Had a few extra drinks between Friendsgiving and the ball drop on New Year’s Eve? If you overindulged a little (or a lot) during the holiday season, you’re not alone.
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Enter Dry January, a concept that’s gained in popularity throughout the last few years. Avoiding alcohol for the first month of the year may be just what you need to get your mind and body (including your liver) back on track.
Dry January is a mini New Year’s resolution of sorts: As the calendar flips to a new year, you commit to taking on the challenge of not drinking for one month — staying “dry” through January.
It’s not entirely clear who first came up with the concept of Dry January, or how it became mainstream. But most recently, a British organization called Alcohol Change UK ran a public health campaign called Dry January in 2013; the next year, they registered a trademark for the phrase.
Drug and alcohol rehab counselor Alan Berki, LISW-S, says it can be just the reset you need to get your year started off right. “Anyone who drinks can benefit from doing Dry January, especially heavy social drinkers,” he says.
Heavy social drinking is often considered binge drinking, defined as more than five drinks in one sitting for men and more than four drinks for women (though your personal limits may be dependent on a variety of factors, including genetic sex, height, weight and more).
Let’s get straight to the point: Alcohol may be legal, but it’s also a drug. And it can wreak serious havoc on your body.
“Alcohol is a poison,” Berki notes, “and if you’re ingesting a poison, it’s going to damage every cell in your body.”
If you don’t drink much or often, this damage will likely be minimal, reparable and maybe not very noticeable. But when you stop drinking — especially if you’re prone to binge drinking or other unhealthy patterns of alcohol consumption — it’s impossible not to notice the effects that quitting has on your body, even if temporarily.
“You’re going to notice tremendous health benefits when you stop drinking for an extended period of time,” Berki adds.
No matter how on top of the world you feel while you’re up on stage doing drunk karaoke, the reality is that alcohol is a depressant. The first few days without alcohol may feel more exhausting than ever, but within a few days, your energy levels should start to rise.
“One of the main benefits that people experience during a Dry January is a feeling of increased energy,” Berki says. “After one month of not drinking, people generally people start to notice significant changes in energy and clarity in their thinking.”
Simply put, alcohol is bad for your heart — and quitting alcohol is good for your heart. Alcohol temporarily raises your blood pressure and can also raise your heart rate, two conditions associated with a risk of heart attack and stroke.
Liver specialist Jamile Wakim-Fleming, MD, says a month of sobriety can decrease liver inflammation that alcohol causes.
“When people stop drinking, even if it’s for just a month, this alcohol-induced inflammation has the chance to improve,” Dr. Wakim-Fleming explains. “It’s like you’re giving that wound a little bit of time to heal itself. It may not heal all of the way back if you’ve been drinking a lot before and your liver has been severely damaged by alcohol. But it will still help.”
It’s important to note that if you have a history of heavy drinking, you may have liver scarring (like fibrosis or cirrhosis) that can’t always be reversed by going dry. But the inflammation caused by alcohol can be reversed.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that alcohol is a liquid — that doesn’t mean it’s hydrating you! In fact, alcohol contributes to dehydration, which plays a role in the way your skin looks. When you stop drinking, you’ll likely start to experience smoother skin and less facial puffiness and bloating.
Depending on how much you typically drink, doing a Dry January can mean consuming far fewer calories than you’re used to. The number of calories in three beers can be the equivalent of a full meal.
“That means that for every three drinks you consume, it’s like you’ve eaten another dinner, as far as calories,” Dr. Wakim-Fleming says, “but without any of the nutritional benefits.”
This can result in weight loss, especially if you don’t replace alcohol with another vice, like candy or sweets.
“You may start to crave those a little more if you stop drinking,” Berki states.
This one’s really important: Even if you only do a Dry January to take a break after the holidays or to reset in the new year, a month off of drinking can really shift your perspective and your understanding of your relationship with alcohol.
“If during a Dry January, you notice that you have ongoing cravings or a mental preoccupation with drinking, those are significant danger signs that there’s an addiction issue present,” Berki says.
These are things you might not notice until you take a month off of alcohol. But when you realize them, you can start to address them — in January and beyond.
As the end of the year approaches and January looms large on the calendar, you may be counting down the days until your sobriety experiment. Instead of feeling nervous, try to see it as an opportunity for personal growth.
These tips can help ensure a successful Dry January and guide your alcohol-related decisions in the new year.
This may feel tough to do, especially if you’re planning to have a few New Year’s Eve drinks — but Berki recommends easing up on your drinking in the lead-up to Dry January, if possible.
“The holiday season is a common time for increased alcohol use,” he says, “but if you’re planning to do a Dry January, the first thing to consider is slowing down your drinking beforehand.”
In December, try to reduce your drinking by half, which can help ease your transition into a month (or more) of sobriety.
Completing Dry January is a goal in and of itself, but before you start, ask yourself: What do you hope to gain from this experience?
