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Dry January can kick-start healthy habits that last beyond the month, experts say

One strategy for success during Dry January is substituting non-alcoholic beverages and mocktails.GLENN OSMUNDSON

The New Year often brings a few things with it: Reorganization. Resolutions. Reckonings.

Over the last decade, it’s also introduced a popular trend: Dry January, where thousands decide to abstain from alcohol for a month. (The trend first gained traction in the UK around 2014, and it’s since caught on around the world.)

While the intention is to stop drinking for only a few weeks, studies show that those who participate in Dry January often experience lasting benefits that extend beyond the month.

“I think it’s a great thing to participate in,” said Dr. Miriam Komaromy, the medical director at Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction. “I think it gives people who drink regularly an opportunity to experience how they feel if they stop.”


And a lot of times, people feel good.

“A lot of people say, ‘I really like how I feel. I’m going to continue this,’” said Dr. Joji Suzuki, director of Brigham and Women’s Division of Addiction Psychiatry. “Those who do try Dry January are more likely to sustain reduction over the longer term.”

One 2018 study found that a group participating in Dry January had improved insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, weight loss, and fewer cancer growth factors in their blood, compared with a group of people who continued drinking.

“Sometimes people notice the whites of their eyes are whiter, their skin is clearer . . . Dry January gives your body time to adjust to its resting state,” Komaromy said.

“Cutting out alcohol without doing anything else leads to improvements in just a few weeks. Better sleep, improved mood, weight loss. It’s pretty remarkable,” Suzuki said.

And individuals don’t have to be heavy drinkers to experience these benefits. But first, let’s define what it means to be a heavy drinker.


According to the National Institute of Alcohol Addiction and Abuse, men who drink more than four drinks on any day, or more than 14 in a week, are considered heavy drinkers. For women, it’s more than three drinks in a day and more than seven in a week that classify them as heavy drinkers.

Komaromy explained how men on average have more lean body mass compared with women, but women develop liver disease at a much lower alcohol consumption total.

“They’re more sensitive,” Komaromy said. “Probably because of estrogen and hormonal effects. Women truly do have physiological damage at lower levels of drinking.”

This is why experts encourage individuals to try the trend and start the year off by looking at their relationship with alcohol in an intentional way.

Suzuki went over the three categories he uses to describe individuals who drink. On the lowest end are social drinkers, “who stay below the safe drinking limits.” In the second category are people who exceed limits occasionally or regularly. And the third category comprises people with an alcohol disorder; “people who have a really hard time controlling their drinking.”

Individuals in the first two categories would benefit from Dry January, but those with a disorder might seek professional guidance to avoid withdrawals, Suzuki said. Komaromy also suggested “sobriety sampling,” for those with destructive alcohol use.

“The idea is that you don’t have to commit today to never use the substance again, You say, ‘I want to try this for a few days or a week and see how I feel,’” she said.


So what happens in the body during this month of abstinence? For starters, the three organs most affected by alcohol (the liver, the GI tract, and the brain) get a much-needed break.

“When you consume alcohol, it leads to widespread damage in the body in the short term,” Suzuki said. “It’s a depressant. It causes depression in the brain that interferes with sleep and mood and when you take it away, people experience immediate benefits. Alcohol is toxic to every cell in the body. You’re giving your body a chance to heal.”

People who quit drinking report better sleep. Dmitry Volochek

In addition to that, Suzuki notes that Dry January is an interruption to unhealthy habits.

“You’re not reflexively reaching for the beer, wine, cocktail, whatever it is at the end of the night. You’re interrupting the normal reflexive pattern that many of us have,” he said.

And COVID undoubtedly made that worse for many people.

“There weren’t as many choices for coping strategies,” Suzuki said, noting the nationwide increase in alcohol consumption since the start of COVID-19. And beyond that, many people were drinking alone.

“We know that drinking alone has some particular downsides to it,” Komaromy said, adding that it can lead to depression, higher risk of suicide, and overdose if mixed with other drugs. “And the real proliferation of alcohol delivery to people’s homes has also enhanced that trend.”

But that trend has generally swung in the opposite direction for the younger generation, studies suggest. A recent Drinkaware survey found that Gen Z is choosing not to drink alcohol, and over the last few years, there’s been a rise in the “sober curious” among millennials.


“I think there’s a decline overall in substance use by the youngest generation,” Komaromy said. “I think they are in many ways looking at the behavior of the generation before them, and they’re saying, ‘We don’t want to do that.’”

“It’s precisely a time when the impact of alcohol can be detrimental,” Suzuki added. “If someone is going to develop a disorder, the prime time is at a young age, so I think it’s great that we’re seeing this.”

Strategies for success

There are plenty of helpful strategies for making it through a booze-free month. For starters, “get it out of the house,” Komaromy said. She suggested avoiding settings in which drinking is expected or mandatory, and to “seek out friends doing the same thing.” She also suggests looking for other strategies for how to have fun.

“The human brain doesn’t react well to having pleasurable things taken away from us,” Komaromy said. “One strategy could be that every time you would have bought a mixed drink, take that money, put it in a cookie jar, and save it and do something really nice for yourself . . . another nice side effect people will notice from not drinking for a month is how much money it will save.”

Suzuki, who’s in his third year successfully participating in Dry January, relayed a few tips of his own.


“Be flexible,” he said. “You can try being abstinent for the entire month, or just a few days or weeks.”

Suzuki also recommends involving family and friends in the challenge, substituting non-alcoholic beverages and mocktails, and looking for other ways to get the same effects from alcohol.

“We don’t [consume] to hurt ourselves,” he said. “We do it for increased sociability, decreased anxiety. It depends on the individual. Each person can explore and try what works for them, and that’s part of the fun of it. There are other ways to enjoy my downtime on the weekend.”

Brittany Bowker can be reached at Follow her @brittbowker and also on Instagram @brittbowker.