What You Can Gain from Trying Dry January

What actually happens when you skip booze for 31 days? Here's what experts have to say.

Guide to Dry January
Stocksy.

January is on the horizon, which means you probably have that one friend who's declared they're about to give up alcohol for a full month. Or perhaps you're that friend, and are already practicing your response to "C'mon just one drink!" Plenty of people attempt Dry January every year, to varying degrees of success. (In fact, 15 percent of American adults planned to do Dry January in 2021, according to one survey.)

With the new year approaching, you may have Dry January on your mind, along with questions about how going sober for a few weeks can affect your physical and mental health. Here's what to know about Dry January and whether its reported benefits are for real.

What is Dry January?

Dry January is a challenge that involves completely abstaining from alcohol throughout — you guessed it — January. Dry January began in 2012 as a public health initiative from Alcohol Change UK, a British charity, according to Harvard Health Publishing. What began as something small, grew into a challenge millions of people take part in every year, according to the publication.

People choose to embark on Dry January for a variety of reasons. Some want to avoid the unhealthy effects of drinking alcohol (think: a weakened immune system, sluggishness, poor digestion, and liver damage, as Shape previously reported) while others want to use the time to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol and how alcohol affects their day-to-day life, notes Hilary Sheinbaum, journalist and author of The Dry Challenge. "Elements such as an individual's lifestyle (recreational time and line of work), social circle, and goals can greatly impact whether they accomplish 31 days of alcohol abstinence and if they decide to continue abstaining into the following month," she says. Dry January is "not meant to be a detox for those with an alcohol dependency, which should only be done under medical supervision," notes Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.

Some people opt to participate in a variation on Dry January. For example, "Damp January," which involves limiting alcohol rather than completely cutting it out, has emerged as a recent trend. That could mean anything from allowing one serving of alcohol each week to only drinking during birthday celebrations.

The benefits of participating Dry January will be more pronounced than the benefits of participating in Damp January, according to Kelley Kitley, L.C.S.W., a licensed psychotherapist at Kelley Kitley Serendipitous Psychotherapy, LLC. That said, some people may commit to Dry January, give up, and drink more than they would have had they just committed to Damp January. "If people aren't in the right mindset, they have a tendency to be living in deprivation," says Kitley. "And then, when they've decide to 'give it up' they 'go off the rails.' Therapeutically, this is called all-or-nothing behavior or black-and-white thinking."

Does Dry January make a difference to your health?

You've probably heard that alcohol can have negative health impacts, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, liver disease, and high blood pressure, according to Alcohol Research and Health. With that in mind, it'll come as no surprise that there are benefits to committing to a sober January. Giving up alcohol for the month can lead to "improved sleep, increased energy, better hydration, and less anxiety and depression," notes Harris-Pincus.

While 31 days is a small chunk of the year, participating in Dry January may lead you to drink less in the months that follow. In a study with more than 800 people who took part in Dry January in 2018, the average amount of drinks that participants (including those who'd tried and failed the challenge) had in August of that year was 3.3 per week, compared to 4.3 per week before they participated in Dry January. Participants also reported that they'd saved money and felt that they'd slept better, had more energy, and had better skin after attempting Dry January.

For many people, Dry January can be a gateway to avoiding or limiting alcohol, even if the thought of going sober indefinitely seems too lofty of a goal. "The longer someone goes without alcohol, the more likely it is that they'll abstain," says Kitley. "...Sometimes people decide to go an entire year but for most, it's too big of a challenge to start [with a year]. Thirty-one days doesn't seem as daunting."

If you're intrigued by the benefits of Dry January and want to give it a try in the new year, adopting the right mindset is key to success. "Articulate a personally meaningful reason that you are choosing to abstain from alcohol in January," says Julia Samton M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and neurologist and cofounder of The Midtown Practice. "Whatever the reason, think clearly about why you want to make this change and use it as an incentive to take action."

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