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When you've swallowed all the spiked eggnog you can stand and sipped the last of winter's bubbly, you might need a break from alcohol. Enter Dry January, a time when many people choose to avoid booze for the whole month.
If you like to relax after work with a glass of wine, you’re not alone. In fact, recent research shows that during the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. adults drank alcohol 14% more frequently than they did before the pandemic. It probably comes as no surprise that people turned to alcohol when dealing with such uncertainty. “Alcohol hits the neurochemical pathways in our brain and releases endorphins that make us feel good,” says Michael Levy, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Florida and the author of Take Control of Your Drinking.. A beer or a cocktail can temporarily provide a sense of ease and comfort, so it’s no wonder so many of us gravitate to the drink to unwind.
Why do people do Dry January?
“Dry January appeals to someone who may have noticed a pattern that they’re drinking a little bit more than they should, especially during the holidays,” explains Levy. For women, a moderate consumption of alcohol is about one glass per day and no more than seven per week. Drinking more than that can lead to a slew of health issues, so a month-long break could be the kickstart you’re looking for in the new year.
When February hits, you might find that you don’t need alcohol as much as you thought and you could even reap some significant health benefits. “You may feel so good that you decide, what was I drinking for to begin with?” says Amy Knoblock-Hahn, Ph.D., R.D., a registered dietitian and health behavior expert at Whole Food Is Medicine in St. Louis.
How Dry January benefits your health:
You'll get a mood boost.
A glass of wine might seem to perk you up and wash the day’s worries away. Over time though, if consuming alcohol becomes a main coping strategy, it may hide underlying depression or anxiety, says Ashley Jones, APRN-CNP, a certified family nurse practitioner at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Alcohol tends to make these symptoms worse, so you may find that your mood is actually more stable when not consuming alcohol,” she says. While Dry January won’t remedy an illness like depression, stepping back from your nightly vino could help you assesses your motivation for drinking. When not self-medicating, you’ll be in a better position to recognize if you could benefit from a talk with your doctor, therapy or other natural mood lifters like exercise or spending time in nature.
You'll sleep more soundly.
After a night of drinking, it’s common to fall asleep quickly — only to reawaken a few hours later. Research suggests that may happen because alcohol interferes with our body's handling of the chemical adenosine. Even if your body doesn’t rouse you for a middle-of-the-night party, it’s likely you’ll rise groggy in the morning. That’s because drinking moderate or high amounts of alcohol decreases “restorative” REM sleep, according to a review in the journal Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research. Giving up drinking for a month may improve your sleep and give you more energy for other activities. (Like that resolution to be more active.)
You might notice less bloating or weight loss.
Depending on how much you were drinking before (as well as your starting weight), it’s possible you could lose a couple of pounds per week, says Knoblock-Hahn. Not only do boozy beverages add calories, those calories are liquid calories, which research shows don’t fill you up the way food calories do. “Many times, when people stop or cut back on drinking, they don’t replace those calories. You may find that just this one change helps you lose weight,” she says. You may also consume less junk food than you normally would when under the influence.
Editor's Note: Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on a diet, we invite you gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
You'll save money.
If you’ve been regularly shelling out $10 to $15 for a fancy cocktail or pour of wine, that adds up fast. And, while it’s natural to worry that you’ll be a fish out of water in social situations, chances are, you’ll be able to handle it better than you think. Your friends won't pay too much mind if you're sipping a bubbly with lime, and the server will be happy as long as you tip well when it's time to settle up.
Your skin might look brighter.
Alcohol is a known diuretic, which means it causes you to pee more than if you just drink water. As a result, it’s harder for the body to hydrate itself, which can lead to dry, lusterless skin. Alcohol also has the potential to increase hormones like estrogen and cortisol, as well as spike your blood sugar if you tend to reach for sugary cocktails — a recipe for breakouts. On top of all that, research has shown that the toxins in alcohol can speed up your skin’s aging process.
You'll have a stronger immune system.
Binge drinking (more than four drinks in a single occasion for women) may suppress your body’s immune response. A 2015 study found that when healthy folks (who normally consume low or moderate levels of alcohol) had an episode of binge drinking, their immunity initially rose. However, two to five hours later, levels of disease-fighting immune cells decreased. Researchers don’t know if this means you're more likely to be saddled with a sickness — but it’s certainly not a good thing if your immune system is taking a break.
You’ll feel better in the morning.
Even if you don’t wake up with a full-blown hangover after drinking, you likely aren’t waking up at your best. All of that poor sleep and dehydration can really put a damper on energy levels. When you’re thinking about having an alcoholic beverage, Levy says it’s a good idea to take a step back and think about your morning. “People, if they’re trying not to drink and they don’t, the next morning they’re going to say, ‘Oh, I’m glad I did not drink. It feels great,” says Levy. “If they do drink, I guarantee they are not going to say that.”
You'll have a new relationship with alcohol.
