Can ditching alcohol for a month really improve your health?

By Alistair Gardiner
Published January 18, 2021

Key Takeaways

It’s that time of year again. People across the globe are taking part in Dry January, the annual tradition of abstaining from booze for an entire month.

Dry January began in the United Kingdom in 2013, as a way to raise awareness about alcohol abuse and has since spread across the world. Most participants sign on as a resolution to start the year off healthy—and cutting down drinking is a prime target. According to one estimate, roughly 6.5 million UK residents planned to start 2021 with a month of sobriety.

Millions of Americans are jumping on the bandwagon too. One in seven people recently surveyed said they planned to participate in Dry January, according to a Forbes report. A poll by Morning Consult of 2,200 American adults earlier this month found that 13% were giving up alcohol in January, compared to 11% in previous years. Similarly, a YouGov survey of nearly 15,000 Americans from late December found that 15% of all US adults planned to participate in Dry January, up from 10% last year.

But the question remains: Does a single month of teetotaling benefit participants’ health in any meaningful way? Now that we’re more than halfway through the month—when many may be wondering whose idea this was in the first place—here’s what the research says about Dry January.

Take control over drinking habits

It may seem like taking a month off drinking will lead to an even greater urge for debauchery once it’s over. But the findings of one study, which specifically focused on the outcomes of Dry January participation, indicate otherwise.

The research, led by Richard de Visser, PhD, of the University of Sussex, England, looked at the habits of more than 800 people who took part in Dry January in 2018. De Visser collected survey responses from participants at the beginning of January, in the first week of February, and then in August.

As of the final follow-up, participants reported that on average, the number of days they drink fell from 4.3 to 3.3 per week. The average number of units per drinking day declined from 8.6 to 7.1, and the frequency of getting drunk decreased from 3.4 to 2.1 times per month. De Visser noted that even those who didn’t stay entirely alcohol-free during January still reported drinking less by August of that year. He concluded that by simply taking one month off alcohol, participants took control over their drinking habits and ultimately consumed less alcohol.

Health, wealth, and happiness

Consumption of alcohol is largely detrimental to overall health. In fact, there’s almost no part of the body that booze doesn’t negatively impact.

Alcohol interferes with neural pathways and can disrupt mood, behavior, cognition, and coordination. It damages the heart by means of cardiomyopathy and can result in arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure. Drinking can take a toll on the liver, leading to inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and other problems. Research also suggests that alcohol can increase risks of developing a variety of types of cancer and weaken the immune system.

On the other side of the coin, limiting or abstaining from alcohol is associated with boosts to health—even if a drinker can stay dry for only a short time period. 

One study, published in 2018 in BMJ, sought to investigate the health impacts of 1 month of abstinence from alcohol. Using a cohort of 94 participants who stopped drinking for a month and a control group of 47 individuals who continued to drink, researchers looked at changes in metabolic risk factors and cancer-related growth factors. These included changes in insulin resistance, body weight, blood pressure, vascular endothelial growth factor, epidermal growth factor, and liver function tests.

Researchers found that the abstinence group demonstrated significant reductions in insulin resistance (-25.9%), systolic blood pressure (-6.6%), diastolic BP (-6.3%), weight (-1.5%), vascular endothelial growth (-41.8%), and epidermal growth factor (−73.9%). They concluded that cutting out booze, even just for 1 month, can improve health considerably, decreasing risks of developing cancer and metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.

Likewise, the aforementioned University of Sussex research into Dry January found that participants reported improvements in well-being, based on various criteria. Just over 70% of participants reported that they were sleeping better, and nearly 60% reported losing weight. More than half of all participants reported that their skin had improved and they experienced better concentration. While 88% of participants reported saving more money, 71% found that they no longer needed alcohol to enjoy themselves. 

To drink or not to drink?

Perhaps equally encouraging, 82% of participants in the University of Sussex study found themselves thinking more deeply about their relationship with alcohol, a change that could help them develop or maintain a healthy level of alcohol consumption.

The recently released publication, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, advises limiting your alcohol consumption, for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, evidence indicates that alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes compared with those who drink less, and regularly drinking increases risks of various ailments, from liver disease to cardiovascular disease. 

Beyond this, regular drinking can make it tricky to meet nutritional needs and remain within the recommended level of daily calorie intake, due to the high level of calories in alcoholic beverages. If your preferred tipple is a mixed drink with soda, you’ll likely run up against the recommended daily intake of sugars, too. According to the dietary guidelines, 12 ounces of regular beer typically amounts to 150 calories, while a mixed drink can add up to 190 calories.

But if abstention is not in the cards, the guidelines recommend no more than one alcoholic drink per day for women and no more than two for men. Even so, evidence suggests that drinking within these limits will increase the risks of several types of cancer and cardiovascular complications. 

So is Dry January worth it in terms of health? The science says yes—even if the undertaking only begins to reduce a participant’s alcohol consumption.

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