The Benefits of Dry January, According to Science

Frost during January brings new experiences and the opportunity to quit alcoholImage via shiwork/Envato Elements

It’s the first month of a new year, which means we’re deep into the trend of Dry January, when people voluntarily abstain from alcohol, often sharing their journeys online

The term “Dry January” was first used in the 2000s by Nicole Brodeur in a Seattle Times column. In 2014, the U.K.-based charity Alcohol Change registered it as a trademark. Since then, the movement has grown in popularity as more people choose to go alcohol-free for the first 31 days of a new year.

While individuals may choose to participate in a Dry January challenge for countless reasons, research shows that taking a break from alcohol may in fact have huge benefits. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to participate in Dry January, read on to learn some research-backed facts, then if you feel like it’s the right move, sign up for our Dry January Experience.

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1. Reevaluated Relationship with Alcohol

First of all, Dry January is a great opportunity to reevaluate your relationship with alcohol. If you’ve been questioning that relationship, a month without alcohol gives you the space and time to determine what you want long-term. 

If you’re looking to drink less or cut alcohol out altogether, science shows that a month dry can help. A 2017 study found that participating in Dry January appears to enhance a person’s capacity to refuse alcohol and reduce problematic drinking. 

Dr. Michael Levy, a psychologist based in Florida and the author of Take Control of Your Drinking, notes that participating in a period of abstinence can be particularly helpful for those who identify as “social drinkers” — that is, those who don’t rely on alcohol on a daily basis but find themselves drinking more than intended when going out with friends.

“It’s really an opportunity to find out the role alcohol plays in your life,” Levy said. “You can learn a lot about your drinking.”

Dry January is also a great opportunity to explore why you imbibe, particularly if you’ve relied on drinking to unwind every night after work. Unsurprisingly, alcohol consumption has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic; in a 2020 study of alcohol consumption during the pandemic, researchers found that six out of 10 participants reported increased drinking, citing reasons such as stress (47.5%), greater access to alcohol (34.4%), and pure boredom (30.1%). 

Overall, taking a break from drinking can help notice what role alcohol plays in your life, according to Dr. Jennifer E. Merrill, Associate Professor at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies within the Department of Behavior and Social Sciences at Brown University.

“If you previously were drinking to have a good time, but notice you have just as good of a time without alcohol, this knowledge could serve you well,” Merrill said. “Likewise, you might learn that you previously just had a drink out of habit, without truly benefiting in any way from that drink.”

2. Positive Shifts in Health

The bad news? Alcohol can truly wreak havoc on your mental health. The good news? Abstaining from alcohol for short periods of time can literally change your brain. 

In a 2018 study, researchers looked at areas of the brain that are impacted by volume loss during alcohol use, and compared changes that occurred during short-term abstinence (one week to one month) and long-term abstinence (one month to seven months). Ultimately, the researchers found that gray matter plasticity during alcohol abstinence can contribute to an individual’s ability to abstain at different phases of sobriety.

“Alcohol and drugs have a funny way of grabbing the brain,” Levy said. “Those neurochemical pathways, even (for) someone who doesn’t have a disorder, it can grab them.”

In addition, abstaining from alcohol could mean a reduction in negative consequences overall, said Merrill.

“You can expect not to have any hangovers or blackouts if you’re not drinking,” Merrill said. “You won’t be spending as much money on alcohol. You might notice that you sleep better without alcohol, that you lose a couple of pounds, or that you’re in a better mood.”

3. Increased Well-Being

Finally, it can’t be overstated: taking a break from alcohol can really improve your well-being. A 2020 study found that participating in Dry January boosted participants’ overall well-being and self-efficacy; that is, individuals felt more confident in their ability to achieve certain goals.

Long story short? Taking a break from alcohol can have ripple effects.

“When someone wants to make a health behavior change, self-efficacy is very important,” Merrill said. “We might ask patients about times when they were successful at making other kinds of changes in the past. Having an experience making a change that you might think you’d have difficulty making can give you more confidence to make other changes as well.”

Plus, you may have some extra free time now that you’re not drinking in the evenings. Fortunately, taking a break from alcohol is a great opportunity to revisit favorite hobbies or develop some new interests.

“It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself,” Levy said. “Ask yourself: ‘Going forward, what makes sense for me? I enjoy drinking, but I don’t need to.’”

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If you’ve been thinking about participating in Dry January, there isn’t much to lose. Afterward, if you decide a life without alcohol isn’t for you, you can choose to go back to alcohol. Chances are, though, that the break will help you see whether or not there is any value in keeping alcohol around. If you’re looking for help or support on your journey, Tempest membership might help. With a group of experts, an online community of like-minded folks, and accountability coaching, Tempest membership offers a host of support options. If you aren’t ready to dive into membership but are still interested in learning more about the benefits of an alcohol break, check out our free app, Rethink with Tempest.

About the Author

Bonnie Horgos

Bonnie Horgos, MSW, LGSW (she/her) is a licensed social worker and a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. She researches and writes about addiction, alcohol use, and recovery through an anti-oppressive lens grounded in critical feminist theory. Her scholarship specifically focuses on alcohol use, misuse, and disorders in the LGBTQIA+ community.

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