DRY JANUARY, a tradition invented by the Brits that’s now rapidly gaining popularity with their equally boozy cousins across the pond! Every year, hundreds of thousands of people commit to quitting alcohol for January. It’s easy to see why such a tradition has taken hold – the Christmas period is associated with overindulgence and frivolity, and a reason to cut back on spending and an unhealthy lifestyle is surely welcomed by many. Those people who have made it this far into January will no doubt be fully committed to completing their challenge. So, for the strong few who do make it all the way to February 1 without a sip of beer or a glass of wine, are there really any health benefits? And if so, what are they?
Despite what has been said in the news this week, the short answer is yes, short-term abstinence from alcohol does have health benefits, but you might be surprised just what those benefits are! Whilst the traditional effects of sobriety (improved skin, weight loss, lower blood pressure and heart health) normally take longer to manifest themselves than just four weeks. There are a whole range of benefits that show much more quickly.
Locking up your bar cabinet for a month gives you the opportunity to step away from alcohol, and really consider your relationship with it. Many people undertake Dry January light-heartedly, perhaps with a group of friends, and are shocked at their own inability to abstain from alcohol. Sobriety is something I always recommend to my patients, and they are often surprised by the strength and speed with which real cravings (both mental and physical) manifest themselves as irritability or stress – which brings me onto my next point!
Taking a whole month off alcohol is great for your clarity of mind, and can often completely change people’s perception of their lives, or the world in its entirety. It’s no surprise that the medical community recommends sobriety as an absolute must for those suffering with depression or anxiety, issues that are sadly growing in prevalence across the world year-on-year. Deprived of alcohol, people often begin to reassess their social habits and routines, and many are shocked just how much of their social life and relationships are built around the consumption of alcohol, rather than built on true foundations of trust and mutual respect. Alcohol itself is a depressant, with immediate and longer-term consequences that come from the way the it acts on the neurotransmitters in the brain. The result is that those who regularly consume alcohol are almost permanently affected by it, even when they’re not technically “drunk”.
Alcohol also plays havoc with your circadian rhythm, and it’s one of the most immediate and noticeable changes that people experience as soon as they stop drinking. Many people enjoy a nightcap before bed, without realising the negative effects the drug is having on your sleep. Although a sedative, alcoholic drinks disrupt natural sleep cycles, acting on the suprachiasmatic nucleus, leading to what’s known as “paradoxical sleep”, or the phenomenon in which the body is resting, but the mind continues to work. This disrupts REM sleep, and leaves us with the familiar feeling of being exhausted when we wake up.
The news cycle recently has done much to convince us that Dry January is little more than a fad, undertaken by guilty over-indulgers so they can tell themselves they aren’t alcoholics. This pessimistic view certainly makes the headlines, but does little to represent the bigger picture. Yes, it does take more than a month for many of the benefits of sobriety to start to show, but that absolutely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, as for many – the short term benefits are just as important!