The month-long public health campaign encourages people to abstain from alcohol as a way to improve wellness. Are there actual health benefits you can gain from Dry January? For the most part, experts say yes, but it’s not an absolute must for everyone to observe.
"Ultimately, sober months like Dry January can be harmless for the majority of the population who do not have a severe alcohol use disorder," said Dr. Deni Carise, the chief science officer at the Recovery Centers of America. "Diagnoses are characterized as mild, moderate or severe. Those who drink heavily could encounter very serious health risks when quitting abruptly and should take caution."
If you’re thinking of participating in Dry January this year, health considerations you should know before you ditch alcohol for 31 days.
Alcohol’s impact on physical health
Outside of saving money from all the alcoholic beverages, you won’t be purchasing for the month of January, the top health benefit you’ll receive is avoiding unnecessary calories. According to the USDA’s FoodData Central database, a can of beer is around 154 calories while a 5-ounce serving of wine is around 123 calories. Varying spirits and liquors like sake, whiskey, vodka, rum and gin tend to be under 100 calories, but that’s on a per-ounce basis that can quickly rack up when making a cocktail.
Calorie intake estimates published by the FDA state that men and women above the age of 21 can potentially consume 2,400 to 3,000 calories and 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day, respectively, depending on how active their lifestyles are.
Avoiding alcohol could potentially improve your digestive system. Alcohol is considered a diuretic, meaning it increases the passing of urine, which can a dehydrating effect if you’re not drinking enough water. Moreover, a study conducted by The American Journal of Gastroenterology found that "heavy alcohol intake" appears to "exacerbate gastrointestinal symptoms in adults with irritable bowel syndrome," which includes symptoms like abdominal and stomach pain, bloating, intestinal gas, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, heartburn and indigestion.
Drinking alcohol before bed has also been found to interrupt REM sleep and have insomnia-like effects, according to the Sleep Foundation. Refraining from alcoholic beverages at night and in general could potentially provide deeper, more consistent sleep, which might, in turn, offer more energy throughout the day.
Alcohol’s impact on mental health
Abstaining from alcohol can have positive effects on your mental health, according to Dr. Daryl Appleton, a psychotherapist who practices in NYC and New England.
"A lot of my clients engage in a Dry-January as a mental and emotional detox and ritual in self-control," said Appleton. "Depending on whom the person is, what their history contains and their intentions around drinking for the rest of the year dictate its impact one's overall health."
She continued, "On the positive side, allowing your body and brain to take a break from alcohol can potentially decrease cortisol and the stress it puts on the system, which allows for rest and repair. Since alcohol is a depressant, taking a break can also uncover if alcohol is masking emotional symptoms as a bandaid or is contributing to them by making anger, sadness and isolation feel worse."
Appleton added that sober months like Dry January help people evaluate their relationship with alcohol.
"On the not-so-healthy side, if someone has an alcohol use disorder obviously stopping cold can lead to severe withdrawals, seizures and even death," Appleton warned. "Understanding one’s relationship with alcohol is imperative before deciding to cut it off completely and suddenly."