Is Dry January worth it? Here's what we know about abstaining from alcohol

When clients tell Arizona nutrition consultant Christy Alexon they want to try Dry January, she's always encouraging because there are health benefits to abstaining from alcohol even if it's just 31 days.

"Cutting out alcohol is a great way to save yourself a bunch of calories and eat more food and be satisfied," said Alexon, who is a clinical professor of nutrition at Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions. "People forget about the amount of calories in alcohol; it's like it doesn't even register in their brains."

Dry January, a public health campaign first introduced a decade ago by the British charity Alcohol Change UK, operates on the simple concept of giving up alcohol for the 31 days of January. Dry January appears to have garnered increased interest in the U.S. in recent years, evidenced by Dry January support groups that have formed on Facebook, Dry January mocktail offerings at bars and Dry January endorsements by celebrities.

Morning Consult polling found a decline in Dry January participation this year, from 19% in 2022 to 15%, which the technology company says may partially be the cause of U.S. consumers, particularly millennials, drinking less overall due to inflation and other economic pressures.

Alexon says some of her clients in the past have been buoyed by the way they feel doing Dry January and kept it going for one or two additional months.

From left to right, alcoholic beverages: The Outer Rim, Bespin Fizz, Yub Nub, and Fuzzy Tauntaun can be found at Oga's Cantina inside Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
From left to right, alcoholic beverages: The Outer Rim, Bespin Fizz, Yub Nub, and Fuzzy Tauntaun can be found at Oga's Cantina inside Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

But it's not for everyone. Someone who is an occasional drinker of, say, one glass of wine per week is probably not going to notice much of a difference in the way they look or feel by giving up alcohol for a month, Alexon said. Since the all-or-nothing approach may not be appealing to everyone, some people opt for "Damp January," and just cut back on their usual alcohol consumption.

On the other end of the spectrum, for someone who may not realize they have a serious problem with alcohol, giving it up for 31 days could result in withdrawal symptoms and require professional supervision. Withdrawal symptoms vary, but can include disorientation, nausea, and even seizures and death.

"I think the biggest thing is just being safe about it, " said Aymet Demara, associate clinical director at the Scottsdale Recovery Center, which has both inpatient and outpatient alcohol treatment programs. "You can assess yourself and think you are not drinking a lot when really you are."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines drinking in moderation as limiting intake to two drinks or fewer per day for men, and one drink or fewer per day for women on days when alcohol is consumed.

"In general, a lot of people have problems with moderation," Axelon said.

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It's not moderation if you save up your daily allowance and drink seven drinks in one night, but none on the other six days of the week. Binge drinking is defined by the CDC as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion for men or four or more drinks on one occasion for women. One in six U.S. adults binge drinks, and 25% do so at least weekly, CDC data shows.

Binge drinking puts drinkers at a higher risk of alcohol poisoning, which kills about 2,300 Americans per year, and also puts the drinker at a higher risk of unintentional injuries like motor vehicle crashes, falls and burns, the federal agency says.

Whether it's Dry January, Dry February or something else, here are five potential health benefits of giving up or cutting back on alcohol:

A jumpstart for modifying alcohol intake

Whether you extend Dry January into February and pledge a Sober Super Bowl or abstain from alcohol even longer, Dry January could serve as a reset for the year.

"January, the New Year, is when people just want to make some improvements in their health status, and body composition," Alexon said. "It can, for some people, kind of give them a jumpstart if they were drinking a considerable amount before. A lot of times when it comes to losing weight or changing your body composition, you need to see results to stay motivated."

For some people, there may be a feeling of achievement but no noticeable results.

"A lot of the benefits you would get from Dry January I think would depend on how much alcohol you were consuming before. Like, if you have one drink a week and then you stop having that one drink a week, it's probably not going to make that much of a difference," she said. "But if you are a person who has six or seven or eight, nine or ten drinks in a weekend, then you are probably going to notice some favorable changes from cutting it out."

