The benefits of Dry January are mostly in your mind

Booze or no booze?
Booze or no booze?
Image: Seedlip/Rob Lawson.
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Each year, thousands of people worldwide use Jan. 1 as a reason to go sober through Dry January, or Drynuary, after the revelry of the holiday season passes.

The idea of taking a break from drinking in January started to take off a few years ago. In 2012, the campaign was made official by the British charity Alcohol Change UK, although others, including John Ore from Business Insider, had been doing it for years. Now, a quick search of the hashtag #dryjanuary on Instagram shows almost 118,000 posts. There are already hundreds of #dryjanuary2019 pictures already up.

Although there’s certainly no harm from taking a break from drinking alcohol—a known carcinogen—the broader health benefits of dry January may be more in your head than in your body.

There are obvious short-term benefits that come from forgoing alcohol. Going sober can help improve sleep, and it saves both empty calories and money. There’s also preliminary evidence that a break from drinking can make small changes to the body: In 2013, a small group of 14 dedicated journalists at the British publication New Scientist conducted their own experiment, in which 10 of them quit drinking for five weeks. Some had their subsequent bloodwork analyzed by a physician. Those who took a break saw their liver fat, a precursor to damage, decrease, as did their blood sugar, a measure of diabetes risk—although notably, none had been considered unhealthy before.

That said, healthy adults don’t actually need a month to recover from holiday drinking. When we drink, the liver breaks down the majority of alcohol in our systems. While this process can result in the death of liver cells, the liver, like skin, regenerates quickly, Doug Simonetto, a heptologist at the Mayo Clinic, has told Quartz. (Just exactly how quickly is still unknown—Simonetto said that it would take actual liver biopsies at various points to be able to tell. But think of it like skin healing after a cut.)

The liver can incur permanent damage if you routinely engage in heavy bouts of drinking without time to properly recover. This repetitive damage can lead to chronic and fatal liver diseases, including cancer.

There’s also evidence that routine drinking of any amount can lead to other afflictions, like heart disease, and a number of other types of cancers. However, exactly how much drinking over what amount of time causes these outcomes is unclear: Self-reported observational studies have been unable to show if alcohol is a direct cause or if other factors in participants’ lives, like their age, occupation, or genetics.

Dry January will certainly benefit your liver in the sense that you’re not harming it for a month, Simonetto explained. If you’re otherwise healthy, it may lower your risk for other diseases by a tiny amount, based on these observational studies that we have reported previously (although any benefit would matter more on how much you were drinking previously).

The real benefit of Dry Janaury, though, comes from quitting the habit.

For many of us, myself included, drinking moderately becomes something of a ritual. Winding down from the day? Have a glass of wine. Want to catch up with a friend? Grab a drink. Going on a date? Meet at a bar.

In April of 2018, my colleague Jenni Avins took a month-long hiatus from drinking. She found it was difficult—and ultimately worth it. “My end-of-day default has been reset from ‘drinking’ to ‘not drinking,'” she wrote. “And there’s no denying that abstaining from alcohol is a simple way to improve sleep, cut calories, save money, and, of course, avoid hangovers.”

Richard de Visser, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, has been working with the Alcohol Change UK to study the effects of Dry January. Although these studies rely on self-reported data of hundreds of adults, participants have reported drinking less (paywall) in the months following. According to a press release from the University of Sussex, results from the 2018 Dry January suggests that participants decreased the number of days they drank from about four days per week to three through August of the following year. Notably, though, these results didn’t include the standard margins of error typically shown in survey-based studies.

Whether or not this change in habit is enough to provide any long-term benefits to the liver is unclear—but it’s certainly not harmful.

Unless, of course, drinkers come into February drinking  more to make up for it, James Ferguson, a liver specialist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in England, told NPR in 2014.

“I don’t think taking one month a year off alcohol makes any difference,” he said. “It’s more important to cut back generally.”