It’s that time of year again when some people decide to take a month off from drinking alcohol. But is there any point?
The short answer is maybe. The long answer takes six hours and involves me playing an accordion. The medium-length answer is below.
What is Dry January?
Dry January is an annual practice whereby people lay off drinking alcohol for the whole month of January. Well, not quite the whole month – many are realistic enough to set January 2nd as the start date. Some in Australia, meanwhile, simply wait for Ocsober.
We seem to be in the epoch of the month-long charity initiatives. There’s the well-known Movember, the lesser known Decembeard and Frocktober. And Dry January itself has a potential fund-raising element, it being an Alcohol Concern initiative.
As to whether Dry January is worth it, this really all depends on what your motivations are.
If your intention is to detox your liver, then the British Liver Trust is keen to point out that this is daft.
According to Consultant Hepatologist Dr Mark Wright (from a British Liver Trust press release in 2012): “Detoxing for just a month in January is medically futile. It can lead to a false sense of security and feeds the idea that you can abuse your liver as much as you like and then sort everything else with a quick fix.”
“It makes about as much sense as maxing out your credit cards and overdraft all year, then thinking you can fix it by just eating toast in January. The figures just don’t stack up.”
But then, the very term ‘detox’ should set alarm bells ringing in its own right, according to skeptics.
Benefits of not drinking
Alcohol affects more than just your liver. So, stopping drinking for a while obviously brings with it certain benefits. If you want to do any of the following, you’re in luck:
- Save money
- Lose weight
- Discover the crazy and exotic world of ‘life without hangovers’
- Pay off your sleep debt
And there are various other positives besides.
But the benefits of not drinking take time, so don’t wake up on January 3rd saying “WHY DON’T I FEEL SUPERHUMAN YET?” Indeed, things might get worse before they get better.
As the UK’s National Health Service points out: “Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from not sleeping, agitation, anxiety, sweating and tremors, right through to vomiting, diarrhoea, hallucinations and seizures”
And that comes with an extra warning: “If your body has become dependent on booze, stopping drinking overnight can be life-threatening”.
So if you’re going to make any significant changes to your alcohol intake, you should strongly consider discussing it with your GP/physician.
Learn about your relationship with alcohol
One of the best reasons to give up is more difficult to measure statistically – it can make you question your relationship with alcohol.
When I stopped drinking back in 2006, I couldn’t get over just how intrinsic it had been to my life. I suddenly realised that I associated it with pretty much every social occasion I engaged in. Even lying down in the gutter with vomit on my shirt suddenly seemed a little strange with no alcohol in my system. Though it’s always nice to reminisce, obviously.
This, in my opinion, is why it’s worth going about it the right way. I’ve heard people say that Dry January is easy – they just stay in the whole time. But this will also likely limit what you can learn. Aside from the fact that it’s probably cheating.
If you really want to learn something then you should really be trying to doing all the same things you usually do: What is it like to be in the pub without a beer in your hand? What internal protests do you hear yourself making? Listen to others, too – if people are saying things like “It’s really funny to hear you talking coherently!” then there might be a message in there for you.
Interpersonal relationships and alcohol
Which brings me onto the next point: the effect on others.
If you’re a heavy drinker, taking a month off might make a pleasant change for the people around you. I say ‘might’, because the reality of you whinging constantly for over four weeks might not be all that great after all.
“The strangest thing about the experience was the amount people who made me feel like I was expected to justify my choice, or tried to bully me into having a drink.” – Janis Callister
Not that those around you will always be happy with your choice. As Janis Callister, regular contributor here, notes of her own first foray into Dry January: “The strangest thing about the experience was the amount people who made me feel like I was expected to justify my choice, or tried to bully me into having a drink.”
From a completely selfish point of view, I love it when other people do Dry January. Experience tells me that they’re more able to relate to my own situation (I don’t generally drink alcohol). Unless like Sickboy in Trainspotting they’ve given something up just to undermine the achievements of others that have done the same.
Whether or not doing Dry January translates to a long-term change is open to speculation – I’m not aware of any figures to support any kind of general trend.
Whilst in principle you might have an improved idea, in practice you might end up drinking more – that false sense of security that Dr. Mark Wright spoke about.
My friend Andrea recounts: “I don’t think there was a long term change, I went back to drinking but it was definitely a positive experience and made me think about my alcohol consumption.”
Janis, meanwhile, says: “I’m now a little more used to not drinking, so will offer to drive where I can for family things. I also know which non alcoholic drinks I like, and that you can drink nice drinks that don’t make you feel sickly.”
If you really want to make a long-term difference to your wellbeing, it might be better to moderate your drinking on a regular basis rather having than an annual purge. This is an idea promoted by the British Liver Trust’s Love Your Liver campaign.
Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust, Andrew Langford, says: “You’re better off making a resolution to take a few days off alcohol a week throughout the entire year than remaining abstinent for January only.”
How you’d actually go about that is a whole other article in itself.
EDIT: Here’s a good web-based app to help you to do exactly that, showing you the money and calories you’ve saved by cutting back: MyDrinkaware
What do you think of Dry January? Have you ever tried? Did you meet with success of failure? Was it a worthwhile exercise or simply a waste of good drinking time?