Dry January, aka ditching alcohol in the first month of the new year, is an annual tradition for many people. For some, it’s part of a New Year’s resolution to drink less, while others say it’s a good way to "detox" from excessive drinking over the holidays—but all swear that it’s going to do beneficial things for their health. Instagram is now flooded with #DryJanuary posts featuring mocktail recipes, pledges of healthy habits, and people joking about how much they’re already struggling with going alcohol-free for the month.
But does avoiding alcohol for a month do much for your health? Experts say it can—if you approach it the right way.
“For some people, it can be a great way to hit the reset button and get their systems back on track,” New York-based R.D. Jessica Cording tells SELF. Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., agrees, telling SELF that “it's not a bad idea, especially if you are trying to cut down on your drinking.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines excessive alcohol use as having five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more drinks on one occasion for women. And, the CDC reports, most people who drink excessively are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent.
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Excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to several negative health effects, including weight gain, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, Wider points out. “Excessive drinking also impairs your sleeping patterns and increases the risk for certain diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and liver problems,” she says.
Over time, excessive drinking can lead to learning, memory, and mental health problems, including dementia, depression, and anxiety, the CDC reports. The CDC says people can lower their risk of developing any of these issues by “not drinking too much.” England’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence goes as far to say that people who are heavy drinkers should regularly be screened by their primary care physicians for cirrhosis of the liver, a condition in which healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue, eventually keeping the liver from functioning properly.
As such, Frank Lipman, M.D., founder of BeWell, tells SELF that giving up alcohol for a month is a good way to "rest" your liver. "The liver is the largest internal organ we’ve got, but few of us pay it any mind until we’ve got a serious health problem," he says. "While we’re busy ignoring our liver, it’s busy managing hundreds of bodily functions, including supporting metabolism, controlling blood sugar, and regulating fat storage." He recommends showing your liver some additional love (during Dry January and onward) by eating a steady stream of nutrient-dense, plant-based foods, good fats, and high-quality animal protein.
Cording says participating in Dry January can also help you kickstart any New Year’s weight-loss goals you may have. “Alcohol contributes calories but doesn't make us feel more satisfied—it often amps up hunger,” she explains. “Though there are some benefits related to antioxidants in many alcoholic beverages, when we consume too much, it cancels out that good stuff.”
Since alcohol has a dehydrating effect, it can contribute to bloating, she says, noting that its ability to impair your judgment may also lead you to make poor food choices that can contribute to weight gain. If you’re a pretty heavy drinker, Cording says the simple act of going alcohol-free for the month may help you lose a few pounds since you aren’t drinking excessive calories anymore, but it also has a domino effect. “It may help you feel more clear-headed and experience better sleep along with regular digestion,” she says. “This can help you feel more energetic and stay motivated to get in your workouts and stick to overall healthy eating habits.”
"Reduction of a 'bad' habit is always good," Marc Leavey, M.D., an internist at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF. But taking a pass on alcohol for a month and then resuming your usual drinking habits isn’t going to do much for your long-term health if you tend to overdo it. “This isn’t a great pattern: binge/abstain, binge/abstain,” Wider says. “Just like other substances, alcohol in excess has health consequences, regardless of whether you go dry for a month.” That's why she says it’s better for your overall health to be a moderate drinker in general rather than going from one extreme to the other.
Cording agrees. “This is a great time to think about what a realistic amount of alcohol is for your lifestyle,” she says. “Think about how to fit it in in a way that feels balanced.” For example, if you know you usually feel good when you have three drinks a week, keep that in mind when deciding whether to have a drink. “If the happy hour wine isn't something you'll truly love, skip it and enjoy your favorite another night, or give yourself permission to spend a little extra money on something you'll savor and only need one glass of,” Cording says.
Bottom line: It doesn't hurt to participate in Dry January, but you'll reap the most health benefits if you think of it as a springboard to revisit your overall relationship with alcohol. Leavey recommends using Dry January as a motivational starting point to push your drinking behavior into a healthy range, and then stick with that going forward.