Dry January (or #DryJanuary if you prefer) has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it’s not difficult to see why. After overindulging at Christmas, swearing off alcohol for a month seems like an indubitably good way of undoing the harm you did to your body over the festive season and giving your liver a proper chance to recover. But are there measurable health benefits to this fad, or is the initiative purely a way of massaging one’s conscience?
Abstinence: A Newly Popular New Year’s Resolution
The most popular New Year’s resolutions, according to a 2016 ComRes poll, were to exercise more (38%), lose weight (33%) and eat more healthily (32%). In fact, the top four resolutions could broadly be filed under the heading Getting Healthy, since the fourth most common resolution was to ‘take a more active approach to health’ (15%).
Drinking less alcohol was not too far behind, sitting 8th over all in the resolution league table (12%). What’s clear, however, is that Dry January has gained in popular since being registered as a trademark by the Alcohol Concern charity in 2014. This is probably partly due to the influence of social media and the hive mind factor: you are much more likely to stay the course when supported by like-minded followers and acquaintances, who may be testing their own willpower. There’s even a Dry January app to keep you on the straight and narrow.
The rising popularity of Dry January was noted by Public Health England in 2015, as the Department for Health agency teamed up with Alcohol Concern to widely promote the concept. Thus, while around 17,000 Brits shunned alcohol for the whole of January 2013, the figure had risen to 3.1 million by 2018 (source: YouGov). Other initiatives have sprung up in its wake, including Sober October which is backed by Macmillan Cancer Support. These campaigns should be celebrated.
As Dry January comes to an end for another year, we thought it would be worthwhile to look at the tangible health benefits of giving your body a break from alcohol for a month. Whether that month is January, October or any other is largely irrelevant. So if you’ve ever contemplated boarding the sober boat for 30 days, or you’ve just completed the feat, read on to learn what benefits this positive lifestyle choice may have brought about.
The Health Benefits of Having a Dry Month
Naturally enough, Public Health England have been touting the benefits of completing Dry January since partnering with Alcohol Concern three years ago. But beyond a general feeling that it might be good for your physical and mental health, what real, tangible effects can you expect to experience by taking a month-long hiatus?
The most recent evidence comes from the British magazine New Scientist, who conducted a small but nonetheless interesting study on their own staff. Participants completed lifestyle questionnaires, underwent ultrasounds and gave blood samples before some gave up booze for five weeks and others continued drinking as normal.
Results were analysed by a liver specialist at the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, part of University College London, and offered plenty of food for thought. For starters, the blood glucose levels of those who abstained fell by an average of 16%. Blood glucose levels are of course one of the key factors in determining diabetes risk.
Moreover, the amount of liver fat in the sober group fell by between 15 and 20% for all 10 participants. Liver fat, commonly caused by heavy drinking but also poor diet and genetic inheritance, is closely linked with inflammation and increases one's risk of heart attack.
These figures are not insignificant and clearly illustrate that even a month of abstinence has serious health benefits. Reduced blood glucose and liver fat levels are only two advantages, though.
According to statistics released by Alcohol Concern, of the many who complete Dry January, 49% lose weight, 62% sleep better and, unsurprisingly, 79% save money. Moreover, a breakaway with booze is a good way of gaining some perspective on the effects of alcohol on your career, close relationships, outlook and any number of things; you may well find that you drink purely out of habit and that you feel fresher and more productive by drinking less (or not at all).
Do the Benefits of a Dry Month Have Long-Term Effects?
Although some feel that having a dry month will provoke a wetter month when you’re back off the wagon, research indicates that 72% of those who do Dry January maintain lower levels of harmful drinking six months later. 8% of participants actually continue to abstain from alcohol altogether.
Aside from these demonstrable benefits, having a dry month is an excellent way of pressing the reset button and getting your body systems back on track. Many report to feeling more clear-headed and focused, with higher energy levels bringing an overwhelming sense of wellbeing. This could be at least partly down to the fact that you’re less likely to skip a workout when hangover-free.
Of course, it’s probably better over all to moderate your alcohol throughout the year. However, we do not wish to demonise drinking altogether. In fact, research has shown that benefits of moderate drinking include a reduction in heart disease, stroke and diabetes risk. Lower rates of mortality are also typical of moderate drinkers, when compared to former drinkers or teetotallers.
That said, the health benefits of Dry January, Sober October – or taking any other arbitrary month off your favourite poison – are clearly backed by research. The growing popularity of such initiatives should be roundly applauded.