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‘Dry January’ Has Benefits All Year Long

A new survey suggests the alcohol-free challenge reduces consumption for months afterward

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smithsonian.com

In recent years, the concept of “Dry January,” or swearing off alcohol for the first month of the year, has gained popularity around the world. You may even have a friend or two who finished off their glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve then declared they were calling it quits—at least until February 1. A new study from the University of Sussex suggests taking a month-long break from alcohol might actually be a resolution that sticks, with reported benefits like sleep and reduce drinking throughout the rest of the year.

The concept of a sobriety month at the start of the year gained popularity in 2014 when the U.K. non-profit Alcohol Concern, which is now known as Alcohol Change UK, came up with the booze-free challenge. Participants can do the challenge on their own, or sign up at the website and use apps and other resources to help them along. The idea is for people that are concerned they are drinking too much or too often to slow things down.

So, does the month of temperance have any effect? Ed Cara at Gizmodo reports that a study of Dry January participants seems to show it really does have an impact. Last year, the Sussex team surveyed 2,000 people in the U.K. planning on participating in the challenge. They then re-surveyed 1,715 of those participants in the first week of February and 816 challenge participants in August. What they found was that the month-long dry spell had lasting effects.

The days per week respondents drank dropped from an average of 4.3 to 3.3 days. The amount of alcohol they drank per day also dropped from 8.6 to 7.1 units, which, for the survey’s purpose, was considered 10 milliliters or about half a glass of wine. They also reported getting really drunk less often, just 2.1 days per month versus 3.4 days before Dry January.

“The simple act of taking a month off alcohol helps people drink less in the long term: by August people are reporting one extra dry day per week,” Richard de Visser, the University of Sussex psychologist who led the survey, says in a press release. “There are also considerable immediate benefits: nine in ten people save money, seven in ten sleep better and three in five lose weight.”

Even those who gave it a shot, but didn’t make it all the way through January without a pint, showed some positive impacts—still not as significant as those who completed the challenge, however.

The survey also revealed that trying to lay off alcohol led people to report better concentration, clearer skin, feelings of achievement and control, and increased self-reflection about when, where and why they drink.

CEO of Alcohol Change Richard Piper says he hears stories about the challenge changing lives all the time.

“The brilliant thing about Dry January is that it’s not really about January. Being alcohol-free for 31 days shows us that we don’t need alcohol to have fun, to relax, to socialize,” he says in the release. “That means that for the rest of the year we are better able to make decisions about our drinking, and to avoid slipping into drinking more than we really want to.”

As Cara at Gizmodo points out, however, the survey should be taken with healthy skepticism. It relies on self-reporting, which can be unreliable and it was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. The team says it has no plans to publish it as a formal paper. Matt Sheffield, an addiction researchers at the University of Sheffield, says to really figure out the impact of abstinence, researchers need participants to keep track of their drinking, not just estimate it via survey, he tells Amy Fleming at The Guardian.

“[We need] an objective measure of whether participants are telling the truth,” he says. “If you ever take an alcohol diary, it’s quite an eye-opener – people aren’t aware of how much they’re really drinking.”

But the survey results do line up with a similar paper published by Visser in 2015 in Health Psychology assessing people who participated in the inaugural Dry January. That study also found that months later people reported drinking less. A study in BMJ Open from 2017 also found that an alcohol-free month like Dry January or Sober October for moderate to heavy drinkers reduced insulin resistance, weight, blood pressure and growth factors related to cancer.

And even if the benefits aren’t as great as the survey suggests, there is one benefit to the dry-month movement; as Fritz Hahn at The Washington Post notes, its gives people a socially-sanctioned time to assess their drinking and take a break from alcohol without friends or colleagues speculating about whether they are dealing with illness or alcoholism.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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