A pause on alcohol may help you realize that you don’t have to drink every day or even drink at all. “You may learn that you don’t need it in your life,” says Levy. If you do choose to drink again come February, the month off will also lower your tolerance, so you’ll be able to get a buzz on less. For Grace Atwood, founder of TheStripe.com and co-host of Bad on Paper Podcast, Dry January changed her relationship with alcohol for the better. “I no longer reach for that mindless glass of wine, and alcohol is more of a treat than a daily indulgence,” she says.
How to have a successful Dry January:
At the beginning of the month, Levy suggests thinking about why you want to take a break from drinking and write it down. Is it to sleep better? Is it to feel less bloated? Is it to set a better example for your kids? Then, when you're facing a particularly strong urge to drink, you can look back at what you wrote and remind yourself of your end goal. Keep writing throughout the month and Sheinbaum says this journal can also illustrate how ditching alcohol makes life better for you. "Document everything from how your skin looks, to your mood and energy, to the hours of sleep you're getting, and more," she advises.
Break up your routine.
If you’re used to going home and pouring a glass of red, you may feel a bit lost when you go dry. “Drinking gets set off by the triggers in the environment,” says Levy. For many people, that trigger might be taking off your shoes and settling in at the end of a long day. But if you delay your return home by say, taking a fitness class, running errands or seeing a movie with a friend, your whole routine is thrown off, along with your desire to drink. You don’t need to be gone all night — the idea is to get home at least after the “bewitching hour,” says Levy, which for many people is 7 p.m. Plus, you'll find that your evenings seem longer, and you'll feel sharper before you head to bed.
Recruit a friend.
It's how now-pro Hilary Sheinbaum accomplished Dry January initially. She's tacked that advice at the top of her month-long guide to going sober, The Dry Challenge. "This person (or group) will be there to keep you company as you look to partake in non-drinking activities, as you face similar feelings and potential obstacles, and if you need someone vent to," Sheinbaum tells Good Housekeeping. "On that note: they keep you accountable, too —you can even make a bet, like I did."
Start a new workout regimen.
Since drinking alcohol too often can leave you feeling tired and dehydrated, Dry January might be the best time to develop a new gym habit. Without the booze, you could have a surge of energy. And when you’re working out several times a week, you might not want to reach for the bottle as often so you feel fresh at the gym.
Find a substitute.
If drinking is a habit, you’ve got to find a replacement sip. Water is always the best choice, says Knoblock-Hahn. However, a tall ice water won't do it for everyone. In that case, you'll have to look for ways to make the water taste good and feel special. Try infusing it with sliced citrus fruits, berries or cucumber and mint. Or pour a can of naturally flavored sparkling water like LaCroix or Spindrift into a wine glass. You might also like kombucha, which has the “bite” that alcohol does. Ready-to-drink mocktails like Tost can also get you through the month without making you feel like you’re missing out.
Rethink happy hour.
For some, being around alcohol is going to present too many temptations. For others, it's no big deal. “If it’s particularly challenging, you may be better off taking a break from activities like happy hour or boozy dinners with friends for the month,” says Levy.
Cultivate a new way to cope.
If the glass of vino is one way you use to de-stress after the day, you need an alternate way to simmer down. When times get frazzled and you’re looking to have a drink or stress eat, Knoblock-Hahn recommends the "distract and delay" tactic. Leave the kitchen and go to another room to read a book or magazine. Do a few light stretches or breathing exercises. “Often when you delay you find, you know what, I don’t need to have it,” she says.
Remember why you’re having a dry month.
“People should realize that at certain times they will want to drink and that is completely normal,” says Levy. “Obviously alcohol can be enjoyable — if it wasn’t, no one would ever drink!” When you feel that urge to indulge, Levy suggests telling yourself, “Of course I want to drink but I can choose not to drink today because …” and focus on your reasons for abstaining in the first place.
Be kind to yourself.
Because drinking is so ingrained in our culture, whether you’re celebrating a wedding or mourning the loss of a friend, it can be very difficult to abstain from alcohol for a whole month. “People are often their own worst critics and get down on themselves — and give on their dry month — if they have one alcoholic beverage,” says Sheinbaum. “If this happens, brush it off and call it a One-Drink January or a Damp January and pick up where you left off.” Remember the point of attempting a month without alcohol isn’t to feel bad about yourself. The goal is to become more mindful of the role alcohol plays in your life. If it leads you to drink less than you normally would, that’s a win even if you still enjoyed an alcoholic beverage.
Maintain your momentum.
Set rules for yourself about how you want to deal with alcohol going forward. “Determining guidelines will prevent you from falling back into your old routine,” says Levy. The key is to be specific. Rather than “I’m going to drink less now,” say that you’re going to drink only on Friday and Saturday nights. While you’re at it, consider a limit, too, like having one glass of wine. (You’re an adult; you get to determine the rules that work for you.)
Know when to get help from a pro.
If the urge to drink feels out of your control, you feel guilty about your drinking or if it causes problems for you at work or in your relationships and you’re unable to stop drinking, alcohol may have become a problem that Dry January just can’t fix. “The first thing I would do is try to find a therapist who clearly has a specialty or subspecialty in alcohol use disorders,” says Levy. Together, you and your therapist can assess your situation and figure out what’s going on and how you can move forward in a healthier and happier way.
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