By Markham Heid
Maybe you’ve heard of “Dry January”? It’s an alcohol abstinence campaign, launched a few years ago, that encourages people to give up drinking for the first month of the year. (“Sober September” is a similar public health initiative.) Dry January’s organizers say a month without booze can promote weight loss, improve sleep and energy levels, and offer many other health benefits.
Many Americans are boozing more than they should. Roughly one in seven adults meets the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). These criteria include occasionally drinking enough to black out or drinking to the point that alcohol is interfering with your work or social life.
By some estimates, men are actually drinking a little less than they used to, while women are drinking more. Between 2002 and 2013, rates of binge drinking jumped 14 percent among women and declined slightly among men. “Men and women are moving in entirely different directions in terms of alcohol use,” says Aaron White, an alcohol researcher and senior scientific adviser at the NIAAA.
For people who abuse alcohol, the benefits of cutting back or abstaining are multiple. Heavy long-term drinking — usually defined as knocking back more than one drink a day for women or more than two for men — is associated with an increased risk for liver disease, heart disease, and some forms of cancer (including cancers of the breast, colon, mouth, and throat).
While the evidence is controversial and often contradictory, some research suggests moderate drinkers may want to consider some of these health issues. A widely covered 2018 study in the Lancet found that, compared to nondrinkers, those who downed just one or two drinks a day were at a higher risk for death and disease. But the jump in risk was small, and the study also found only a correlational link, not a causal one.
But does taking a single month off drinking change your risk for any of these health problems? Probably not.
While the research on short-term abstinence is limited, a small 2018 study found moderate to heavy drinkers who cut out booze for a month enjoyed improvements in blood sugar and blood pressure scores, as well as healthier liver function. And White says many Dry January participants report benefits ranging from healthier skin to better sleep and energy levels.
Abstainers may also lose some weight. “Alcohol certainly provides extra calories,” says Jean-Philippe Chaput, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who has studied the relationship between alcohol and obesity. “If the reduction in alcohol consumption is not compensated for by an increase in food intake” — and that’s a big if — “then weight loss should occur.”
The problem is that none of these health perks will persist if an abstainer goes right back to drinking on February 1. “One of the criticisms of these campaigns is that if you don’t sustain it, there is no benefit,” White says.
There may even be a few short-term risks. Some animal research suggests moderate drinkers who stop may be at increased risk for depression. And while the association between alcohol and sleep is complicated, abstinence could also trigger insomnia in some drinkers, more research shows.
White says that some people who partake in Dry January may experience a harmful rebound effect. There’s evidence that dieters who give up sweets for a week tend to overindulge after their period of deprivation. White says this same phenomenon could crop up among Dry January participants.
But for most, he says these concerns don’t outweigh the potential benefits. “One of the reasons we’re excited about these campaigns is that every person who does it is going to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol,” he says.
For example, drinkers who take a break may realize that alcohol was messing with their sleep, upsetting their stomach, or sapping their energy, White says. Others may notice symptoms of alcohol withdrawal — including anxiety, sweating, jitteriness, or headaches. These and other Dry January revelations may encourage some to cut back even after the month is up, which could lead to meaningful health improvements. Some of the early research on Dry January has found that, six months after the monthlong break, roughly half of participants report drinking fewer days a week and drinking less when they do imbibe.
“I think that, at the very least, taking a break allows you to see your alcohol habit through a clearer lens,” White says. “Some people may go through this and say, ‘You know what, I like my glass of wine. I’m cool with my drinking.’ But I think others are going to be shocked by how much they were dependent on alcohol.”
“Sometimes,” he adds, “you don’t realize you have a problem with alcohol until you take the alcohol away.”