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Thinking of trying Dry January? Here's what to know.

Experts say taking a break from booze can help your body and your mind.
Credit: Brent Hofacker - stock.adobe.com

Are you thinking of ditching booze in the new year — at least for a month? Taking a break from alcohol can do a body good, and the high-stress, high-indulgence holiday season leaves many people wanting to cut back. 

That's where Dry January comes in. 

If the popular sobriety challenge is popping up on your social media feeds more than ever, you're not alone. In 2022, 19% of 21-and-older adults polled by Morning Consult said they were participating in Dry January — up 6% from the previous year. 

So what's behind all the buzz? Experts say there's clear evidence that taking a break from booze can help your body and your mind.

What is Dry January? 

While social media groups and even apps have sprung up around the challenge, its premise is pretty straightforward. To participate in Dry January, you decide not to drink for the entire month. 

"Being alcohol-free for 31 days shows us that we don’t need alcohol to have fun, to relax, or to socialize," says Alcohol Change UK, which coined Dry January in 2013. "It helps us learn the skills we need to manage our drinking."

While some participants sign up to fundraise with the challenge, many more are hoping to improve their health — physical, mental and financial. 

Why do a dry month?

"It's just healthy to take a step back, look at our drinking patterns, look at the impact of alcohol in our lives," said Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 

Participants can use the time to think about why they drink and whether they're happy with the role alcohol has in their lives. Plus, they can practice ways to socialize, have fun and deal with stress that don't involve drinking — habits that will continue to be helpful once the challenge ends. 

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Dry January participants often self-report positive changes to their drinking habits. A University of Sussex study of more than 800 British participants found that six months after the 2018 challenge, 80% said they felt more in control of their drinking. Slightly more said they thought more deeply about their relationship with alcohol, and most — 93% — felt a sense of accomplishment.

A break from alcohol is also good for your body. In that study, 71% said they slept better and 67% said they had more energy. Narrower majorities of 58% and 54%, respectively, reported losing weight and having better skin. 

Other benefits are more than just skin-deep. In one smaller study, researchers recruited 94 men and women who gave up alcohol for one month, comparing them with a control group of 47 others who kept drinking. The results for the "dry" group were promising — their blood pressure dropped, they lost weight, and researchers noted improved insulin sensitivity and reduced cancer-related growth factors. 

"It has been shown that if people are having physical effects from alcohol use, whether it's high blood pressure or liver effects, the monthlong abstinence can help decrease some of those risks," said Dr. Sarah Andrews, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

Is Dry January for me? 

Sobriety challenges can be helpful for light or moderate drinkers who want to think more deeply about the role alcohol has in their lives.

Dry January isn't for everyone, though. Heavy drinkers, who can experience dangerous or even deadly alcohol withdrawal symptoms, may need help from a professional to safely stop drinking. 

There are a few other caveats to keep in mind. Some people who take a break from alcohol find themselves overdoing it afterwards — much like what can happen after you finish a strict diet. 

"If we are deprived for something for a while, once we have access to it, we have a tendency to overdo it," White said. "It could be coming off a diet and eating a lot of calories. With alcohol, it could be celebrating the accomplishment of Dry January by getting really intoxicated."

That's something to avoid, both for the standard health reasons and because your tolerance to alcohol goes down after a month of not drinking. 

The big picture

Many participants say Dry January helped them drink less, and periods of sobriety can bring some serious health benefits. But to get the most out of the challenge, experts say you should reflect on why and how you drink. 

"Our hope is that that the month is not just a break to let your liver heal, that it's an actual opportunity to change how you see the role of this drug in your life, and that you continue to drink mindfully," White said. 

For example, someone who drinks to unwind after a hard day might find out that they can also de-stress with a good book or a quick exercise session. Another person who drinks to have fun and socialize could still have a good time with a non-alcoholic beverage. 

Dry January doesn't need to just be a challenge. It can be an opportunity to try out new activities and have fun while sober. 

"There's still a lot of fun to be had out in the world," said Dr. Thomas Kash, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies. "You don't need alcohol to have a good time. And I think that is a key thing to understand."

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