This Is What a Month Without Alcohol Does to Your Body

·6 min read
Photo credit: Manuel Breva Colmeiro - Getty Images
Photo credit: Manuel Breva Colmeiro - Getty Images


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Nearly two years into a pandemic, Dry January probably sounds like either a really good idea or a really painful one. But if you do decide to attempt one, you certainly won’t be the only one.

With the last 10 years, Dry January has gained traction as a resolution. And we're betting it won't slip too far down the resolution list this year, since alcohol sales soared when the pandemic first broke out, and many of us are drinking more than we did before.

The concept of Dry January is straightforward: Give up booze for the entire first month of the year. And yes, January is a month with 31 days, so no getting off easy at a nice, round 30.

There are health benefits associated with Dry January—and there's also this: Lots of experts have issues with the quit-alcohol-all-at-once approach. If you've moved your alcohol consumption up to three or four drinks a night, experts warn against going cold turkey. If that sounds like you, try cutting back first to avoid potentially serious withdrawal issues. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has some useful strategies for cutting back. If those don't feel right for you, consider getting professional help, which is often only a phone call away via teletherapy.

So is Dry January a good idea for you? That depends. On the one hand, making a drastic change like cutting out booze altogether can add to the many stressors you may already be dealing with, from unpredictable school closures to an ongoing work-from-home routine. On the other hand, it might be easier without the vibrant bar scenes of yore tempting you to have a cold one (and another, and another) and friends rolling their eyes at your Dry January resolution.

If you're going to try Dry January, here's what to know about what it can do for your body—and how to make it just a little easier.

What is Dry January?

Created by UK-based nonprofit Alcohol Change UK, the first official “Dry January” began in 2013. That year, more than 4,300 people pledged not to drink any alcohol for the month. And yes, “dry” means abstaining from alcohol for a month—no cheat days.

In 2017, that number spiked to more than 5 million, with the enthusiasm for the campaign spilling into the United States. And in a January 2021 survey of 2,200 U.S. adults, Morning Consult found that 13 percent of them had committed to Dry January.

Participants claim that giving up drinking for one month can reverse the negative health impacts of regular drinking, like fatty liver disease and elevated blood sugar. They also champion that not drinking can improve sleep and enhance energy.

What are the benefits of Dry January?

Which of the supposed benefits of Dry January really holds up under scrutiny?

Improved sleep

Anecdotally, people often credit alcohol with helping them sleep. However, a review of studies in 2013 found that alcohol may help people fall asleep quicker and sleep more deeply during the initial stages of sleep, but is likely to disrupt sleep later in the night.

“Alcohol on the whole is not useful for improving a whole night's sleep. Sleep may be deeper to start with, but then becomes disrupted,” study co-author Chris Idzikowski, Ph.D., and sleep specialist, said in a statement. “Additionally, that deeper sleep will probably promote snoring and poorer breathing. So, one shouldn't expect better sleep with alcohol."

You may drink less the rest of the year

Also true! It sounds weird, but you may not realize how often or how much alcohol your drink until aren't drinking it.

Drinking in moderation, which the 2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans define as no more than one drink per day for women and two for men, isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and death(although the healthiest option remains not drinking at all). Still, taking a month off may help you drink less throughout 2022. In fact, a 2016 study of adults who participated in Dry January found that up to six months later, they were drinking on fewer occasions and drank less when they did imbibe.

That said, not all experts agree with the idea that Dry January is the right approach for moderating your drinking in the long run. “Come February first, you may find that those bad habits aren’t truly broken,” says Joseph Volpicelli, M.D., Ph.D., a physician, psychologist, and founder of the Volpicelli Center, an addiction recovery center in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.

“Sometimes, it can be more beneficial for people looking to improve their relationship with alcohol (who don’t have a severe drinking problem, like alcohol use disorder) to try moderating their alcohol intake,” Volpicelli says. Consistently limiting yourself to one or two drinks per day (the definition of moderate drinking for women and men, respectively) might be a better way to build healthy drinking habits than simply going cold-turkey for a month without any plan for sustainable change.

How drinking alcohol affects the body

Your body breaks down alcohol via a number of organs, including your stomach and pancreas, but your liver bears the biggest burden of turning alcohol into less damaging forms.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Constantly living in the drink/repeat cycle may also lead to fatty liver, a silent disease that’s relatively benign in its early stages, although more research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms. (Your liver isn’t the only thing at risk: drinking too much can damage your entire body, including your heart, skin, penis, and muscles.)

Even though fatty liver is common in those who drink at or above the guidelines (“moderate” is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men), there is evidence that it’s reversible when you abstain from alcohol or even drink less, says Rotonya Carr, M.D., hepatologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

With continued drinking, about a third of people with fatty liver go on to develop alcoholic hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, which eventually leads to scarring and the life-threatening condition of cirrhosis in 10 to 20 percent of people. Even in these advanced stages, research suggests that giving up alcohol can reverse scarring and improve the chance of survival.

“The liver is a very forgiving organ,” adds Dr. Carr, “it can heal itself when the insult, in this case alcohol, goes away.”

So, does Dry January erase all those nights of drinking?

Not quite. It’s going to take more than one month to completely heal your liver and the rest of your body, points out Aaron White, Ph.D., senior scientist at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“But taking a month off from drinking is never a bad idea, and is a great time to evaluate your relationship with alcohol,” says White.

How to make Dry January easier

Some men find it hard to change the habit of having a drink in their hand at 6PM, so they first change what's in their glass. Fortunately, there are now lots of flavored alcohol substitutes that let you dream up some really interesting alcohol-free cocktails. These would include products like Kin and Seedlip.

Also on your side are the growing numbers of surprisingly good non-alcoholic beers. Check out the ones that passed our taste test here.

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