Dry January—the internet challenge where you ditch alcohol for 31 days—is really for anyone who wants to have a healthier relationship with alcohol, says Keith Heinzerling, MD, MPH, 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. “You don’t have to be an alcoholic for drinking to affect your life in a negative way,” he says. Alcohol affects your body, mind, relationships, and work in many big and small ways; stepping back from it for a time can help you look at all the subtle ways it’s influencing your life, he says. Not convinced? Check out these signs and see if any feel a little too familiar.
You can’t go more than a couple of days without a drink
Perhaps the biggest sign that you may have a problem with alcohol is feeling like you need a drink every day or every few days, Dr. Heinzerling says. Going on a month-long fast from alcohol can help you better understand the role it plays in your life and whether you’re using it as a crutch, he says. However, if you wake up in the morning craving a drink and you show symptoms of withdrawal, you may have a physical dependence on alcohol and you should talk to your doctor before starting Dry January as you may need medical help to detox, he cautions. (Here’s what doctors want you to know about Dry January.)
All of your social activities revolve around drinking
“Alcohol permeates into so many of the activities we do, without even noticing it,” says Taylor Graber, MD, founder of ASAP IVs and a physician who participates in Dry January yearly. He points out that activities like sporting events, work parties, dinner out, happy hour, and barbecues all typically involve alcohol and it may even feel strange to do these things without drinking. “Dry January really helped me see how much I used alcohol is social situations,” he says. (Here’s how to tell if your social drinking has become a problem.) “I learned how to be more creative and plan activities that don’t revolve around drinking.”
The scale is reading higher than you like
Giving up alcohol can be a potential way to lose weight, Dr. Graber says. Alcohol is full of empty calories and drinking with your meal makes it harder to recognize when you’re full, he explains. Plus alcohol can also cause inflammation and water retention which add pounds, he says. It’s not just about the calories; drinking alcohol also makes you hungrier and more likely to eat junk food.
You are feeling really down or anxious
Many people have learned to use alcohol as a way to cope with depression, anxiety, or other difficult feelings but while drinking may make you feel better in the moment, over the long run it worsens mental health problems and can even increase your risk of suicidality, says Ekaterina Musok, a counselor and substance abuse professional at Freedom Counseling. “If you use alcohol as a way to get relief from, or numb, your feelings then you should take a break from drinking while you learn better coping skills,” she says.
You’ve recently drunk-texted someone
Doing something regrettable while drinking is so common it’s practically a punchline, but there’s nothing funny about feeling out of control or not totally remembering things you’ve said or done, Musok says. If you’ve noticed (or if your loved ones have pointed out) that you do dumb, rude, or risky things while drinking then Dry January might be for you. Taking a break from alcohol for a month can give you a fresh perspective on who you really are and how your drinking affects others, she says. (Here’s one woman’s story: I Tried Dry January—and It Saved My Life.)
Your bank account is in the red
Dry January can save you some cash, something we could all use a little more of after the holidays. You don’t realize how much money you spend on alcohol until you stop drinking it, says Lauren Grech, adjunct professor of hospitality at New York University and Co-Founder of LLG Events, which specializes in planning dry events. Not only are you saving the money you would have spent on alcohol itself but you save the cash you would spend for cover charges at venues, bartender tips, Ubers, carpet cleaning, mixers, and other things associated with drinking, she says. (Note: If you order a virgin drink from the bar, still tip the bartender!)
You have chronic health issues like heart disease or diabetes
“One of the best things about this challenge is how quickly you can start to see positive changes in your mental and physical health,” Dr. Heinzerling says. Doing Dry January can lead to lower blood pressure and heart rate, improved blood sugar regulation, better sleep, clearer skin, fewer headaches, less chronic pain, a better sex life, mental clarity, more energy and focus, and less anxiety and depression, he says. Plus, when you don’t drink it’s easier to start and maintain other healthy habits, like exercise and good nutrition.
You binge drink
Before you write off this reason as not applying to you, know that the medical definition of binge drinking is probably different than what you’re thinking. For women, binge drinking is consuming four alcoholic beverages within a few hours; for men, it’s five beverages, and 25 percent of American adults have done this in the past month, according to the National Institutes of Health. In addition, you need to be clear on what one serving really looks like, says Matthew Schwartz, MD, with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada. “Most patients tell me they drink ‘just one’ but I’ve learned that to some people one drink could mean one bottle of wine each night or one full tumbler of whiskey, both of which are far more than one serving,” he explains. Dry January can help you be more mindful of your alcohol consumption. Check out the seven signs you might be binge drinking without realizing it.
You have a family history of certain cancers
Drinking any amount of alcohol increases your risk for cancers of the mouth and throat, voice box (larynx), esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast (in women), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that if you are already at an elevated risk for any of these cancers, including having a family history, then you should consider taking a break from alcohol, Dr. Schwartz says. “Talk to your doctor about what you can do to mitigate your risk of getting cancer, including your alcohol use,” he says.
You’re exhausted all the time
Having a drink before bed to help you sleep is a popular myth but the truth is that alcohol ruins your quality of sleep, making you even more tired, Dr. Graber says. “Passing out after a night of drinking isn’t the same as getting a good night’s sleep, even if you’re in bed the same number of hours,” he says. Alcohol inhibits necessary REM sleep and the effects accumulate over time, causing fatigue, poor exercise, mental strain, anxiety, short temper, and many other things which can directly impact the quality of your life, he explains. “You’ll be surprised at how quickly your energy levels bounce back and how much better you sleep when you do Dry January,” he adds.
A loved one has recently told you they are concerned about your drinking
It’s common for people to be able to recognize an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in others but not see the signs in themselves which is why you should take it seriously if someone you trust tells you they are concerned about your drinking. “Many people think they can easily quit drinking any time they want,” Dr. Heinzerling says. “Maybe you can but maybe you can’t—and you won’t know for sure which one it is until you actually try to give up drinking for a significant period of time.” Taking a month off will give you enough time to evaluate your drinking habits with a clear eye, he says.
You want to have a healthier relationship with alcohol
Whether you’re considering getting sober or you just want to scale back your drinking, doing Dry January is a way to start, 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. The key is to use this month to really look at your habits and pay attention to how you feel without the influence of alcohol so you can make an informed decision at the end of the month, he says. (Not ready to abstain for a month? Here are 17 tips for reducing alcohol intake in general.)