Does Dry January send the right message?
By philipedwards, Jan 29 2019 10:03AM
Jan 29, 2019
December is a season of excess in most parts of the world, and in the United Kingdom the annual festivities notably involve over-consumption of one indulgence in particular: alcohol. While the holiday season in North America tends to focus more on food, sugar, and child-centred celebrations, December in the UK is known as the month of office parties, late nights and increasingly gruesome hangovers. According to industry website thedrinksbusiness.com, the average Brit will consume 156 units of alcohol over the six days between Christmas Eve and New Years Day – an average of 26 units a day, nearly twice the recommended allowance of 14 units in an entire week, as advised by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer.
Unsurprisingly, many in the UK pair this annual season of excess with a month of self-control by abstaining from alcohol entirely for all of January. According to charity Alcohol Change (formerly Alcohol Concern), more than four million people in the UK – one tenth of adults who drink – are taking part in so-called “Dry January” this year, with an estimated 100,00 of them signing up to raise funds through charitable for Cancer Research UK through “Dryathlon”.
What kind of ways can taking a month off drink benefit us? In 2018 researchers from the University of Sussex surveyed 1,715 people who had attempted Dry January in the first week of February. Respondents to the reported a slew of ways they had visibly benefited: 88% saved money, 70% felt healthier, 71% slept better, 67% felt they had more energy, 58% lost weight, 57% felt they could concentrate better, and 54% said their complexion had improved.
These are just the visible, subjective benefits. What about the measurable, objective, biological benefits?
In 2013 10 staff members at New Scientist went dry for a month , while four continued drinking as normal, in a small experiment conducted with the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School (UCLMS). After 31 days of abstention, tests revealed the ten abstainers on average experienced a 15% reduction in liver fat, a 16% drop in blood glucose, and lost 1.5kg each.
In a larger experiment in 2017, British scientists from a number of universities enlisted 94 people who took a month off drink (and 47 who did not), and sampled a range of health measurements at the start and the end of January: weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, insulin resistance (a marker for both the likelihood of developing both diabetes and fatty liver), and more. Publishing their results in the British Medical Journal in November 2018, they reported that abstainers on average experienced a reduction in insulin resistance of about 25%, and lost around 2kg each. Other health metrics such as blood cholesterol improved as well, though not to a significant degree.
So far so good. But medical experts caution there is more to the story – and even the BMJ has suggested the Dry January campaign could actually “do more harm than good”.
For one, abstainers may over-indulge in February, undoing all the benefits. The fact that “Dryathalon” implies a month of sobriety is a difficult challenge could lead many to wish to “reward” themselves at its completion with excessive drinking – and a return to the status quo. For this reason Public Health England is more keen to promote taking at least two days off drink per week – which would translate into more than 100 dry days a year, rather than 31. The point of a month off drink is not simply to give the liver a break: it is to take a moment to soberly consider the role alcohol plays in their lives.
The post-festive season has long been considered a time to cast off old habits and embrace new ones, such as by hitting the gym, saving money, nurturing new relationships, and so on. A month without alcohol should give abstainers a chance to reflect how they relate to alcohol, and ideally, permanently adopt new ways of consuming it. That survey from the University of Sussex did in fact find that after a dry month, 82% of people thought more deeply about their relationship with alcohol, 80% felt more in control of their drinking, 76% said they had learnt about when and why they drink, and perhaps most significant, 71% realised they did not need a drink to enjoy themselves.
That’s just after a month of sobriety. But did this translate into long term changes? Those same researchers were able to survey 800 of the 1,715 people who took a month off drink eight months later in August 2018, and found they were drinking slightly less: respondents said they had taken their drinking down from 4.3 days a week on average to 3.3, were consuming 7.1 units on a drinking day compared to 8.6, and were drunk an average of 2.1 times a month rather than 3.4.
These figures however may not paint an accurate picture. For one, the information is self-reported (as opposed to gathered from, say, an ankle monitor), so it is not an objective or ideal measurement. And two, less than half of the people who had completed Dry January willingly reported their drinking levels eight months later – suggesting those who had failed to changed their ways may not have been inclined to report back, skewing the data.
What is needed is not simply a universal shift to more moderate levels of drinking on a regular basis, such as with two dry days a week, but a viable alternative to alcohol. Cold, dark, and sombre, January is a difficult time of year for many, and there are benefits to light drinking that many people may crave more than usual: socializing, relaxation, and help getting to sleep . Though a month off drink is to be welcomed, we do well to keep the bigger picture in mind – and imagine what January would be like with a safer alternative on tap throughout the year, without a nation-side hangover come New Years Day.
1. "How ‘Dry January’ is the secret to better sleep, saving money and losing weight," University of Sussex Press Release, Wednesday, 2 January 2019. http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/47131
2. Coghlan, Andy. "Our liver vacation: Is a dry January really worth it?" New Scientist, Magazine issue 2950, 4 January 2014. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129502-600-our-liver-vacation-is-a-dry-january-really-worth-it/
3. Mehta G, Macdonald S, Cronberg A, et al Short-term abstinence from alcohol and changes in cardiovascular risk factors, liver function tests and cancer-related growth factors: a prospective observational study BMJ Open 2018;8:e020673. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020673
4. Could campaigns like Dry January do more harm than good? BMJ 2016; 352 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i143
5. de Visser, Richard O, Robinson, Emily and Bond, Rod (2016) Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during “Dry January” and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychology, 35 (3). pp. 281-289. ISSN 0278-6133 http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/57508/