Well-Being Longevity

Here is how ‘Dry January’ can help and hurt you

Being booze-free for 31 days can be tough but it's worth the effort.

Story at a glance

  • “Dry January,” a commitment to abstain from alcohol for the first month of the year, has grown in popularity in the U.S.  

  • Health experts agree that abstaining from alcohol has many health benefits from weight loss, better skin and better sleep.  

  • Experts urge heavy drinkers to talk to their doctors first before quitting booze suddenly.  

It’s January, a time when millions of people are trying to improve themselves by taking on better habits or breaking bad ones.  

One trend that has caught on in recent years is Dry January, or the practice of abstaining from alcohol for 31 days.  

British charity Alcohol Change UK launched the first Dry January campaign in 2012 as a “break and total reset for the body and mind.” 

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Since then, the initiative has spread outside of the U.K. with thousands taking on the pledge. And while committing to cutting out booze can be a challenge, there are some real benefits to taking a break from drinks.  

Last year, 35 percent of legal-aged U.S. adults took part in Dry January, according to surveys from food and drink research firm CGA.  

Here are the benefits to trying out a “dry” month for the sober-curious: 

Clearer skin and a smaller waistline 

Even for light drinkers, or someone who has three drinks or fewer a week, forgoing alcohol for a month will have some immediate cosmetic benefits. Alcohol dehydrates the body and takes a serious toll on the skin by causing dryness and dark under-eye circles, among other things.   

So, skipping that bedtime glass of wine can result in clearer and more hydrated skin.  

Quitting alcohol even for just a month can also decrease puffiness and bloating, according to Eric Collins, chief medical officer at Recovery Education & Applied Learning, an online platform aimed at helping parents whose children have alcohol use disorder.  

Cutting back on alcohol is also a surefire way to drop a few pounds, according to Collins which itself can have a myriad of health benefits from lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.  

Alcohol is also “fairly calorie dense,” Collins added, with 7 calories in every gram.  

A standard drink in the United States has 14 grams of pure alcohol, which can be found in a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA).

At that rate, a single standard drink has at least 98 calories of alcohol.   

Better sleep and more energy  

One of the most immediate benefits of abstaining from alcohol is better sleep, according to Dr. George Koob, director of the NIAAA.  

It’s not uncommon for people to turn to alcohol to help unwind or fall asleep at night. But even one glass of wine at bedtime can disrupt sleep by preventing a person from spending enough time in the Rapid Eye Movement — better known as REM — state of sleep. This can cause a person to feel less refreshed when they wake up in the morning.  

Heavier drinking can disrupt sleep by causing someone to get up during the night, given that alcohol is a diuretic.  

“Often, people get sleepy when they get drunk on alcohol, but the problem is that you wake up two or three hours later and go to the bathroom,” said Koob. “Your brain is then hotwired and hyperexcitable and then you can’t get back to sleep and then the next day you’re even more miserable.”  

Better relationship with alcohol  

While taking part in a dry month can have positive health benefits, it can also have some profound mental health benefits, like improved confidence.  

“I see so many people struggling with social anxiety falling into that mental trap of ‘oh I need alcohol to feel that I’m funny’ or ‘to feel like I can go on that date,” said Lauren Cook, clinical psychologist and founder of Heartship Psychological Services.  

“If we’re willing to get a little uncomfortable with not using alcohol or another substance, we show ourselves… ‘oh I got through that, and you know, I didn’t need to have alcohol to do so,” said Cook.  

Dry January offers people an opportunity to check in with their level of alcohol consumption and sit with some “hard data” on how much and why they are drinking.  

Cook told The Hill that many people are shocked when they learn what is considered alcohol abuse. Heavy alcohol use is defined as imbibing in three or more drinks a day or more than seven drinks in a week for women, according to the NIAA.  

Meanwhile, consuming four or more drinks in a day or more than 14 drinks in a week is considered heavy drinking for men.  

For those struggling to stick to Dry January, Cook recommends taking a moment to reflect on why it might be difficult.  

“It’s not that you’re weak or that you’re broken in some way, your body is responding to an addictive substance,” Cook said. Instead, try to be open and curious about the struggle and ask, “what does this mean?” 

Heavy drinkers should talk to their doctors before abruptly stopping

While all three health experts lauded Dry January, they also warned that abruptly giving up drinking can be harmful to very heavy drinkers who have likely developed a physiologic dependence.  

Very heavy drinkers run the risk of going into withdrawal and developing seizures if they suddenly stop drinking, Collins told The Hill.  

Alcohol withdrawal can even be lethal with about 800 people in the United States dying each year as a result of going ‘cold turkey,” according to Koob.  

“If you’re a heavy drinker, the recommendation is that you seek out some professional help and just not go cold turkey in stopping drinking,” said Koob.