Lots of people have had the experience of overindulging in alcohol over the holidays, feeling like absolute crap by the time December 31st rolls around, and wanting to make a change in the new year. This is probably a big part of the reason why the well-known public health campaign called “Dry January” is so darn popular. Dry January is something that multiple countries’ governments promote as a way to help their citizens improve their health. But the campaign also has some roots in the fitness world. According to Runner’s World, a woman named Emily Robinson who was living in the UK had signed up to run her first half-marathon. She was looking to enhance her performance, so she decided to give up alcohol for the month of January and see if that helped. Along with enhanced physical performance, she also experienced better sleep, more energy, and weight loss. A 2013 UK study conducted by the staff of New Scientist magazine showed that going dry for a month may reduce liver fat (a precursor of liver disease) and lower blood glucose levels (a key factor in determining one’s risk for diabetes).
Since I stopped drinking 6 months ago, I have noticed a ton of benefits from an alcohol-free lifestyle. I have experienced better sleep, more energy, more mental clarity and focus, improved mood, a higher threshold for stress, better relationships (most noticeably with my husband), and more productivity. Plus, I never have to worry about all of the severe negative effects that can accompany drinking alcohol, such as hangovers, DUIs, injuries, etc. My life is simply better without alcohol in it.
But not everyone knows how good it can feel to go alcohol-free for an extended period of time. In fact, I think many people see it as a negative thing and think it would decrease their quality of life. I had a friend who recently did something called the “Hard 75 Challenge,” which was basically a very stringent fitness challenge. Part of the challenge was no alcohol. He seemed to feel great while doing the challenge. He reported having more energy and losing weight, but I don’t know if he attributed any of that to cutting out alcohol. Other people certainly didn’t see the benefit of it. I remember seeing comments on his social media feed about how much it must suck to not drink for that long and that they could NEVER do something like that. I can honestly relate to those sentiments because that was me! I couldn’t envision living life, experiencing joy, relaxing, or any other positive situation without alcohol. How sad is that? Well…that is addiction.
What people want to hear about alcohol is all the good stuff…the benefits. I used to feel that way, and I’d often turn to Google hoping to find out that some scientist discovered that drinking a bottle of white wine every night would make you live longer, be smarter..or something. (Spoiler Alert: that data doesn’t exist.) Although there are studies that have argued for the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, and some of them can be quite convincing. But the findings of the 2016 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) does a pretty good job of shutting down any purported benefits of alcohol consumption. Their findings “clearly demonstrate the substantial, and larger than previously estimated, contribution of alcohol to death, disability, and ill health, globally.” In short, alcohol has no health benefits. It’s bad for you.
To be perfectly blunt—because I hate when this gets sugar-coated—there are no real health benefits of drinking ethanol (aka alcohol). According to the National Institutes of Health, consuming alcohol increases your risk of cancer, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, stomach bleeding, and numerous types of injury. Alcohol may be legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Cigarettes are legal, too, but the damage that smoking causes to the human body is well-known. Do you think any doctor would tell you (now, not in the 1950s) that it’s okay to smoke in “moderation”? I certainly wouldn’t trust one who did.
Unfortunately, pointing out the harmful effects of alcohol is also a pretty unpopular thing to do, hence the reason I am reluctant to share my blog with friends and family who still drink. As a person who was once dependent on alcohol for emotional regulation, I know how much I wanted to defend it. I didn’t want to think of it as a problem, because I needed it. I didn’t want to read articles that talked about the negative effects of drinking. I only wanted to focus on the “benefits” of moderate drinking…even though I was far from a moderate drinker and I think few people truly are. Did you know that moderate drinking is no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men, and drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor? Does anyone honestly measure out their drinks like this? I certainly wasn’t measuring out 5 ounces of wine each time I had a glass. Even some of the most health conscious people I know don’t do that!
In the last few months that I was still drinking alcohol, I estimate that I had 3-5 drinks per night. But sometimes I’d have more…it often just got away from me. And that is not because there is anything inherently “wrong” with me. I am smart and capable person by all accounts. I have a master’s degree, I’m a homeowner, I’ve been married for 14 years. I’m not trying to brag or say I am somehow above addiction, I’m not. I’m just saying that it can happen to anyone. The simple reason why I drank more than I wanted to, more than I knew to be safe was because alcohol is addictive. But our society tells us that it’s okay in moderation. It’s okay. Can you imagine if people thought the same thing about heroin or crack cocaine? Yet, one study showed that alcohol is actually more harmful than heroin and crack! Who would ever think that? I never imagined it was that harmful, but looking back I can see how lucky I am that I never experienced any serious health problems or legal problems as a result of my drinking.
So anyways, all this to say that I am very excited for Dry January! I am grateful to have gotten through the holidays without alcohol. I’m excited for the new year. And I am excited for all the people who are going to get to experience what it’s like to be alcohol-free for an extended period of time, possibly for the first time in their adult lives! And maybe some of them will even decide to keep going with it, and maybe their lives will improve as much as mine has. Here’s hoping!