Those favorable results can include more mental clarity, more energy and weight loss. It may force people to deal with anxiety in a more productive way than drinking alcohol, she said.

"Some people drink to calm their nerves," Alexon said. "Do you need a drink or do you need a stress management tool?"

Insight into your drinking habits

Scottsdale Recovery Center leaders say they've seen an increase in the number of patients needing help with alcohol dependence, which mirrors national data that shows alcohol consumption and alcohol-related deaths increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you find yourself unable to give up drinking even though you want to do it, it may be a sign that professional assistance is needed.

"At the very core of it, there's absolutely nothing wrong with drinking alcohol on a regular basis as long as it's not interfering with your life and your goals and your ability to function," Alexon said.

However, no amount of alcohol is without health risks, according to some recent research.

"When it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health," the World Health Organization wrote in a recently published statement in The Lancet.

And the CDC's dietary guidelines for alcohol do not recommend that individuals who don't drink alcohol start drinking it for any reason and that "if adults of legal drinking age choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is better for health than drinking more."

Save calories

"Alcohol has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein," Alexon said. "Carbs and protein have four calories per gram. Fats or lipids have nine calories per gram. Alcohol has seven calories per gram, so it is more calorie-dense than carbs or protein."

Because alcohol lowers inhibition, it can lead people to eat more than they would if they were sober, Alexon said.

She cited, as an example, someone who might go to a Mexican restaurant intending to order and eat chicken fajitas after a couple of margaritas, might indulge in a lot of chips and salsa, too.

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Better for workout recovery

Alexon, in addition to being an ASU professor and nutrition coach, is a bodybuilder. As a result, she's mostly "dry." Occasionally, she'll have a light beer or maybe a sip of someone else's drink but in general, she does not drink alcohol at all.

"I am trying to build as much muscle mass as possible," Alexon said. "That's why I choose not to drink. I'm a 40-year-old woman, I don't have naturally high testosterone levels, so I'm already at a disadvantage when it comes to building muscle. And I don't want to do anything that's going to put me at more of a disadvantage."

Alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to perform during a workout and to recover from a workout, she said.

"A lot of times people do have a New Year's resolution to change their body composition, so people come to me as a nutrition professional because they have goals of losing body fat, building more muscle. And alcohol can interfere with those goals, for some people," Alexon said.

"For example, someone might work out and then they go to a bar and have a drink after working out. And alcohol can interfere with the process of muscle protein synthesis. So if your goal of working out is to build muscle and then you drink alcohol, it could be counterproductive for your goals."

More energy and 'the ability to engage in life'

Research from the University of Sussex in 2019 found that giving up alcohol for Dry January improved energy levels in 71% of the study's 800 participants, something that Sharna Horn, clinical director at the Scottsdale Recovery Center, has noticed in patients recovering from alcohol dependence.

Results are evident even in patients who have given up alcohol for a short period of time, Horn said. They tend to have more energy and their family and friend relationships tend to improve.

"It gives them the ability to engage in life," she said.

The University of Sussex research also found that Dry January improved participants' concentration, skin, general health and sleep.

Abstaining from alcohol for a just month may result in other positive effects on the body, too, according to a 2018 study led by British researcher Guatham Mehta at the University of London. In his study of 97 moderate drinkers who gave up alcohol for a month, Mehta observed lower blood pressure and a decrease in circulating concentrations of cancer-related growth factors in the blood.

Alcohol is "causally related" to the development of several cancers, including cancer of the digestive tract, nasopharynx, liver and breast, Mehta's study says, and "the increased risk caused by alcohol persists even at low levels of consumption."

Whether or not the benefits of abstaining from alcohol for a month will result in long-lasting lower blood pressure and a lower risk of cancer is unclear.

Reach health care reporter Stephanie Innes at or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Is Dry January worth it? What we know about abstaining from alcohol