Plus, expert tips on how to successfully get through the month, and the health benefits you need to know about.
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I don't know about you, but the stress of Covid, combined with regular 'quarantinis' and Zoom happy hours, definitely caused me to drink way more than usual in 2020....and again in 2021. And it appears I'm not alone: A Nielsen survey reported a 54% rise in national alcohol sales in March 2020 (no surprise there) and according to a September 2020 study, alcohol consumption increased by 14% compared to the year before. That trend only continued in 2021. An American Psychological Association survey from March 2021 found that a year into the pandemic, nearly one in four adults reported drinking to cope with stress.

Now, as we receive our booster shots and make it through (hopefully) the darkest days of the pandemic, we're ready to finally get that fresh start in 2022 we've been waiting for. And for many, that includes reevaluating how the pandemic has changed their relationship with alcohol and reducing their consumption (myself included), starting with Dry January. While it's pretty typical to kick off the new year with a health goal, whether it be a goal to eliminate sugar from your diet or to work out more, studies show most of these resolutions fail by February, making a specific goal for the month of January way more appealing and easier to commit to.

But since cutting out anything you regularly enjoy is a whole lot easier said than done, we spoke with the experts for tips on how to successfully take a break from drinking in the new year — and the health benefits of going booze-free for a month.

What Is Dry January and Is It Worth It?
Credit: Getty Images

What Is Dry January — and What Are the Health Benefits?

The 31-day challenge, aka "Dry January", is designed to help people reset or "detox" after the drinking-heavy month of December and potentially reevaluate their drinking habits heading into the new year. The trend started in 2013 in England by a nonprofit, now called Alcohol Change U.K., and has become more commonplace in the United States over the last several years.

So, what are some of the benefits?

1. Your overall health might improve.

It's no secret that excessive drinking and/or binge drinking can definitely take a toll on your body in the long run. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking too much can cause health issues including a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, mood disruption, and even increased risk of cancer. While cutting out booze for only a month can't treat or prevent long-term health issues, the limited studies out there show that cutting out alcohol for only a month can have a measurable impact.

For example, a 2015 study by the University of Sussex and Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School found that participants who stopped drinking over a five-week period saw an average 15% drop in liver fat — known for leading to liver damage — as well as improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels, according to Medical Daily. (This is especially reassuring considering studies show more millennials are dying from alcohol-related liver diseases.)

"What you have is a pretty average group of British people who would not consider themselves heavy drinkers, yet stopping drinking for a month alters liver fat, cholesterol, and blood sugar, and helps them lose weight," Kevin Moore, an experiment consultant, told the publication at the time. "If someone had a health product that did all that in one month, they would be raking it in."

Bottom line: We don't really know the health effects of short-term sobriety, but experts agree there's nothing to lose. "While there's nothing wrong with an occasional adult beverage, and even one drink per day doesn't necessarily signal a problem, forgoing alcohol every once in a while can only do your body good, especially after a particularly indulgent period like the holidays," says Barbie Boules, R.D.N., founder of Nyoutrition.

2. You'll sleep better and have more energy.

"Alcohol seriously interferes with quality sleep, especially if consumed right before bed," Boules says, so a dry period can be really helpful for those who have several drinks a week and are also experiencing poor sleep.

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. writes for Psychology Today that while many people rely on alcohol to fall asleep, it actually does quite the opposite, acting instead as a major disruptor to the body's natural circadian rhythm. "Circadian rhythms regulate nearly all of the body's processes, from metabolism and immunity to energy, sleep, and sexual drive, cognitive functions and mood," Breus says. "In the body, alcohol disrupts circadian functioning, directly interfering with the ability of the master biological clock to synchronize itself."

In the same 2016 Health Psychology study mentioned earlier, 62% reported better sleep and 62% also said they had more energy after successfully completing Dry January.

3. You'll become more aware of your drinking habits — and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

After completing Dry January during the University of Sussex study, participants — even those who didn't successfully complete the whole month alcohol-free — reported having fewer drinks, drinking less often, and not getting drunk as often, according to psychologist Dr. Richard de Visser, perhaps the result of the time they had to assess their alcohol consumption habits.

For some, becoming more aware of your patterns is one of the biggest benefits of Dry January. "If you notice that you're drinking more than usual, or that a drink has become a mindless habit rather than something to be savored and enjoyed, then taking a break could reset your impulse," Boules says.