“Write down what your goals are, which will give you the best opportunity to reach those goals,” Berki advises. You may even want to take a photo of yourself on the first day of the month so you can compare it to a photo at the end of the month.
Of course, no photo can depict internal growth or lessons learned. But seeing some of the physical changes that you experience throughout the month — like clearer skin, a healthier glow and possible weight loss — can help drive home the value of not drinking.
It’s not always easy to explain to people why you’ve stopped or scaled back your drinking, so one of the best things about Dry January is that it normalizes attempting sobriety — and even turns it into a group effort.
“It makes it easier to express to others why you’re not drinking and to make sure you can maintain your social life during this time,” Berki says. “To give yourself the best options and opportunities for success, I recommend doing it with a group.”
Alcohol withdrawal is real. The symptoms can be miserable — even deadly.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that alcohol withdrawal can be fatal,” Berki stresses. “If you’re somebody who drinks daily or has significant urges to drink, especially early in the day, ask your healthcare provider if it’s safe for you to do a Dry January.”
And even if you think you’re “just” a social drinker, sometimes you don’t realize how deep the habit goes until you try to quit. Watch for symptoms like:
“This is, of course, the time of year for plenty of illnesses,” Berki says, “but keep an eye out for those withdrawal symptoms so that you can determine if they’re because you’re sick or because you’ve stopped drinking.”
Where are you most likely to do your drinking? Maybe you only drink when you go to the bars with friends or when you go to happy hour with your coworkers. Maybe you’re most likely to drink when you go out to dinner with your partner or you love boozy brunches on the weekends.
During Dry January, identify your triggers — and then do your best to avoid them. “If you truly don’t want to drink, the best thing to do is to avoid situations where there’s a lot of drinking,” Berki suggests. “If at all possible, try not to hang out in bars or nightclubs or to go to parties where there’s going to be heavy alcohol use.”
That doesn’t mean you can never set foot inside a bar or a club again. But to give yourself the best chance of success, start by removing the risk of temptation.
Sometimes, you become so accustomed to drinking that you don’t even realize what activities it has replaced in your life.
Maybe you used to love reading or doing puzzles or going to the gym — but they seem to have fallen off your radar as cocktails and bars and social outings took precedence. During Dry January, revisit some of those activities you used to love.
“See how many of those hobbies and interests you pick up during your month of sobriety,” Berki says. “A lot of people don’t recognize until addiction has fully set in that that their significant hobbies have been neglected in favor of drinking three or four nights a week.”
If you do start drinking again when January comes to an end, be sure to take things slowly. You may find that you become drunk more quickly, and your hangovers might be worse than before.
“When you take a break from drinking, your alcohol tolerance goes down,” Berki explains. “If you do start drinking again, your tolerance won’t be the same as it was before, so it’s important to gauge how much you’re able to drink after a month of sobriety.
When it comes to sobriety, more is more — in other words, 30 days without drinking is great, but if you can go longer, you’ll see even more benefits.
“There’s definitely a significant increase after 90 days,” Berki states. “People seem to have significantly clearer thinking when it comes to their ability to process information and to recall that information.”
And Dr. Wakim-Fleming adds that going for longer stretches without alcohol is a better bet for seeing liver recovery.
“If you extend Dry January to longer stretches, like for three or six months, you’ll definitely see the benefits,” she says. “Ask yourself: What is the harm of a Dry January? There’s no harm; it’s all benefit.”
If you discover that Dry January is nearly impossible for you, you may be dealing with alcohol use disorder. You might be overwhelmed, afraid, sad or ashamed — but there are many, many resources available to help.
“There are a number of resources to help people stop drinking, if that’s what their goal is,” Berki emphasizes. “There are a great many recovery supports that aren’t formal treatment, places you can turn to if you’re experiencing cravings or if you continue to drink when your intention is not to.”
These support programs Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as groups like Celebrate! Recovery (which has a Christian focus), Recovery Dharma (mindfulness/Buddhist focus) and Rational Recovery (a nonspiritual program).
And many of these programs offer meetings online. “There is a lot more accessibility to meeting via Zoom,” Berki says. “Now, you can find that support virtually where you may not have had access to services before.”
If you think you want to give Dry January a try, it’s always worthwhile, especially if you’re concerned that you might have an issue with alcohol. It’s also a good idea to have a conversation with a doctor, who can help you develop a plan that’s best for your long-term health.
But what if you’re reading this some other time of year, when January has either long passed or is still many months away? Don’t hesitate to make up your own Alcohol-Free August or Sober October — or, heck, to vow to stop drinking on a random Tuesday afternoon. Dry January can provide a helpful communal framework for quitting, but you certainly don’t need to wait for any specific time of the year to make healthy changes.
Berki sums it up best: “There is no better time than today to stop drinking.”
To learn more about this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “How to Help Someone with an Alcohol Addiction” with Dr. Akhil Anand. New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.