The tradition, in which people abstain from alcohol for the whole month, is becoming increasingly popular. In 2022, almost one in five US adults said they would try Dry January, up from 13% a year earlier. An esteemed one 8.8 million people in the UK, where the movement originated 10 years ago, said they planned to participate this year, according to the charity behind the movement. In 2013, that number was just 4,000. Temporary sobriety is contagious, e Education demonstrate that keeping the bottle away for a month has immediate health benefits. But it’s not clear whether the health benefits last or reach those most in need.
“This concept, which is a month-long detox or a spring cleanse that gets you ready for the rest of the year, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that,” says Gautam Mehta, an associate professor of hepatology at University College London who studied the effects of a month of sobriety. “But people seem to understand their own relationship with alcohol better and what they want to do with their relationship with drinking for the rest of the year.”
A 2018 she studies Mehta worked by following a group of moderate drinkers who stayed sober for a month and compared them to a control group who maintained their old habits. The most obvious benefits for non-drinkers included better sleep and weight loss. They’ve also experimented with more subtle effects; their blood pressure decreased and their biomarkers for insulin resistance improved, an indicator of a reduced risk of developing diabetes.
And some people say that a sober month helps them reduce their overall expenses. In 2019, researchers from the University of Sussex analyzed a poll compiled by several thousand people. They found that 59% of respondents reported drinking less six months after Dry January and 32% said they were in better physical health. However, only about 38% of people who started the survey continued after six months.
However, taking just a short break doesn’t necessarily give your body time to fully recover from the effects of drinking. This is what two British doctors, who are also identical twins, showed when they performed their own to experiment in 2015. (Mehta provided expertise in the experiment, which aired as a BBC episode Horizon.) Each of them spent a month sober and tests showed they had identical healthy livers. Then, they spent a month drinking 21 units of alcohol a week, the recommended limit for men in the UK at the time (it has since been revised to 14 units). There was a difference in how they got the job done: one drank three units (about a large glass of wine) every day for a month, and the other drank only once a week, but binged all 21 units. . By the end of the month, both had increased liver inflammation. For the bingeing twin, it was clear that even taking six days off between binges wasn’t enough time for the organ to fully heal.
But such returns to binge eating are not so common. Other she studies of researchers at the University of Sussex found that only 11% of people who tried Dry January had a rebound in drinking and consumed more alcohol afterwards. Those who failed to complete the full month were more likely to drink more afterwards than those who made it past 31 days.
Dry January can be successful because it challenges moderate drinkers: heavy drinkers may experience withdrawal if they decide to quit abruptly without professional supervision. And its participants select themselves; they engage with movement because they want to limit alcohol or rework their relationship to it. If they feel the benefits, they may be more likely to continue cutting back as they now have the skills to refuse alcohol. “People who are actually at minimal risk are the best served with Dry January and other campaigns, while people who really have a problem seem to lose out on attention and resources,” says Ian Hamilton, an honorary fellow at the University of York.
Overall, consumption habits are declining, thanks in part to the increase in non alcoholic adult drinks. A 2021 Gallup poll found that Americans drank the lowest average weekly amount since 2001, with the number dropping to 3.6 drinks per week. But averages can be deceiving, since many people don’t drink at all and a small percentage of people do consume heavily, reaching more than 10 drinks a day.
Hamilton says there should be more long-term research into the effects of Dry January, and that would mean following participants for six months to a year. With millions of people participating, there’s still a lot to learn about how significant the benefits are and how long they last for different groups, based on how much people drink and their diet and exercise choices.
One thing is clear: Going off alcohol for 31 days and then returning to the bar for a round of shots isn’t life changing. But what people learn about themselves and how drinking affects them physically might be. “Some people sadly see Dry January as the job done,” says Hamilton. “I’d rather trade Dry January for people who do more regular abstinence.”
Updated 10-1-2023 11:50am ET: Story has been updated to reflect the recommended weekly alcohol limit for men in the UK which was revised to 14 units in 2016.
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