Comment: Dry January encourages a look at our drinking habits

More than a month-long break for the liver, some are reassessing alcohol’s effects on their daily lives.

By Lisa Jarvis / Bloomberg Opinion

We’re almost done with Dry January, a transatlantic experiment in abstention that started a decade ago in the United Kingdom. The concept of an annual break from drinking has become something of a cultural phenomenon, with some 15 percent of adults in the U.S. and U.K. participating this year.

The biggest benefit of Dry January seems to be in forcing us all to reflect honestly on our relationship with alcohol: How often and how much we drink, our triggers for drinking more, and how alcohol might be affecting our day-to-day lives.

The need to more deeply evaluate our habits is particularly acute coming out of the pandemic. Deaths in the U.S. from alcohol-related liver disease, which had already been slightly increasing between 2017 and 2019, rose sharply in 2020. A worrisome trend in increased alcohol consumption among women only worsened during the first year of the pandemic.

On its surface, it would seem that Dry January is the hard reset that everyone needs. But as I watch more friends participate in the break (and even dabble myself this year with more of a “damp” than a “dry” approach), I wonder how much we know about its value. Are people treating the month as the start of real change or is this more of a feel-good hiatus? And if Dry January simply begets Free-for-All February, does that temporary break make a difference in our health?

On that last question, experts in alcohol use disorder told me unequivocally that yes, even that short break can matter for our health. Just a few weeks off from drinking can do wonders for repairing the liver, and can improve insulin resistance and blood pressure in even moderate drinkers. And people typically report tangible improvements to their daily lives, like sleeping better and losing weight.

But do the behavioral changes carry through the rest of the year? Here, the answer seems more tentative. Most of the evidence that an annual pause alters our long-term behavior comes from a study out of the U.K. Researchers surveyed about 900 people who participated in Dry January at both the start and end of the month and again six months later. Overall, they found that even months later, participants felt more in control of their drinking; were imbibing on average one less day per week; and consumed about one less drink on the days they did partake, says Richard De Visser, the University of Sussex professor who led the study. “When you put those things together, it has a big benefit.”

Whether those outcomes translate to the U.S. remains to be seen. The U.K.’s efforts to help people succeed seem more coordinated than the ad hoc approach in the U.S. For example, people in the U.K. can formalize their commitment by signing up to participate through a website run by the British charity Alcohol Change UK, which also offers a related app to help keep them on track, both during and after Dry January. An analogous program might help Americans make Dry January less of a quick detox and more of a long-term habit.

Science aside, a simple gut check at the end of the break might be the most compelling reason for people to reassess their drinking habits. “If you do Dry January and you feel better, then your body is trying to tell you something,” says George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Listen to your body.”

Koob and other experts I spoke with suggest asking yourself a few basic questions: Did you sleep better this month? Did you have more energy or lose weight? Were you more regularly getting to work on time or having better interactions with your friends or family?

If the answer to some or all of those was yes, then you might want to seriously consider a drier 2023. Every expert I spoke with stressed that people don’t need to give up alcohol altogether, but cutting back can make a difference to our health.

Develop a plan for drinking less, says Henry Kranzler, director for the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, emphasizing that any reduction at all is good for you.

One of the best ways to reduce overall consumption is to take days off. Kranzler suggests taking one day off after any two consecutive days where alcohol is consumed.

And set limits for yourself, whether that’s the number of drinks consumed on a night out or a total amount for the week. If you’re at a bar, alternating between cocktails and mocktails can help you stick to those goals.

Small changes like this can halve weekly alcohol consumption for someone who previously might have downed a glass of wine or two with dinner every night, Kranzler says.

So before pouring that first glass of wine on Feb. 1, consider what you got out of the last few weeks. If you felt healthier or happier, make a plan for how you’re going to sprinkle some of the Dry January philosophy into the rest of the year.

Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.

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