You’re almost halfway through Dry January, but your resolve is weakening — not helped by your friend heading to the bar to buy yet another round. Does it matter if you give in and ask for a pint or should you stick to your pledge to avoid alcohol and opt for another lime and soda?
Each January, more and more people sign up to go dry, eschewing alcohol for the month to change their habits, help their health, and raise funds for Alcohol Change UK, the charity that kicked off the annual abstinence event. This year, the group predicts one in ten drinkers will try Dry January – and that’s perhaps a wise move, given a quarter of adult Brits drink above the NHS recommended daily allowance, causing 20 deaths from related illness a day, according to the charity.
But does quitting booze for a month really make a difference to our health and our future habits? According to the limited research done so far, it looks like it. “While there’s very little relevant research evaluating Dry January, there’s an awful lot of research about alcohol and health – thousands of studies,” says Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. “It should be no surprise that with the evidence about the health problems from drinking that the converse is true, that there are benefits people experience when they stop.”
Dry January could be unhealthy for one set of people: those truly dependent on alcohol. If going without alcohol for more than a day causes physical symptoms – shakes, sweating, restlessness, insomnia, cramps or hallucinations, says Alcohol Change UK – then quitting could be dangerous and even cause seizures, so medical assistance should be sought. However, that is rare, Stockwell says, relating figures from a treatment clinic in Australia that saw a dozen such cases out of 20,000 people treated. Stockwell adds that from his experience treating addiction, nine out of ten people spontaneously stop without formal help, regardless of the month of the year. “People are doing this anyway,” he says.
That said, for most people, trading prosecco for sparkling water even for a month has immediately noticeable health benefits. You know how crappy you feel with a hangover – dehydrated, churning stomach, sore head – the reverse is true when you go teetotal, even for a short time. Richard de Visser, University of Sussex, surveyed 857 participants of Dry January 2019 before and after their month of abstinence, finding 71 per cent slept better, 67 per cent had more energy, 58 per cent lost weight, and 54 per cent had better skin.
It can go much further than that. Gautam Mehta, of University College London’s Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, ran a small trial with journalists at New Scientist magazine in 2013, expanding it to 97 abstainers and 48 drinkers in 2018. “We weren’t really expecting there to be dramatic changes,” he says — but there were.
Participants from the 2018 cohort who abstained from drinking saw an average 13 per cent reduction in cholesterol levels and six per cent fall in blood pressure, and lost 1.5 per cent of their weight, while their liver health showed immediate improvements. They also saw a reduction in insulin resistance by 26 per cent, which should reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as lower levels of substances in the blood tied to cancer growth. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals had a lower risk of cancer, but these are markers that treatments for cancer knock down,” Mehta says.
There are caveats, of course, and the researchers were careful to track other lifestyle changes the participants made at the same time, such as diet and exercise. Plus, the abstainers had all been drinking at moderate to heavy levels prior to the research, imbibing 30 units a week. Dry January participants who drink less heavily will see less of an improvement, though of course they’ll have done less damage in the first place.
When it comes to the long-term effects of Dry January, more research is needed. Mehta’s study wasn’t able to follow up with the abstainers in person after the initial bout of research, which meant the researchers weren’t able to test long-term health impacts, so it’s not known how long the physical benefits last once drinkers head back to the bar in February. However, the study did reveal that abstainers drank a fifth less alcohol seven months after the month off than they did before. “Sometimes taking a more prolonged break can just help you reset your psychological relationship,” he says.
That’s the other question raised by Dry January: does it help people reduce their drinking in the longer term? Answering that isn’t easy, as those who take part in Dry January are naturally self selecting: they already want to reduce their alcohol intake.
The research by de Visser found that in August the following year after taking part in Dry January, the 800 abstainers had cut back. The number of days they drank alcohol fell from an average 4.3 to 3.3 a week, the units consumed had slid from 8.6 to 7.1 per session session, and frequency of drunkenness had fallen from 3.4 days per month to 2.1. While that is a reduction, at an average 23 units a week, that’s still above the NHS guidelines of no more than 14 units a week.
But averages may conceal success for some and failure to change in others. Sally Marlow, addiction researcher at King’s College London, notes that breaking a habit is different for everyone, so while Dry January may help reset some people’s drinking behaviour, it may do little for others. According to de Visser’s survey, 11 per cent of participants had an increased frequency of drunkenness after a month of going dry, while some who had failed the month-long challenged still reduced their drinking in the long-term.
As some critics have noted, Dry January isn’t for those with serious alcohol dependencies, but for those who should probably cut back a bit but are at relatively low risk. That’s helpful, but real effort is needed not only for average drinkers but for those who are most impacted by it, and public drug and alcohol services have seen cuts. That millions of people are shunning booze for a month is good, but it doesn’t address those who are most hurt by alcohol addiction. Plus, it’s worth noting that wholly ditching alcohol for good remains the best move for your health — that’s according to a massive study in the Lancet that suggests current guidelines are too loose and there’s no real safe amount to drink.
Regardless of whether it’s for a month or a few days each week, cutting down on alcohol intake is a smart move for anyone averaging above the recommended guidelines. Dry January’s physical health benefits may be limited to the short term, and the campaign’s ability to change habits dependent on each and every individual case, but simply talking about not drinking and normalising sobriety makes it easier for everyone.
Alcohol consumption has fallen 16 per cent since 2004, Alcohol Change UK says, and the increasing popularity of abstaining has led drinks companies to make alcohol-free alternatives. “It raises people’s awareness of just how hard it can be for anybody to go without a drink in lots of social situations,” Stockwell says. “I’ve taken part in it. I regard myself as a fairly light social drinker, but it’s a real eye opener […] how ingrained the habit of drinking is in our society.”
And Marlow suggests there’s another reason to try Dry January: whether you can do it or not tells you something you need to know about your drinking habits. According to de Visser’s study, 64 per cent of his survey participants managed to successfully complete the month booze free. “If you set yourself this goal and find it difficult, it’s telling you something about your relationship with alcohol,” Marlow says. “And if you can’t do it, it does indicate you need to talk to somebody,” Marlow adds. She advises seeing a GP, who will walk you through a simple set of screening questions to help decide what action to take. “As a scientist and as a human being, if you can’t do it, you need to ask why you can’t.”
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