Dry January: What can a break from alcohol do for your health?

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The benefits of Dry January: What can a break from alcohol do for your health?

After an indulgent holiday season, many Americans will turn to “Dry January.” The concept of abstaining from alcohol for a month has become a common New Year’s resolution for people looking to change their relationship with alcohol. The limited research on it indicates that it may have some positive health effects, at least for moderate or heavy drinkers.

Drinking and Dry January in the pandemic

There’s not much data on how many Americans participate in Dry January, but polling from Morning Consult suggests that the number is growing. In 2021, 13 percent of survey respondents said they were participating, up from 11 percent in 2020. By 2022, that amount had increased to nearly 20 percent of respondents, with varying levels of commitment. Only about half of the participating survey respondents said they intended to go completely dry.

In the U.K., Dry January is a formal campaign entering its 10th year. According to Alcohol Change UK, last year, 130,00 people participated. In Australia, people participate in Dry July, which raises money for cancer research, and in 2021, nearly 40,000 took part.

This year’s Dry January resolutions come as the nation approaches the third year of the covid pandemic. Early on, as lockdowns went into place, many Americans found themselves drinking more. An American Psychological Association survey found that nearly a quarter of Americans reported drinking more to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

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Alcohol and health

Some research has found there to be no safe amount of alcohol, while other studies suggest a moderate amount may be protective for the cardiovascular system.

“The relationship between alcohol and health is very complex,” said Emmanuela Gakidou, an adjunct professor of Global Health at the University of Washington. Gakidou works at the university’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which looks at global data on causes of death and disease and tries to estimate the overall health impacts on the population. For example, on average, is any amount of alcohol healthy?

An earlier analysis of the data suggested that globally, the impact of alcohol was negative, and that there is no safe level of alcohol, but a more recent look disaggregated the effects. The latest research from Gakidou and her team took a more nuanced look at the effect of alcohol on health for people in different locations and age groups.

For example, among young people, most of the health risks from alcohol come from accidents, but among older people in locations where heart disease risk is already high, a small amount of alcohol might be beneficial.

The question of whether temporary abstinence like Dry January will improve health “depends on what happens on the other end of Dry January,” Gakidou said.

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Does Dry January have any lasting effects?

Given the research indicating that only small amounts of alcohol are beneficial among certain populations, maybe taking just a month off won’t make much difference. But recent research has examined the impact of Dry January specifically on moderate drinkers’ health and found some benefits.

“It may not be the best way to target all the resources to counteract alcohol-related harm,” said Gautam Mehta, an associate professor of hepatology. “But what we did show is that it does allow people that opportunity to reset a little bit.”

Mehta’s 2018 study found that a group of people participating in Dry January had improved insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, weight loss and fewer cancer growth factors in their blood, compared with people who continued drinking.

Mehta noted that it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of temporary sobriety from other self-improvement people engage in at the start of the year, but the study controlled for the effects of changes in diet and exercise. The researchers also followed up with participants six months after the dry month and found that they had maintained lower alcohol use, and anecdotally, participants reported better concentration and sleep, Mehta said.

These initial health effects may lead to more long-term lifestyle changes.

“The impact on sleep and concentration typically occur fairly rapidly, and this is often an unexpected ‘win’ that helps to encourage people to continue,” Richard de Visser, a psychologist who studies Dry January and other temporary abstinence efforts, told Grid in an email.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.