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Dry January: On the Wagon for Health or a Wasted Endeavour?

Posted on Jan 02, 2014 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: dry January, alcohol, alcoholism, alcohol health U.K., liver disease, liver disease U.K., binge drinking, alcohol and weight loss

The holidays are a season of indulgence: big parties, rich foods, and of course, more than a few glasses of champagne. To recover from Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, many people attempt a dry January – forgoing all alcoholic beverages in hopes of undoing the physical effects of their month-long liquid festivities. But, will a month of teetotalling actually benefit health? The evidence is divided. 

Earlier this month, BBC News reported on scientists from the University College London who had found that abstaining from alcohol for just one month could indeed be advantageous to the liver, and long term health. Speaking to the BBC, Dr. Rajiv Jalan – a liver specialist and leader of the UCL study – said that having a dry month lowered the risk of future liver problems, potentially by as much as 20 percent. Jalan also mentioned that along with reducing the risk of liver disease, abstaining from drinking could lead to lower cholesterol levels, weight loss, and even an improvement in memory and concentration. 

Although Dr. Jalan admitted that it is unknown exactly how much teetotalling time is necessary to bring about these physical and mental benefits, he said that one month seemed a “reasonable” amount of time to make a small change in lifestyle in order to experience a few advantages for health. The fact that participants in the UCL study also lost an average 15 percent body weight during their no-drinking month also indicates that a dry January can benefit anyone experiencing medical troubles related to weight. 

The group Dry January agree that giving up alcohol, even for just a month, will prove advantageous. At, people interested in a dry month can sign up to cement their participation, and receive inspiration and tips from the organization – sharing emails, Instagrams and tweets with other Dry January friends. The group mentions plenty of no-drinking benefits: losing weight, saving money, and enjoying healthier, happier mornings thanks to the disappearance of hangovers. 

Dry January is also taking donations toward raising awareness of alcohol abuse and the problems it brings. Heavy drinking can cause a number of health problems: raised blood pressure, an increased risk of stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatic inflammation, cancer and an overall weakened immune system. 

Considering the myriad harmful effects of drinking too much alcohol, it’s no surprise that taking a month off fermented beverages might be good for your health. Still, there are some who say that having a dry January won’t help very much – and might even cause problems. 

In January 2012, Dr. Mark Wright of the Southampton General Hospital told The Independent that cutting out alcohol for a short time might lull drinkers into a false sense of security. Wright indicated that going dry for just a few weeks would not have any long term benefits to health, and could even cause drinkers to ignore the repercussions of alcohol – assuming that whatever damage is done during the year can be erased with one month of abstinence. Also quoted by The Independent, chief executive of the British Liver Trust Andrew Langford said that, instead of quitting drinking every year for once a month, people would be better off staying dry for a few days per week, every week of the year. 

In an essay this year for The Telegraph, journalist Tom Sykes also addressed the problems of encouraging a sober January. Sykes, now sober for many years, says that when he was in the throes of alcohol addiction he relished the chance to have a dry month – like many addicts, he enjoyed the all-or-nothing aspect of overindulging for the entirety of December, and then determinedly making it through January without a single drink. But, explains Sykes, a sober January only aided him in denying that he had become an alcoholic. Sykes also points out that only an addict needs to fully give up his drug of choice in order to regulate it – a dry January, therefore, is less useful to an alcoholic then, say, making an effort to drink less everyday or giving up alcohol altogether. 

But health care experts (and drinkers themselves) may disagree about the benefits of a dry January, most everyone, especially in the U.K., does concur that alcohol-related disease can and should be reduced. England’s National End of Life Care Intelligence Network reported that in 2012, record numbers of people were dying as a result of liver disease. The Network’s findings also showed that since 2005, there had been a 60 percent increase in alcohol-related liver disease in young people. In response to this report, Mr. Langford of the British Liver Trust pointed out that liver disease must liver disease should receive more public recognition, like heart disease and cancer – although they kill more people every year, liver disease is growing more rapidly. 

Taking a sober January or drinking less everyday are both ways that an individual can protect his body from some of the effects of alcohol. On a public scale, the U.K. has attempted to reduce drinking-related health problems by increasing the price of alcohol, reducing pub hours and looking at health education programs that can explain the risks of drinking. In a July 2013 report from the British Home Office, ideas such as minimum unit pricing, better identification checks and a ban on multiple purchase promotions were suggested. The report also mentioned the need for government support of businesses and educational programs that take measures to discourage binge drinking. 

The Home Office report did not, however, mention Dry January as a tool for reducing alcohol consumption. Is it possible that taking a month off alcohol can have real health effects, or is a sober four weeks likely to trick heavy drinkers into thinking their condition is manageable? Health care experts just might say that, dry or not, January is as good a time as any for individuals to evaluate their alcohol consumption and decide if they’re making choices that are ultimately good for health.


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