Diet and Nutrition; Prevention

Dry January: The health benefits of going 31 days without alcohol

Diet and Nutrition; Prevention

Young woman holding a boba drink and looking happy.
Eliminating alcohol for even a month can improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and help lower your blood pressure.

The U.S. has had a long, complicated relationship with alcohol. From the Prohibition era to today's popular culture of hard seltzers and celebrity tequilas, drinking has been ingrained in our social activities. We celebrate with beers when our teams win and give toasts for weddings and work promotions, and especially on festive occasions like New Year’s Eve.

Of course, the new year is also a popular time to take stock of your health and lifestyle choices, press the reset button, and dive into resolutions such as Dry January. The post-holiday sobriety challenge, which started in the U.K. in 2013, has been embraced by more people each year. About 41% of U.S. adults surveyed said they intended to give Dry January a try in 2023.

Several studies have shown that reducing or eliminating alcohol long term can significantly decrease the risk of cancer, as well as heart and liver problems. But even a short break can make a positive impact on your health by lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, improving sleep and, in some cases, losing weight.

So, now is as good a time as any to try the sober-curious lifestyle. The communal aspect of the Dry January challenge might make it easier, too, particularly if you have friends or family members who want to join you in abstaining from alcohol for 31 days. The dry month is also an opportune time to examine your relationship with alcohol and decide if you might want to change your drinking habits to improve your health.

holiday wine drink

Scoring your pour

A “drink” is defined by the CDC as:

12 oz. of beer (5% alcohol by volume, or ABV).
8 oz. of malt liquor (7% ABV).
1.5 oz. of liquor (standard shot glass size, 40% ABV, 80 proof).
5 oz. of wine (12% ABV).

But many bars and home bartenders don't measure drinks this way.

How much drinking is too much?

Low-risk drinking is defined as having no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two a day for men – a difference due to general weight and size. High-risk drinking is more than three drinks a day for women and four a day for men, and this is considered higher risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

It’s easy to lose track of how much alcohol you consume during the week. Craft beers and specialty cocktails may have a higher ABV, and restaurants and bars may add more alcohol or pour drinks in larger glasses. If you are making drinks at home, you likely aren’t measuring each pour.

To explore whether your drinking patterns are low-risk or potentially problematic, take this 11-question quiz. You’ll get your results immediately after you click Submit.

Short-term benefits of Dry January

Going alcohol-free for January can provide quick health and wellness wins. Right off the bat, you’ll likely save money – alcohol prices increased 10% between March 2020 and March 2023.

A 2018 study showed that regular drinkers who took a monthlong break from alcohol showed improvement in three key areas:

  • Weight: Participants lost weight and improved insulin resistance, which influences hunger and feelings of fullness. Alcohol provides empty calories, which don’t add nutritional value but can contribute to weight gain.
  • Blood pressure: Drinking can cause the blood vessels to narrow, which can make existing hypertension worse. Having one drink a day can contribute to developing high blood pressure, especially after age 35.
  • Liver function: Limiting alcohol for a month can help decrease inflammation, which lowers the risk of developing fatty liver disease, a condition that can progress into cirrhosis of the liver.

Sleep also improves with a reduction in alcohol consumption. While people may enjoy a nightcap, thinking it helps them unwind, alcohol actually has the opposite effect – it causes fragmented sleep, which means you won’t get deep sleep and you’ll wake up more often. If you do want an evening drink, good sleep hygiene dictates you avoid alcohol three hours before bedtime.

According to American Addiction Centers, drinking increases stress in the body, which disrupts normal production and regulation of the stress hormone cortisol. Alcohol use can worsen existing anxiety and depression and lead to new diagnoses. Cutting back can improve symptoms, including “hangxiety” – struggling with hangover-related anxiety, restless sleep, and irritability.

