Should you take regular breaks from drinking alcohol throughout the year?

Dry January is a month-long alcohol-free challenge that is practised in Europe and the US. It's a time when people voluntarily abstain from drinking, usually after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol over Christmas and New Year. However, while going sober for January might help people start the year with a clearer, more refreshed mindset, could it be beneficial to take regular breaks from alcohol as the year goes on?

Why do people take part in Dry January?

There are various reasons for taking on Dry January, as Dr Richard De Visser explains.

"Firstly, Dry January taps into the common practice of making New Year's resolutions for people to improve aspects of their lives. One piece of general advice is to drink less alcohol, so a month-long challenge is a simple way of responding to that," he says.

"In terms of its impact, there is clear evidence that taking part in Dry January helps people to feel more in control of their drinking. Taking a break from alcohol leads to better sleep and better concentration, and people save money. There is also now more support for people who want to take part in Dry January, so there's a sense of community and greater feelings of achievement when people do well. This could be connecting online in Facebook groups, or reading books on sobriety."

Dr De Visser highlights how successful Dry January has been over time, and the influence it has had on other countries. For instance, Dry January was established in France in 2020 following evidence of its success in the UK.

What are the short-term benefits of going sober?

"Physiological studies show that not drinking for a month leads to a range of healthy changes within the cardiovascular system and the liver," says Dr De Visser.

Research conducted by the University of Sussex indicates that people who have a dry month report better sleep, higher energy levels, and better concentration. They also feel more able to control their alcohol intake later on and to manage pressure, expectations, or temptations to drink.

Research on a group of people who participated in Dry January in 2018 also found:

  • 93% of participants felt a sense of achievement.
  • 82% now think more deeply about their relationship with alcohol.
  • 80% feel more in control of their drinking.
  • 76% learned more about when and why they drink.
  • 71% realised they didn't need a drink to enjoy themselves.
  • 70% had generally improved health.
  • 58% lost weight.
  • 54% had better skin.

Dr Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Change UK, says that Dry January "can change lives".

"We hear every day from people who took charge of their drinking using Dry January, and who feel healthier and happier as a result.

"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, or to socialise. 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."

He explains that many people know about the health risks of alcohol - which include seven forms of cancer, liver disease, and mental health problems - but are often unaware that drinking less has more immediate benefits too.

"Drinking less can improve insomnia, help you feel more energised, make your skin more radiant, help you manage your weight, and improve relationships, and it can have financial benefits. The list is endless. Dry January helps millions to experience those benefits and to make a longer-lasting change to drink more healthily."

However, Dr De Visser notes that Dry January isn't for everyone.

"Dry January may not be the most appropriate change for all drinkers. For example, people who are dependent on alcohol may require more focused support to deal with their physiological needs. Heavier drinkers are less likely to make it through the month without drinking. If this happens, they can experience 'rebound effects' and end up drinking more than they usually would."

It is important to stress that overall, rebound effects are only observed in around 10% of participants of Dry January. By contrast, 50% go back to drinking at their previous levels, and 40% drink less than they did before taking part in Dry January.

If you are struggling with your alcohol intake and feel it is impacting your life, you should consult your GP, who can arrange a treatment plan. They can refer you to alcohol support groups and for courses of therapy. They can also perform health checks to assess the effects of drinking on your body and help you cut down safely and effectively.

Is Dry January really worth it if people resume their normal drinking habits when the month ends?

There's an argument that Dry January isn't worth it if people go back to drinking their normal amounts once it ends - or even drinking more after missing alcohol the previous month. However, there is evidence to show the benefits of Dry January can be long-lasting, and Dr De Visser says the sobriety challenge is worth it.

He says while 50% of people go back to their usual drinking habits after Dry January, just 10% report an increase in drinking with 40% saying they drink less.

"Furthermore, we have found that Dry January results in people feeling more in control of their drinking long-term, and feeling more able to say no in response to societal pressures to drink. Dry January also opens up conversations for participants and non-participants alike about their reasons for drinking and what underlying issues may be present in their lives. This is important in a culture where heavy drinking is often normalised and encouraged," he says.

Should people take regular breaks from drinking alcohol throughout the year beyond Dry January?

Dr De Visser argues that it is good for most people to drink less alcohol than they do currently, however they achieve it.

"You could do this through having short periods of abstinence, drinking on fewer days per week, or having fewer drinks on the days when you do drink. There's not really strong evidence to say which of these approaches is best. Therefore, it is probably more important to work out which method is best for you individually, and what support might be beneficial in the long run."

As well as finding support through community groups, Dr De Visser recommends the Try Dry app, which can be used across the year to help people in their efforts to drink less.

While the full range of benefits of intervals of sobriety is not known, Dr De Visser shares that, out of 800 people who completed Dry January in 2018, research shows participants were still drinking less 18 months later.

This study found that their drinking days fell on average by one day each week, with their units consumed falling by 1.5 units. Dr De Visser says the University of Sussex's comparisons of a control group with the general population of drinkers indicate that these changes are not observed in the broader population, but are highly likely to be a consequence of undertaking Dry January.

"It is also worth noting that people who try but don't make it all the way to the end of the month also report some short-term and medium-term benefits, but these are not as great as those as who stay dry for the whole month," he adds.

Where to find support for a drinking problem

"Trying not to drink can be difficult, because drinking alcohol is expected - or at least possible - in so many social situations, and for multiple reasons: to celebrate achievements or milestones, to socialise, to manage negative emotions ... So avoiding drink can be a challenge. Organised campaigns like Dry January can make this a bit easier by providing a range of sources of support," says Dr De Visser.

You can sign up for Dry January with Alcohol Change UK for regular support emails with tips and tricks from experts and others embarking on the challenge. A sense of community can help you feel less alone in your sobriety, as you find alternative activities to enjoy that don't revolve around alcohol.

Dr De Visser says research shows that people who register with the campaign and make more use of its resources are twice as likely to stay dry as people who try to go it alone.

"This also means that they are more likely to increase their sense of control over their drinking, and more likely to experience the benefits to physical health and psychological well-being."

However, if you suspect you could have a drinking problem and think alcohol is causing problems, you should contact your GP and be honest about your drinking habits.

Helplines for alcohol problems
These include:

  • Drinkline - this is a national helpline open weekdays 9 am-8 pm and weekends 11 am-4 pm on 0300 123 1110.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) - this self-help group offers a 12-step programme towards sobriety with regular support groups.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups - this service offers support to the families and friends of those affected by a drinking problem.
  • The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) - this service provides a free, confidential telephone and email helpline for children of alcohol-dependent parents on 0800 358 3456.
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