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Dry January

Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

Thousands of Americans will quit drinking this year for “Dry January,” an annual monthlong commitment to sobriety and all its health benefits. Abstaining from alcohol can not only save you some money, but you may also discover some incredible changes to your mind and body after not drinking for an entire month.

For many people, going cold turkey is the go-to method for quitting alcohol, but that may not be feasible or practical for frequent drinkers. Dry January is an opportunity to test the waters and focus on a reasonable goal without the pressure or expectation of being sober forever. This month is also a great time to examine your relationship with alcohol and the role it plays in your life.

Why Try Dry January?

Everyone has their own reasons for abstaining this month. Some may do it to raise awareness about the risks of alcoholism, and others may do it to stand in solidarity with a friend or loved one who is in recovery.

You don’t need any specific reason to quit drinking for the month, but there are many possible motivations for cutting alcohol out of your life for 31 days. Social drinking may seem harmless enough, but many people realize that their weekend binges and nightly wine sessions turn into a dependency.

Life with secret alcoholism is a crippling reality for many. Dry January gives you a chance to evaluate your drinking habits and decide if it’s time for a healthy change.

Dry January Health Benefits

Excessive drinking has been linked to a variety of health issues, including high blood pressure, heart problems, liver disease, cancer, and pancreatitis. Between 2010 and 2012, a staggering 38 million Americans admitted to binge drinking at least four times a month, consuming eight or more alcoholic beverages per session.

This relationship with alcohol isn’t uncommon. American culture promotes partying, excessive drinking and wild nights out with friends. Many adults develop the notion that drinking socially should be limited to intense periods of heavy alcohol consumption. However, drinking routinely isn’t necessarily worse than getting blackout drunk once a week. Whether you want to change your drinking habits, avoid health risks or begin the road to recovery, Dry January is a great opportunity for change.

Major Benefits of Quitting Alcohol

If you’re considering quitting alcohol for any period of time, here are some of the benefits you can look forward to. Understanding how alcohol affects the body in various ways can keep you motivated throughout the month. When your friends invite you to happy hour, remind yourself of this list and all the ways you can care for your body by not drinking in January.

Sleep better

Drinking can cause insomnia, disrupt your natural circadian rhythms and rob you of quality, restorative sleep. Alcohol alters the production of certain chemicals in your brain, so even just one drink can impact the quality of sleep. Alcohol makes you tired because it stimulates the activity of certain protein molecules, including GABA-A.

GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that can block certain neurons and firing impulses in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that produces a calming, relaxing effect on the central nervous system. Alcohol binds to certain GABA receptors in the brain, which is why you get sleepy after a couple of drinks.

However, feeling sleepy and getting a good sleep aren’t one and the same. Alcohol triggers the production of adenosine, a sleep chemical, but it wears off quickly. Your brain wakes up sooner than it should after drinking, cutting back on your time spent in REM and depriving you of its important restorative processes. A recent study in Finland found that even one drink a day can harm your sleep.

Lose weight

Anyone who drinks routinely can attest to the stubbornness of the “beer belly.” Alcoholic drinks are loaded with sugar and calories. One can of beer has 150 calories on average, but many cocktails like pina coladas have hundreds of calories and over 60 grams of sugar per drink. When you want to drop a couple pounds, cutting alcohol from your diet is a great way to kick-start the process.

Get sick less often

Alcohol weakens your immune system, so you’re more likely to catch a cold or come down with the flu if you drink a lot. When you abstain, you give your body the chance to rebuild its natural defenses and fight off germs more efficiently. You’ll be less likely to catch a virus and find yourself sick every time someone in the office sneezes.

Look younger and feel happier

Drinking can speed up the aging process, which is why so many people who partied hard in their early 20s develop wrinkles and fine lines before they’re even 30. Alcohol also dehydrates you, which deprives your skin of nourishing vitamins and minerals that keep your complexion youthful and glowing.

Rosacea, splotchy redness on the face and cheeks, has also been linked to drinking. Going sober for January will help your body jump-start its recovery, and the signs will be visible. You’ll probably also find yourself more energized and less depressed.