Perhaps most importantly, taking a break from drinking gives you time to reflect on your relationship with alcohol. Drinking can trigger the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation. Overindulging can disrupt natural dopamine production, causing the brain to rely on alcohol to feel good. Taking a four-week break helps the body reset and allows you to acknowledge how you feel without alcohol. Going forward, you can make an informed decision about whether to drink alcohol and, if so, how to do it in a way that better serves your health.

Long-term benefits of avoiding alcohol

If you decide to stop drinking, you could experience a range of health benefits, such as reducing the risk of:

  • Cancer: Several types of cancer are associated with alcohol use, including breast, colorectal, head and neck, and liver cancers.
  • Infection and illness: Eliminating the stress that alcohol causes in the body gives your immune system a break, reducing the risk of infection.
  • Diabetes complications: Alcoholic drinks often contain a lot of sugar and carbohydrates, along with empty calories that contribute to weight gain. Sobriety helps improve insulin efficiency, which helps alleviate digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea.
  • Obesity and fatty liver disease: We’re seeing a rise in cases of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) due to the prevalence of obesity. Eliminating alcohol may slow the progression of NAFLD-related liver damage, such as cirrhosis.
  • Heart complications: Reduced drinking helps lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and dilated cardiomyopathy, which is heart muscle damage that can lead to heart failure.

Related reading: Be SMART about your health and fitness resolutions

Tips to start reducing alcohol in your life

Going “cold turkey” is generally safe for occasional to moderate drinkers who want to scale back. High-risk drinkers may require medical support for better outcomes with less withdrawal symptoms. Talk with your primary care provider about resources to help you meet your goal.

Here are five more strategies to make your Dry January a smooth and satisfying way to start the year.

Mocktails have become quite sophisticated, mimicking the flavor of popular adult beverages like the mojito – minus the alcohol.

1. Share your social challenge

Talking with friends about your decision to drink less can help you stay accountable to your goal. Set up a Dry January challenge with friends or join a social media group to get built-in support.

2. Be ready to respond to triggers

Do you always have a beer with friends for the game? Or sip wine at book club? Think about how you are going to handle offers of alcohol. Plan to enjoy alcohol alternatives – if you aren’t usually a soda drinker, you could indulge in a Dr Pepper as your special drink on a night out. Or try a mocktail that helps you feel included while sticking to your plan. Here are a couple of creative mocktail recipes from the Food Network: a sparkling tropical mocktail, and a nonalcoholic mojito (skip the nonalcoholic spirits for a more cost-effective option).

3. Eat well and exercise

Drinking increases fatigue and decreases energy – it puts the body in recovery mode, fighting inflammation and repairing cell damage. When you take a break from alcohol consumption, your body can use that energy to enjoy more healthy activities.

A study published in spring 2023 showed that exercise such as running, walking, and resistance training provides physical and mental health benefits for people during substance use disorder treatment. Those benefits include improvement in:

  • Muscle strength and endurance.
  • Blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Body composition.
  • Cravings.
  • Flexibility and balance.
  • Skeletal health.
  • Mood and memory.
  • Self-esteem.

Upping your water intake during an alcohol break can help refresh your body and mind, too, because too much alcohol can cause dehydration. You might also start making healthier food choices and reducing the urge to order takeout after a night of drinking.

4. Remember you are still fun!

You may feel as if you’re the “life of the party” when you drink, but that lifestyle probably won’t serve you well and isn’t sustainable long term. As you pivot from being “that” guy or gal, you’ll likely make new, rewarding relationships with friends when you are coherent and communicative. Maybe sober you is even more fun!

5. Be a supportive friend

If someone chooses not to drink, they are under no obligation to explain their decision. Don’t press them and suggest “one drink won’t hurt you” or ask intrusive questions such as “Are you not drinking because you’re pregnant?” Encourage friends to extend that same courtesy to you.

If you are sober-curious and looking for a starting point, talk with your primary care provider. We can help you create an effective, sustainable plan to put you in control of your relationship with alcohol.

To talk with a provider, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.