Each year, millions of people participate in a month of abstinence from alcohol. Dry January is the most popular, followed by Sober October. Some cut back during Lent or other holy months. In fact, the popularity of sobriety has led 14 NFL stadiums to offer alcohol-free seating sections this year.
Removing alcohol from the diet can be a health-promoting behavior, but Dry January and Sober October can backfire. Before looking at how "dry" months can have a negative effect on health, let's consider the benefits.
Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed.
The DGAs state, “Emerging evidence suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of death from various causes, such as from several types of cancer and some forms of cardiovascular disease. Alcohol has been found to increase risk for cancer, and for some types of cancer, the risk increases even at low levels of alcohol consumption (less than 1 drink in a day).”
Previously, studies suggested that drinking one to two servings of alcohol per day may have had protective health benefits (e.g., reducing risk of heart disease). However, recent studies show this may not be true, according to the CDC. It’s impossible to conclude whether the improved outcomes of past studies were due to moderate alcohol consumption or other differences in behaviors or genetics between people who drink moderately and people who don’t.
Benefits of Dry January and Other Periods of Sobriety
About 6.5 million people participated in Dry January 2021. With increases in the popularity of the challenge, it has opened up the ability to study the outcomes of short-term alcohol abstinence on individuals' health.
A small prospective study out of the UK recruited moderate to heavy drinkers for research in 2018. One set of participants had plans to participate in Dry January while the control group did not. After one month, the group that abstained from alcohol for one month saw the following health benefits:
improved blood pressure (about 5%)
decrease in blood growth factors linked to certain cancers
less insulin resistance and 30% decrease in diabetes risk
weight loss (averaging -4 lbs.)
improved liver function tests
50% had decreased their alcohol consumption from dangerous levels to moderate levels 6-8 months later
Another study concluded with Dry January participants self-reporting:
learned about their relationship with alcohol
reduced their alcohol intake 7 months later
Generally, reducing alcohol intake is going to be beneficial for health, sleep, weight, and potentially lab values as seen above. How can Dry January and Sober October backfire?
How Dry January Can Backfire
There are some cautions for people who intend to abstain from alcohol for a month.
First, to reap the health benefits of eliminating alcohol for 31 days, it's important to have a plan for the future. If the mindset is that someone has just "detoxed" for a month and the following months they drink more than they otherwise would have, there could be more damage done than if they had just maintained a moderate consumption pattern all year.
This is similar to yo-yo dieting. Individuals who go on diets generally can't maintain them. Psychologically, when food is restricted, the desire for it increases. Eventually, by permitting the restricted food(s), a sense of failure ensues and the return to unhealthful eating habits occurs. Often, the poor eating habits get more extreme than they were before the diet, sometimes resulting in binging, eating disorders, or excessive weight gain. Marcus Munafò, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol says, "People might feel that they’ve ‘detoxed’ after a month of no drinking, and drink more than they otherwise would have done in subsequent months.”
Instead, the hope is that people participating in Dry January or Sober October gain the confidence to manage their alcohol intake long-term. They will find new ways to socialize, deal with emotions, or relax with moderate to no alcohol.
Drinking Sugar-Sweetened Mocktails Often
A second caution involves the increase of sugar as a result of giving up alcohol. Some people plan their approach to a dry month by purchasing sugar-sweetened mocktails, and ready-made zero-proof drinks from a bar or liquor store. While this is a good alternative to alcohol in a social setting, if a person finds him/herself stocking up on these sugary drinks and indulging in them frequently, insulin resistance, cholesterol, cancer-related factors, and weight can actually worsen.
The key is to remember that drinking water is the best substitute for alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages, and really, any other beverage. In the hierarchy of drink options, try to choose those at the top of the list more often:
Unsweetened coffee, tea, or cacao
Drinks made with 100% juice
Drinks made with juice from concentrate
Drinks sweetened with monk fruit, stevia, or coconut sugar
Drinks sweetened with honey or maple syrup
Drinks sweetened with non-nutritive sweetener (sucralose, aspertame, acesulfame K) or sugar
Drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (sodas)
(Read more about different types of sweeteners here.)
Consider the sweet mocktails as an infrequent treat when you're socializing. A good goal is one to two mocktails per week.
Final Thoughts on Dry January and Periods of Sobriety
Professor Matt Field at the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield notes that while the limited research on the long-term effects of Dry January seems promising, more studies are needed to determine whether it’s the best approach for people trying to cut down their alcohol intake.
People who are currently dependent on alcohol should not participate in Dry January or Sober October. Instead, they should speak with a doctor or consider AA first. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe if drinking is suddenly stopped without professional assistance.
If you're planning to improve your diet, but need some help or accountability, schedule an online appointment with a Registered Dietitian at ZEST Nutrition. Not sure if you're ready for an appointment? For a limited time, ZEST Nutrition is offering Free Consultations and access to a free nutrition tips subscription.