Dry January, aka ditching alcohol in the first month of the new year, is an annual tradition for many people. For some, it’s part of a New Year’s resolution to drink less, while others claim it’s a way to “detox” from excessive drinking over the holidays—but all swear that it’s going to do beneficial things for their health. Instagram is now flooded with #DryJanuary posts featuring mocktail recipes, pledges of healthy habits and people joking about how much they’re already struggling with going alcohol-free for the month.
But does avoiding alcohol for a month do much for your health? Experts say it can—if you approach it the right way.
First, consider why you’re committing to Dry January in the first place.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with abstaining from or limiting your alcohol intake. Excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to several negative health effects, including weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. “Excessive drinking also impairs your sleeping patterns and increases the risk for certain diseases, including breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and liver problems,” she says.
But taking a one-month hiatus from drinking won’t necessarily turn back the clock—nor will it make it acceptable to drink as much as you want the rest of the year. So it’s important to consider why you’re taking a break from drinking this month.
“The biggest benefit is learning where your body is in relation to alcohol and what you want your relationship with it to be,” George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells SELF. If, for instance, you’ve been feeling not your best lately and you suspect that your regular (or excessive) drinking habits might be contributing to that, it could be helpful to see how you’re feeling (mentally, physically, socially, etc.) when you don’t have booze for a month.
“For some people, it can be a great way to hit the reset button and get their systems back on track,” New York-based R.D. Jessica Cording tells SELF. Wider agrees, telling SELF that “it’s not a bad idea, especially if you are trying to cut down on your drinking.”
Before locking up your bar cabinet, consider how much you’re actually drinking these days.
In most cases, your Dry January “results” will depend on what your baseline drinking behaviors are, explains Koob, since someone who drinks occasionally probably won’t notice as much of a difference as someone who has four or five drinks in one night—several nights a week. So, for our intents and purposes, let’s assume we’re talking about someone who drinks more than what’s considered “moderate,” which actually depends on who’s defining “moderate.”
The USDA Dietary Guidelines defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women, while the NIAAA defines low-risk drinking as no more than seven drinks per week for women, or no more than three drinks on any single day. So if you’re drinking a lot more than that, keep in mind that this transition may be a bit harder for you than someone else.
You should also be careful—and possibly give your doctor a heads up—before abruptly stopping drinking if you’ve been drinking a lot, as you may experience withdrawal symptoms. “Most people are going to think of it like a hangover but if you have a predisposition to seizures or you’re on seizure medication, abruptly stopping alcohol could trigger a seizure,” says Koob.
So what health benefits can you reasonably expect after a month without drinking?
If you’re having several drinks a week, one of the main benefits of sober January could be a decrease in your overall calories, since a standard drink typically has around 150 calories, says Koob. If you’re trying to lose weight, cutting alcohol is one way to do it without compromising any of the fuel and nutrients your body needs. “Alcohol contributes calories but doesn’t make us feel more satisfied—it often amps up hunger,” Cording explains. Since alcohol has a dehydrating effect, it can also contribute to bloating, she says, noting that its ability to impair your judgment may also lead you to make poor food choices that can contribute to weight gain.
Other possible dry January benefits? “It may help you feel more clear-headed and experience better sleep along with regular digestion,” Cording says. “This can help you feel more energetic and stay motivated to get in your workouts and stick to overall healthy eating habits.” And the sheer fact that you’re not going out drinking most nights can lead to sleeping more and skipping fewer workouts. All of that can impact how productive you are, how focused you are at work and how you feel overall, says Koob.
When it comes to your immune system, the snowball effect of positive health habits may be more influential than just abstaining from alcohol. According to Koob, being intoxicated can acutely suppress immune function making you more vulnerable to pathogens, while chronic drinking can lead to inflammatory reactions throughout the body. While there isn’t data to suggest that ditching booze can protect you from the flu, it’s reasonable to assume that drinking less, sleeping more and exercising more can all have a positive influence on your immune system.
While we don’t know exactly what effect dry January will have on your liver, we do know that alcohol puts metabolic stress on the liver and that about half of all liver disease deaths are from alcoholic liver disease, says Koob. So it’s reasonable to assume that abstaining from drinking is generally good on your liver—as long as you don’t use this hiatus as an excuse to drink however much you want the other 11 months of the year.
Once Dry January is over, don’t forget to check in with yourself before toasting your success.
Do you feel better? Healthier? More productive? Have you saved money? Do you really miss being able to chat with colleagues or a date over a beer? Maybe you’ve found that you’re more energized without all those hangovers, or you’re less anxious after a night of drinking. Or maybe you’ve found that you lost a few pounds, but you otherwise feel the same and just miss the social aspects of drinking with friends. All of these are helpful takeaways to consider after your experiment.
Oh, and don’t forget that your tolerance to alcohol’s effects will often be lower after a month without drinking, Koob says, so be careful not to overdo it the first time you have a drink again.
Bottom line: It doesn’t hurt to participate in Dry January, but you’ll reap the most health benefits if you think of it as a springboard to revisit your overall relationship with alcohol.
Remember, ditching alcohol for a month and then resuming your usual drinking habits isn’t going to do much for your long-term health if you tend to overdo it. “This isn’t a great pattern: binge/abstain, binge/abstain,” Wider says. “Just like other substances, alcohol in excess has health consequences, regardless of whether you go dry for a month.” That’s why she says it’s better for your overall health to be a moderate drinker in general rather than going from one extreme to the other.
Cording agrees. “This is a great time to think about what a realistic amount of alcohol is for your lifestyle,” she says. “Think about how to fit it in in a way that feels balanced.”
“Learn from the experience,” says Koob. “What is your relationship with alcohol, and where do you want to be?”