Considering a month-long booze break after your champagne toast this New Year’s eve? After a holiday season of spiked eggnog, spiked cider, spiked hot chocolate, and spiked everything else, we don’t blame you. But is a dry January really all that good for you? Before you hang up your beer koozie, here’s what you should keep in mind:
An alcohol-free month does have its benefits
Research looking at healthy volunteers participating in a dry January experiment in London found that a month off from booze reduced liver stiffness, an indication of disease, by 12.5 percent and dropped insulin resistance by 28 percent. Participants also lost weight, had lower blood pressure, and reported better sleep and improved concentration.
That said, the study participants were boozing pretty hard to begin with — women were drinking an average of 29 units of alcohol per week (almost double government guidelines), and men were drinking 31 units a week, 10 more than government guidelines. The staff at New Scientist saw similar improvements when they ran their own experiment: liver fat fell by 15 percent on average and blood glucose levels dropped 16 percent on average, but they also had a boozy start, with some participants drinking up to 64 beers a week before the launch of the study.
…but those benefits might be short-lived
What do these studies fail to mention? What happens come February. “It is much more important for people to reduce alcohol consumption overall (both in January and beyond), rather than having a dry January and then going back to old drinking habits,” says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a physician at One Medical. The studies’ researchers say as much. “It’s an important study which shows the benefit from a month’s abstinence,” said liver specialist Gautam Mehta, who oversaw the London study. “What we can’t say is how long those benefits [last], how durable those benefits are.”
Andrew Langford, the British Liver Trust’s Chief Executive added, “It provides good evidence that a simple behavioral change can make a real difference to the health of your liver.” So, you may want to look at those research results as evidence that cutting back year-round — not abstaining entirely for just one month — may be the behavioral change you’re actually after. “The bottom line is people will likely see more of a health benefit if they make a change in their alcohol intake that they are willing to stick to in the long run,” says Dr. Bhuyan.
You may choose to drink less after January, though
Not everyone goes back to old habits, though. In one study of 857 British men and women, the 64.1 percent of participants who successfully completed a dry January challenge were more likely to turn down a drink a month later in three different situations — social (at a bar, for example), emotional (after a stressful day), and opportunistic (while watching TV). Successful participation in a dry January challenge was also associated with reduction in drinking days per week, drinks per typical drinking day, and frequency of drunkenness at a six-month follow-up. Those are promising findings for those using a dry January to kick off new long-term drinking habits!
Watch out for the rebound effect
If you don’t finish out the month, watch out for what researchers behind that study call the rebound effect. Compared to those who successfully completed their one-month dry January challenge, those who didn’t reported an increase in frequency in drunkenness at their six-month followups. (Ever try telling yourself you’ll never eat another sweet again, only to find yourself spooning frosting right out of the jar a week into your “diet”? Yeah, it’s sort of like that.)
Your tolerance might dip when you resume drinking
The two-for-one margarita special may be calling your name on February 1st, but proceed with caution. “People who resume drinking in February after a dry January will notice that their tolerance is lower,” says Dr. Bhuyan. “In February, people should slowly ease into drinking. Also, drink in moderation, which can be different for everyone (but the recommendation is less than one drink daily in women and less than two drinks daily in men).”
Bottom line: trade your martinis for Shirley Temples in January if you want, but don’t consider it a free pass to drink your weight in gin the rest of the year. The research on the long-term benefits of a dry January is still shaky, and you could end up doing more harm than good if the whole month feels like an exercise in self-deprivation, rather than self-reflection and an opportunity to kick off healthier habits year-round.