Dry January: What are the benefits and drawbacks?

Is giving up alcohol for a month good for long-term health, can it be harmful, and is there anyone who shouldn’t participate? We ask the experts.

A woman refusing a glass of wine

Each year millions of us participate in charity campaigns or make a personal resolution to lay off the booze for a month at the start of the year with an estimated 4.2 million planning to take part in January 2019. But do we really know how these short periods of abstinence affect our long-term health? We asked leading experts to explain the potential benefits and drawbacks, and give their overall opinion on Dry January.

What is Dry January?

Dry January is a campaign run by Alcohol Change UK, in which participants give up alcohol for the month. Other charities run similar events, such as Dryathlon, organised by Cancer Research UK.

What do the experts say?

Giving up alcohol for a month may aid weight loss and lower blood pressure.

Dr Mehta, Senior Lecturer at the UCL Institute for Liver and Digestive Health

Dr Mehta co-authored a paper in May 2018 on the benefits of periods of abstinence such as Dry January. He says:

“Our work has shown that a month off alcohol, in healthy individuals drinking at moderate to high levels, does lead to tangible health benefits by the end of the month. Our study saw a weight loss of around 2kg, a decrease in blood pressure of around 5%, and improvement in diabetes risk of almost 30%. We also noted large decreases in blood growth factors that are linked to certain cancers. However, we don’t know how long these benefits last, or whether they translate to long-term improvements in health.”

But does it lead to longer term changes in drinking behaviours? Dr Mehta’s research suggests that it could. “At six to eight months after Dry January, the proportion of participants drinking at harmful levels decreased by about 50%. It may be that participating in Dry January allows individuals to ‘reset’ their relationship with alcohol.”

Dry January may have short-term health benefits, but longer term drinking patterns are important, too.

Marcus Munafò, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol

Professor Munafò agrees that periods of abstinence could be helpful, but highlights that cutting back over the whole year is also important.

“It’s worth bearing in mind that, to have a real benefit on health, people should be drinking within recommended low risk guidelines across the whole year. Dry January might be a helpful way to re-establish control over your drinking, and could have some short-term benefits (a lot of people report sleeping better, for example), but it’s unlikely to have major long-term health benefits in itself.
 
We also don’t really know whether short-term abstinence affects longer term drinking patterns, but it's possible. If people can use Dry January as a way of feeling more confident about managing their drinking generally, then that could translate to lower consumption overall across the whole year. However, it could also have unintended consequences – people might feel that they’ve ‘detoxed’ after a month of no drinking, and drink more than they otherwise would have done in subsequent months.”

A group of friends sharing a pizza and raising a toast

Dry January may promote self-awareness around drinking behaviours.

Ian Hamilton, Lecturer in Addiction at the University of York

Ian Hamilton says that Dry January may help drinkers to analyse their own habits and see where they could change them, but points out that it is a difficult area to research.

“Overall, Dry January is a good initiative as it prompts people to think about not just how much they drink but what their individual relationship with alcohol is. For example, if you often drink to relax, it might get people to think about alternative ways to relax rather than relying on alcohol.

The problem with Dry January is that it hasn't been independently evaluated. It might be that those people who participate and successfully go without alcohol for a month are those that are already drinking in moderation. Even if people do feel they benefit from Dry January it is difficult to know whether this is solely due to cutting out alcohol, as people tend to do parallel healthy things like eat more healthily and take up exercise.”

More research is needed before we can say this is the best approach.

Professor Matt Field, Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield

Professor Field points out that while the existing research into the longer-term effects on drinking patterns following Dry January seem promising, more robust studies are needed in order to determine whether it’s the best approach for people trying to cut down their alcohol intake. “The only way to find that out is to take a group of heavy drinkers who want to cut down, and randomise them to either abstain for a month, or try to cut down using a different approach, for example only drinking alcohol at weekends, or limiting consumption to a few drinks on each occasion.”

Is there anyone who shouldn’t participate in Dry January?

All the experts agree that people who are physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol should seek advice from a health professional before they commit to Dry January. This is because suddenly stopping drinking may cause withdrawal effects, which can be severe. If you are concerned about your drinking, speak to your GP.

Find out more...

How to drink responsibly
How many units are in alcoholic drinks?
How many calories are in alcoholic drinks?


This guide was published on 2nd January 2019.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
 

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