, and co-founder of ChefMD, a company that teaches “culinary medicine” in medical schools and to the public. “Like soda, alcoholic drinks are high in calories, have no nutrition, and they don’t fill you up, making it harder to recognize when you’re satiated,” he explains. “When you stop drinking your calories you’ll find it’s easier to control your caloric intake.” It’s not just about the calories; drinking alcohol also makes you hungrier and more likely to eat junk food.

It can’t fix everything, however

While you will notice some immediate positive effects, know that the damage heavy drinking can do is long-lasting, and some, like liver damage, are permanent, Dr. Graber says. “A month of abstinence is likely to decrease inflammation in your body and improve your health, even if a small degree,” he says. “It won’t, however, undo the impact of your alcohol consumption from the rest of the year.” Many people who try Dry January decide to reduce their alcohol intake even after the challenge ends in order to improve their health.

Fill up your time with a new hobby

You may be surprised at how much free time you discover you have once you’ve given up drinking and the activities associated with it, Dr. La Puma says. Use this as an opportunity to learn a new skill or get back to a hobby you love. (If you need ideas he recommends taking a class in healthy cooking, which may continue to improve your health long after the challenge is over.) Not only will you gain knowledge and have fun but staying busy will keep your mind occupied and help reduce the temptation to drink, he says.

Plan sober events

One of the biggest challenges of doing an alcohol fast is how it changes your social interactions, something Dr. Graber said he’s experienced personally. “Alcohol permeates into so many of the activities we do, without even noticing it. For instance, bowling, dinner out, happy hour, and barbecues all usually involve alcohol in some facet, and it will feel different, even awkward, to do some of them without a casual drink in your hand,” he says. (Here’s how to tell if your social drinking has become a problem.) The solution is to plan activities with your friends that don’t revolve around alcohol. Consider telling some friends about your goal or asking them to join you in Dry January; group support can make all the difference in your success, he adds.

Start drinking again slowly

It seems like every week there’s a new study out either claiming health benefits or harm from drinking alcohol and it can give you whiplash trying to figure out what’s best for your health. “The poison is in the dose,” Dr. Graber says. “Many of the studies showing possible health benefits are looking at low doses; the problem is that low dose alcohol can easily lead to moderate or high intake, and these health benefits can quickly be outweighed by the harms.” So if you’ve noticed your drinking creeping up over time, doing Dry January can help reset how much you drink, he says. So if you do decide to start drinking again after the month is up, it’s important to reintroduce alcohol slowly and in small amounts; you don’t want to go right back to the amount you were drinking before, he adds.

It’s all about breaking bad habits and making healthy ones

The whole point of doing a challenge like Dry January is to focus on breaking bad habits and create a healthier relationship with alcohol, Dr. Heinzerling says. To do that successfully, you’ll need to use these 31 sober days to really take a look at all the ways you use alcohol in your life and be honest about the ways that it may be hurting you, he says. “Dry January shouldn’t be something you muscle through, just to say you’ve done it; rather it should be the beginning of a healthier lifestyle overall,” he says. Start with these 17 simple tips to cut back on your drinking.

Dry January isn’t for everyone

Quitting drinking cold turkey can have disastrous and even deadly consequences for people who are physically dependent on alcohol, Dr. Heinzerling says. “For these people, suddenly quitting alcohol can seizures, delirium, and in some cases, death,” he explains. “Talk to your doctor before you start Dry January, and don’t be afraid to ask for medical help if it ends up being harder than you thought. We have a lot of options to help you get sober and manage the pain of detoxing.” Other people who shouldn’t attempt Dry January without medical supervision are teenagers, the elderly, or people with other serious medical conditions, he adds.

Sources

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.