How to Stay on Track With Dry January

Recording your progress will help you stay committed to being sober during the month. People who suffer from alcoholism often worry that they won’t be able to stay on top of their recovery, so they just don’t try. It’s important to know that quitting drinking starts with a decision. There will be plenty of struggles and cravings, but with the right approach and enough determination, abstaining (and thriving!) is possible. Here are a few practical tips to help you survive Dry January:

Keep a journal

Use this month as an opportunity to get in touch with your feelings and do some soul-searching. Without drinking, how do you feel? Are you prone to feeling more isolated, irritable or depressed? Oftentimes, people turn to drink to mask deeper emotions. The chance to tackle some of the thoughts and feelings holding you back is one way Dry January extends far beyond the 31st.

If you find that you are extremely anxious or depressed without drinking, consider talking to a counselor. People with mental health troubles are at a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder. Alcoholism and depression are close friends, so learn more about mental health, do some personal inventory and reassess where you’re at in life now that you’re sober.

Get an accountability buddy

A big part of recovery for alcoholics is a support group. You might not have an addiction, but you could still benefit from the morale boost you get from a comrade. Find someone else who is participating in Dry January and make fun plans together that don’t involve drinking.

You can visit a museum, go bowling, catch a movie or find a new restaurant to explore. There are plenty of ways to have fun sober, and you’ll find that life is a lot more enjoyable when you can go out for the night and actually remember it the next morning.

Start exercising

Finding healthy ways to handle stress is an important part of recovery. Physical exercise has been proven time and time again to lower stress levels, fight depression, lower anxiety and help people feel happier overall. Just 30 minutes of cardio will give you a rush of endorphins and dopamine that leave you feeling more relaxed, energized and carefree.

If the gym isn’t your style, consider signing up for a new fitness class this month. For something new, consider yoga, which increases flexibility, builds strength and improves energy levels. It also gives you a chance to make new friends and socialize.

Many people feel isolated during Dry January because their social outings revolve around bars or drinking with friends. It’s important to find other connections and meet people you can bond within environments that promote wellness.

Don’t avoid your friend group, though. You can still go out and have a good time without drinking. Instead of your go-to at the bar, order a soda. Try a drink of the nonalcoholic menu and have fun listening to music, partaking in meaningful conversation and heading home without needing to fork over money for an Uber or worry about a designated driver.

Buy some tasty alternatives

You aren’t forced to drink only water just because you’re going sober. There are lots of tasty drinks out there to enjoy. Consider a flavored seltzer. It has the refreshing fizz of soda without any of the sugar and calories. You can also look up some mocktail recipes and re-create your favorite drinks alcohol-free.

Save the money you don’t spend on alcohol

Count all the money you save from not drinking and put it in a savings account. You can either cash it out at the end of the month and buy yourself something special or keep it going and use it to fund that European vacation you’ve always dreamed of. Find some new ways to treat yourself as a reward throughout the month; let yourself sleep in, spend the day curled up in bed with Netflix on loop or head to the spa and get pampered like royalty for a few hours.

The Bigger Picture

Many people can’t imagine going without alcohol for an entire month, which raises a large question about our society. If drinking is the only way we know how to have fun or unwind, are we really living our best lives? No matter how successful we may be in our careers, how close our friend group is or how happy our relationship may be, if we can’t find ourselves capable of dealing with our emotions or spending quality time with others sober, there’s a problem.

People should always respect your decision to go dry for January, and if they don’t, you may want to look at the company you keep as well. Many people find that this month is a chance to gain valuable insight into things they never considered before.

For alcoholics, recovery isn’t so cut-and-dried. You may find that you struggle with painful symptoms after drinking, such as nausea and vomiting, a headache, anxiety and even depression. These are associated with alcohol withdrawal. These symptoms indicate a greater dependency, and you should speak with your doctor about how to manage them. You may even want to consider looking up rehabs or support groups in your area.

No one starts drinking with the intention of getting addicted. Alcoholism tends to sneak up on people. Sometimes, they require a wake-up call or major change like Dry January to realize the extent of their problem.

Rather than thinking of what you’re missing out on, focus on all the reasons why being sober will benefit you instead. Enjoy the idea of taking control and calling the shots. This decision represents a greater power you hold over your own life. Whether you want to cut back or quit drinking altogether, recovery starts today.

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