Counseling patients on the risks and benefits of ‘Dry January’

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published December 26, 2023
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Key Takeaways

  • Many patients drink more than they should; “Dry January,” a common practice of abstaining from alcohol for the first month of the year, is a good time to broach the subject.

  • Motivational interviewing can help reach patients at varying levels of readiness to stop or reduce drinking.

  • Dry January can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms for some patients, so education and monitoring are essential.

Over the past decade, a growing number of people in the US and UK have greeted the New Year with a month-long respite from alcohol. Under the tradition known as Dry January, participants put down the bottle and take a break from boozing.

For physicians, Dry January is an opportunity to discuss alcohol intake. However, despite the widespread benefits of not drinking for most people, stopping suddenly could put heavy drinkers at risk for dangerous withdrawals. 

In addition, Dry January’s all-or-nothing mindset may set some patients up for rebound binges without the proper support in place. Here’s how providers can leverage their patients’ motivation in January for sustainable improvements all year.

Earn buy-in with motivational interviewing

Although it’s common to exceed the recommended limits for alcohol, not everyone is ready to cut back. Before making suggestions or offering unsolicited advice, physicians should start with motivational interviewing techniques to effectively reach patients who are on the fence about change. 

It’s possible that even one or two counseling sessions leading up to the end of the year can solidify a patient’s drive for an initiative like Dry January.

An effective counseling session can start with a brief conversation.[] While you’ll need to tailor your approach to the patient’s readiness level, some general questions include:

  • How would you like to change your relationship with alcohol?

  • What benefits do you think you’d experience from taking a break from drinking?

  • What are the downsides of continuing your current level of drinking?

These questions can help elicit “change talk,” which you can then reinforce by affirming statements that support positive changes. For instance, if the patient says, “A break from drinking would probably help me lose weight and save money,” you can respond by saying, “It’s possible that your health and finances would improve if you didn’t drink.” 

As patients show more interest and willingness to change, you can steer the conversation to education and goal-setting.

Successful teetotaling tips

A study cited by Harvard Health Publishing found that by avoiding alcohol for 1 month, abstainers experienced better sleep, more energy, weight loss, reduced cancer-related blood proteins, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.[]

"For patients who are open to it, sharing the pros of alcohol abstinence can cement their commitment to drinking less."

Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N

Encourage patients to explore the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s website, Rethinking Drinking, as a helpful resource with tools to cut back.[] Providers may also help patients by setting up support groups for Dry January in the office or online. For accountability, refer patients to apps like the Try Dry app, which shows how much money and calories are saved each day by not drinking. 

Some things that patients can do to increase their success include modifying their environment for Dry January, and removing alcohol from the house or considering non-alcoholic substitute drinks. 

"Although Dry January is meant to eliminate alcohol completely, patients should be prompted to keep trying even if they slip up during the month."

Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N

Precautions to keep in mind

If someone drinks regularly and suddenly stops, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can range from shaky hands to life-threatening effects. In severe withdrawal, dysfunction of the autonomic system and alteration in vital signs lead to delirium tremens, where patients experience sweating, agitation, hyperthermia, hallucinations, tachycardia, and hypertension.[] These symptoms can last a week or longer.

HCPs should educate patients on the signs and symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal so they know when to seek medical attention.

It’s important for patients to feel supported in their decision to stop drinking—informing them of the potential side effects and treatment options can help heavy drinkers make the journey to sobriety safely. 

Long-acting benzodiazepines are commonly recommended to treat severe withdrawals. Depending on the patient’s comorbidities and social support, medical monitoring in an inpatient or outpatient setting may be recommended. Ultimately, these patients should be connected to a social worker or long-term treatment program.

What this means for you

Alcohol consumption is a modifiable health risk factor that can be addressed through public initiatives like Dry January. Motivational interviewing is an effective way to induce patients to make a positive change. Healthcare providers have a responsibility to provide patients with resources and support, along with the necessary education to recognize withdrawal symptoms, once they do stop drinking.

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