Staying dry for January may help jump-start people to give up alcohol for longer
If you're feeling hungover from New Year's Eve champagne or had one too many boozy eggnogs over the holidays, let January be a fresh start.
Taking the challenge of going dry in January, or Dry January, i.e. having no alcohol for the entire month, is one resolution that might actually make you healthier.
The Dry January campaign was started in 2013 by Alcohol Change U.K., a charity focused on reducing alcohol harm. For the past several years, the initiative has proved popular in the United States and other countries too.
While research on how quitting alcohol for a month affects your body is still limited, several studies have shown psychological and health benefits.
Over one dozen staff members at the magazine New Scientist teamed up with researchers at the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at the University College London Medical School in 2013 to investigate the benefits of Dry January.
The staff members, who all considered themselves "normal" drinkers, underwent baseline testing with blood samples, liver ultrasound scans and questionnaires. For the next five weeks, 10 of them stopped drinking and four drank their normal amounts.
The people who stopped drinking had lower levels of liver fat (which can be a precursor to liver damage), improved blood sugars and lower cholesterol than they did at the beginning of the month. They also reported improved sleep and concentration. In contrast, the four people who kept drinking saw no benefit.
Another study out of the U.K. had nearly 100 participants abstain from drinking alcohol for a month and another nearly 50 participants continue drinking alcohol as normal.
They found that moderate-heavy drinkers who took a break from alcohol had improved insulin resistance, weight, blood pressure, and cancer-related growth factors.
The researchers do warn, however, that the study does not show that a short-term 'detox' period is all that is required to 'refresh' the liver or achieve other health gains. Abstaining from alcohol for a month is only one part of addressing negative effects from longer-term alcohol consumption.
People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol are at higher risk of death and many medical conditions.
Excessive alcohol use is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
People who drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol are more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, nerve damage, infections including pneumonia and even certain cancers like breast cancer.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may also have a negative impact on mental health, including memory loss, depression and anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Fulton Crews, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said attempting to stop drinking for Dry January is a good opportunity for people to see if they have an actual addiction to alcohol.
"Many people are in denial about their drinking and hazardous drinking, and if they try to stop and are not able to, it really points out to them their weakness," Crews told ABC News. "If they can't stop for a month, they would realize that they have a problem.
"Either that or they do it, and they realize it's not that hard for them," said Crews, who described Dry January as a "good idea."
Experts say Dry January may be especially helpful to those who consistently drink over the recommended amount of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Excessive drinking includes binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks for men in a single occasion and four or more drinks for women, and heavy drinking, defined as consuming 15 or more drinks per week for men or eight drinks or more for women). A standard drink is 12 ounces of a regular beer, 8 ounces of a malt liquor, 5 ounces of a glass of wine, and 1.5 ounces of a spirit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For those individuals who drink alcohol within the recommended limits, Crews said he is "not sure there would be any observable benefits."
"I don't see any clear potential for a moderate drinking person to stop drinking," he said.
If you do choose to participate in Dry January, Crews shared his advice for sticking to the program.
"Try to avoid temptation by maybe putting all the alcohol out of the house," he said.
Staying dry for January may also help jump-start people to give up alcohol for longer.
Although most people who participate in Dry January return to drinking, up to 8% stay dry six months later, according to Public Health England and the British Medical Journal.
And those who go back to drinking drink less. A 2015 study conducted in the U.K. and published in the journal Health Psychology found that people who participated in Dry January drank less often, had fewer drinks when they did drink and were drunk less often six months after Dry January was completed.
Dry January participants were also better able to refuse alcoholic drinks. These benefits were even seen in people who did not complete the whole month of Dry January.
It might seem daunting to stop drinking alcohol for a whole month. Between cocktail hour after work, beers while watching the football game, and that relaxing glass of wine after a long day, our culture sometimes seems to revolve around alcohol.
But the 2015 Health Psychology study found that 65% of people successfully completed the month of abstinence.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMSA) confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). For information and resources about alcohol-related problems and health, visit the website of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) HERE.
Editor's note: This piece was originally published on Jan. 3, 2018.