Are you getting ready for a Dry January? Here are a few suggestions that I hope will be helpful…
Get specific on your goals for this month. Will you stay dry for the entire month of January, or just part of it? Are you cutting out alcohol altogether, or just cutting back? Are you going to taper for the first week, or go cold turkey? Is there an occasion this month where you plan to drink? If so, how many drinks will you have? The more specific you can be regarding your goals for eliminating or cutting back on your alcohol consumption this month, the better!
Decide how you’ll track your progress. I really like the Sober Time app for tracking how long I have been alcohol-free and you can sue it for other addictions, too. You can even set custom goals to help keep you motivated. It also comes with some preset milestones and it will alert you when you have hit them, such as your first 24 hours, first week, and first 30 days. It’s a great app!
Examine your reasons for doing Dry January. Maybe you have overindulged over the holidays and are ready for a month without hangovers or beer bloat. Maybe you want to lose weight and cut out empty calories in the form of alcohol. Maybe you want to reap some of the other benefits you’ve heard about an alcohol-free month, such as better sleep, more energy, and fewer mood swings. Or maybe you’re considering a longer term of sobriety and want to use this month as an experiment. Whatever your reasons are, get super clear about them and write them down!
Find support from friends, family, and online communities. There are online communities for Dry January specifically, or you could get involved in another types of support group, such as the Stop Drinking group on Reddit. If you’re considering a more long-term change, you might also look into recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery. Tell friends and family that you’re going dry this January, too, and ask for their support, such as by not offering you drinks and cheering you on when you hit milestones like 1 week, 15 days, and 30 days.
Identify situations that might trigger you to drink. I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways, stay away from bars this month! In general, try to avoid any situation where drinking might be encouraged. But you might find you have some triggers you can’t or don’t want to avoid, such as watching sports on TV or playing video games. For me, a big trigger was cooking. Find a way to make the trigger manageable, such as by doing some deep breathing beforehand and drinking a sparkling water instead of alcohol.
Stock up on sparkling water and other non-alcoholic substitutes. I love sparkling water so much. My husband and I were going through an absurd amount of it, so we recently got a Sodastream to cut back on the number of cans and bottles that we had to haul to the recycling center each month. My husband is also a fan of non-alcoholic craft beer, but this isn’t a good option for everyone. Find what works for you! You may find that you prefer drinking tea, plain water, or root beer instead of your usual alcoholic beverage.
Learn how to ride out your cravings. This was and sometimes still is really hard for me. I used to reach for a glass of wine any time I got too stressed. When I quit drinking, I still had these urges to drink when I got overwhelmed, but I didn’t want to give in to them. I learned about something called “urge surfing,” which is basically when you consider your cravings for alcohol like a wave. It rises, peaks, and falls. Imagine you are on a surfboard when these cravings strike and you’re riding the wave to its peak, but then it’s going to fall and carry you back to shore. All you have to do is wait it out. That can be easier said than done, especially when the craving is intense, but you can do it. After you successfully do this a few times, it gets easier and easier. I usually acknowledge when the craving starts, such as by saying it out loud and trying to identify what else I’m feeling. Then, I sit with the feeling for a few minutes, and breathe. Then, I find something to distract myself, such as going for a walk, making a cup of tea, or cleaning something. The cravings seldom last longer than an hour.
Start an exercise routine to boost your mood. Exercise is crucial for me to feel my best and stay sober. If you don’t currently exercise regularly, Dry January is a great time to start! Take a class if you can, because that will also provide you with a social outlet. My favorite type of class is spinning, but I also like walking and yoga. If you’re stuck at home, there are also lots of great free workout channels on Youtube. Try some out until you find one that you like.
Practice relaxation techniques to help you cope with stress. You will still have stress to deal with during Dry January. Everyone has stress. It’s normal. But if alcohol was how you used to deal with stress, then you’ll need a new strategy. Deep breathing, stretching, and taking a long bath are my favorite destressing activities, but find what works best for you! Maybe you’ll find that tai chi, yoga, meditation, journaling, progressive muscle relaxation, or something else is what really chills you out.
Rehearse your response in case you’re offered a drink. It’s possible that someone will try to get you a drink during your Dry January. If this happens, it’s best to be prepared. Arm yourself with a go-to response that you can say any time you’re offered a drink. Of course, a simple “no,” is a perfectly fine. But if you want to shut down any further offers, you could say, “No, thanks. I’m doing Dry January.” Or if you want to keep your commitment on the DL, you could say, “I can’t. I’m taking an antibiotic and my doctor said no alcohol.” Whatever response you decide on, rehearse it a few times before you enter into a situation where you might be offered a drink.
Keep going if you slip up. I have attempted Dry January before and not made it through to the end without a drink. Going dry can be hard, especially if you have relied on alcohol for relaxation for a long time. If you slip up and have a drink, don’t say “screw it” and give up on your Dry January. Acknowledge the slip, and then recommit to your goals! Get right back on the wagon as soon as possible.
Thanks for reading! I wish you all the best in the New Year and in your quest for better health! I hope you experience some awesome benefits during your Dry January! Got any other tips? I’d love to hear them!