Dr. White agreed, noting that at the very least, this time can help you evaluate your "relationship with alcohol and cultivate alternatives for relaxing, socializing, or coping." Dr. White suggests reflecting on your habits by asking yourself, "Why do you drink when you do? Is it out of boredom, to relax, have fun, for the taste, to deal with stress and anxiety, to sleep?"

"Identify healthy, sustainable ways of coping with the stress and anxiety or having fun," Dr. White says. "Maybe for you it could be yoga, mindfulness meditation, long walks or another form of exercise, talking more with friends, or developing better sleep hygiene."

4. You could lose weight.

Even if you aren't embarking on Dry January to lose weight, it might happen without you noticing. Boules notes that the empty calories in alcohol can add up quickly and, therefore, cutting alcohol can lead to weight loss. "I've had several clients who dropped those last stubborn five pounds in one month just by abstaining from their nightly cocktail or glass of wine," she says.

Dr. White adds that in a 2016 Health Psychology study of 857 British men and women who participated in Dr January, 49% reported weight loss.

5. Your mood will probably improve, too.

You may think that Dry January sounds like a bummer, but the reality is, your move will probably improve. "Alcohol makes us feel good in the moment because it gets the happy hormones pumping," Boules says. "But, in truth, especially if consumed regularly, alcohol is a depressant."

In fact, Drinkaware notes that it doesn't matter how good you feel upon first consuming alcohol, continuing to imbibe can lead to a negative emotional response, including anger, aggression, depression, and anxiety long-term.

While Boules says you may feel your mood lighten and energy improve as a result of abstaining from alcohol, it's important to note that a Dry January challenge is not a solution to treating clinical depression or other mental health conditions.

What You Need to Know Before Starting Dry January

It's important to know that Dry January is aimed at the huge numbers of people steadily drinking alcohol a bit too much or too often, without realizing the effect it's having on their health. It is not a detox or challenge for those who have dependency issues, since quitting cold turkey on your own can actually be dangerous, explains Aaron White, Ph.D., Senior Scientific Advisor to the Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Every year, over 850 people die from alcohol withdrawal and more than 250,000 need medical treatment, White explains. Other alcohol withdrawal side effects could include insomnia, restlessness, sweating, anxiety, nausea, and even seizures, so it's important to get advice from a health professional first if you are physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol.

If you are a heavy drinker, you may feel some withdrawal symptoms early on in your Dry January journey, White explains. "People who regularly drink excessively might actually feel worse during early abstinence. Levels of anxiety and restlessness can increase and sleep can be impaired leading to fatigue and contributing to irritability," he tells us. "It can take weeks or months for these changes to resolve and for the mental health gains associated with abstinence to emerge."

On the other hand, those who are typically lighter drinkers may find improvements early on in their abstinence period.

7 Tips for a Successful Dry January

Abstaining from alcohol for an entire month can seem quite daunting, so we tapped White for a few tips to make Dry January a bit easier.

1. Make a plan.

You need to have a concrete plan for success going into the month that's realistic for you. For example, perhaps you'd rather gradually wean yourself off to X drinks per day, to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Whatever it is, be specific. (Remember: Cutting back on your consumption at all is a great first step!)

2. Keep a log.

Have a journal where you can jot down your progress or hold yourself accountable if you slip up. "You can monitor your progress and feel good about it or recognize when you're backsliding," White says.

3. Pay attention to how you feel.

Take the time to notice how you're feeling over the course of the month. "Is your sleep improving? How about your energy? Are you saving money? Losing weight? When you notice benefits, make note of them," says White. "It will help you keep your momentum going."

4. Tell your friends and family.

It can be tempting to keep any sort of new habit or resolution a secret, especially if you aren't sure you'll be able to follow through with it, but telling friends and family who you know will be on board can help keep you accountable and give you motivation. "It's always easier to make behavior changes when you know you're supported by people close to you," White says.

5. Don't be hard on yourself.

"It probably took a long time to develop your current relationship with alcohol and it can take several attempts and sustained effort to change that," says White. "Like with lifestyle changes around diet or exercise, if you don't achieve your goals the first time, try not to judge yourself harshly and just try again."

6. If you're having trouble quitting, seek outside help.

It's hard enough to stick to a commitment sometimes. If you're finding it extra hard to quit drinking, consider talking to someone who can support you through this process. White adds that there are plenty of resources out there to help, which you can find on the NIAAA website.

7. When you start drinking again, go easy.

White says it can be common to overdo it once you return after a month off — it's called the "deprivation effect". So try to follow the U.S. Dietary Guidelines when February rolls around; the 2015-2020 guidelines recommend consuming up to one drink per day for women or two for men.

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik and Tessa Petak