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The Benefits of a Dry January

Choosing to forgo booze for a month can kick off a healthier lifestyle

bottle of Alcohol with lock on it


A British group launched the concept of giving up booze at the start of the year for a “total reset for the body and mind.”

En español | ’Tis the season to be jolly, but if your cheer this holiday ends up including a little too much eggnog, mulled wine and other tasty spirits, here’s something to consider: Dry January. It’s an increasingly popular practice in which people decide to give up alcohol for the entire month. Some do it as a sort of start-the-year-off-right detox, others to lose weight, join friends in a fun health challenge or, sometimes, test the seriousness of their dependence on drinking. 

The concept was introduced about 10 years ago in Britain by the nonprofit Alcohol Concern. Citing the country’s notorious problem with binge drinking, the organization, now known as Alcohol Change UK, pitches Dry January as a “total reset for the body and mind” — not to mention allowing yourself to “sleep better and have more energy, improve your mental health and concentration, look fabulous and get brighter skin, save money and feel an amazing sense of achievement.”

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The charity saw more than 130,000 participants sign up through the site in 2022, and it says many more have taken on the challenge on their own (its Dry January Facebook page puts the annual number of participants at “over 4 million”). Alcohol Change UK offers a Try Dry app that you can download to set goals and track your drinking. A study of Dry January participants from 2018 led by England’s University of Sussex found that after a month off from drinking (or even just trying to stop drinking), 67 percent of participants reported having more energy, 58 percent lost weight, and 57 percent had better concentration. 

The practice seems to inspire better habits beyond the 31 days, as well: The university researchers followed up with participants the following August and found that many were still drinking less than they were before their alcohol-free month.   

It’s also taken off in the United States, where industry data and analyst group CGA reports that 35 percent of consumers participated in 2022, compared with 21 percent in 2019. Although New Year’s resolutions are famously hard to stick to, 74 percent of people who committed to a dry January succeeded in their goal. CGA points to the growing range of nonalcoholic beers and wines and the trendy embrace of innovative mocktails.

David Oslin, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction at the University of Pennsylvania and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia, said aiming for a month of sobriety sets an obtainable goal, which is a solid method for behavior change: “It’s better to say, ‘I’m going to start with just focusing on January,’ and then when the end of January comes, you can think, ‘OK, was I successful? Now what am I going to do in February?’ ”

The problem is that some Dry January participants decide that what they’re going to do in February is drink. A lot. They call it Wet February in Britain.

There’s no real health benefit to cutting out alcohol for a month if you’re just going to go back to your old habits, said John Dyben, chief clinical officer at Origins Behavioral HealthCare, an addiction treatment center in West Palm Beach, Florida: “If someone’s doing the Dry January because they are thinking that it’s going to make up for the drinking during the year, then they’re fooling themselves. They will still have the deleterious effects of too much alcohol consumption.”

If you aren’t sure how much is too much, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which recommends that adults “can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed.” If you drink much above those limits, Dyben said, “you are doing some level of damage to your body, to your organs, especially the most important organ, the brain.”

Heavy drinking can lead to heart problems, liver damage, a weakened immune system and other health issues.

Dyben added that as we age, we need to be particularly careful because we have more body fat, less muscle and less total body water, which is important for metabolizing alcohol. The glass of wine that you have today “hits you more, faster and for longer” than it did when you were younger, he said.

And if you try to go dry in January and find yourself drinking well before the month is out, Oslin said, “that’s probably a good sign that it may be better for you to get some help.”

Some tips from Alcohol Change UK for staying dry — or even dryish — for a month:

  1. Practice saying no; tell people you’re doing Dry January, or come up with some other line because “sometimes it helps to have a ready-made reason if someone gets pushy and insists you join them in a tipple.”
  2. Try it with a pal; you can support and encourage each other.
  3. Avoid situations in which you might be tempted to drink; maybe meet a friend for a walk rather than at a bar.
  4. Keep a diary: “Record what’s new, what’s different, what’s better every day.” 

The organization warns that if you’re alcohol-dependent, it can be dangerous to stop drinking cold turkey; you’ll want to speak with your doctor about how to cut back safely.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published Dec. 27, 2017, has been updated to reflect new information.