Dry January: The Health Benefits From Taking A Break From Alcohol

Jan 6, 2020
Originally published on January 6, 2020 5:37 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Among your many options for New Year's resolutions and fresh starts, dry January is a thing, which means a monthlong break from alcohol. It turns out that doing this even briefly has some health benefits, and NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to talk about it. Hi there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I should just mention, for the record, that I've already blown it, OK?

AUBREY: OK, well...

INSKEEP: So it's not going to be a dry January for me.

AUBREY: ...It's never too late to start, giving you another chance.

INSKEEP: I could just start a month from today if I wanted to.

AUBREY: You could.

INSKEEP: But some people are already really doing this, right?

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Is this a widespread thing?

AUBREY: Well, you know, it's something that is really gaining traction. I would say that even though we are still a nation of drinkers - the majority of Americans drink some alcohol - there's a lot of curiosity about sobriety. If you look at what has happened in the last 18 months, there's been a surge in new nonalcoholic beers on the market, distilled spirits that are alcohol-free. There are sober social clubs and meet-ups. And it's all part of what's being called the sober-curious movement. So people...

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of someone going, I wonder what it would be like to be sober. I mean, that's just fascinating. OK.

AUBREY: Yes, it's a thing.

INSKEEP: And is it in January, I'm just guessing, because people maybe have had a little bit too much to drink over the holidays, the month preceding?

AUBREY: I think so. I mean, lots of us feel that overindulgence of the holiday. And I think the big thing is when you try to take on something like a whole month without drinking, you kind of have to have a strategy to get started, right? I mean, if you're going to stick with something, you need a clear reason for doing it and you need a plan to get there.

So I think the very first step here is to simply assess your relationship with alcohol. Why do you want to take a break? Are you looking for more energy? Are you just feeling overindulgent, the way we just said? You know, write down these things in a journal or just in the memo section of your phone. Also, do some basic accounting. Write down how much to drink, when you drink and - how about this question - why do you drink? (Laughter).

I spoke to this woman named Blair Benson. She's in her 30s. She lives in Rochester, N.Y., where she says the winters are long and cold. And she says when she asked herself all of these questions, what she came up with was a pretty simple answer.

BLAIR BENSON: One day I realized, honestly, there was just a lot of boredom (laughter) going on and thought, well, this is kind of silly.

INSKEEP: Maybe there's something else to do.

AUBREY: Right. I mean, partially, people do drink out of boredom. I mean, alcohol is so ubiquitous in our culture. Not only do we drink at weddings and funerals and ballgames and office happy hours, it's not that uncommon to drink for no reason at all, just sort of on autopilot. And so when you put the brakes on that and you give yourself a chance to reflect on the behavior, Blair Benson says she realized, after a break, she kind of felt better not drinking. She didn't wake up feeling bloated or hungover.

BENSON: I mean, my skin tone improves. I have a lot more energy. My joints feel better. Like, everything just feels so much better. Mentally, your head's clear; you don't have anything fogging up your brain.

INSKEEP: Can you get that much improvement from just a month of abstaining?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I think it depends on how much you've been drinking. But there's now several studies that have documented the effects of going dry for just a month. You know, in one study - it was done in Britain, a big drinking country. It included about 850 men and women. These were healthy young adults. They all tried dry January. At the end, 62% said they slept better, about half said they lost weight, and many reported feeling more energetic.

And then separately, researchers have evaluated liver function among people who drink kind of regularly and then stop for a while. I talked to Aaron White. He's a senior scientific adviser at the NIH institute that studies alcohol, and he says the results have been kind of surprising.

AARON WHITE: You don't have to drink a lot to tax the liver. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to damage the liver, but it means that the liver has to work harder to do what it does. So there is early evidence that even taking a break from a fairly, you know, moderate level of intake leads to what appears to be some improvements in just the ability of the liver to do what the liver does.

AUBREY: So a kind of growing body of evidence that this could be beneficial.

INSKEEP: Now, on the surface, it sounds easier to take a break for a month than to say, I'm never going to drink again, which...

AUBREY: Sure, of course.

INSKEEP: ...Is a big commitment that some people make.

AUBREY: Of course.

INSKEEP: But is it also hard to just take a break for a month for some people?

AUBREY: Well, you know, think of it this way - we are our habits, right? So one really useful strategy is this - when you're trying to take something out of your life, you're much more likely to succeed if you have something to replace it with. So if you're in the habit of, say, having a glass of wine every night at 6:00, then for your dry month, replace it with - I don't know - a walk, a yoga class, you know, take up a new hobby. For Blair Benson, she says she started training for triathlons.

INSKEEP: Whoa.

AUBREY: She's now a competitive triathlete, and she says it's given her a whole focus.

BENSON: Honestly, picking up that sport helped so much. Instead of going out to the bar, you're going out for a run or out for a bike ride, and you give yourself more of a sense of purpose. And by the end of it, you're going to feel better for it.

INSKEEP: Kind of self-reinforcing cycle there. You get more energy because you're not drinking; you use the energy in the triathlon.

AUBREY: Absolutely. Now, I mean, it doesn't have to be a major thing. Not all of us can go become competitive triathletes.

INSKEEP: In a month, yeah.

AUBREY: In a month. But, you know, you can try something simple. You know, pick up the paintbrush, get out your knitting needles, join a club, take a class - you know, anything that might replace or just disrupt this routine of drinking.

INSKEEP: What happens in February?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I spoke to a lot of people who tried dry January, and something I heard over and over again is that a dry month really helps people to do what I call a reset and reexamine their relationship with alcohol. Some people told me that, over the course of the month, they realized they didn't like the hold that alcohol had over them.

One listener described his realization to me that he'd been using alcohol as, quote, "a numbing agent." And he told me not drinking made him kind of show up for his life, feel more present. So he says he might stop for good. A lot of other people told me that, look - a one-month break helped them to kind of set a new habit and drink a little less. That's definitely the case with Blair Benson.

BENSON: I definitely don't drink as much as I used to. So I will have a drink on, like, Friday nights, but it's nothing like it used to be.

AUBREY: So rather than going out to the bar out of boredom, she says she's much more mindful, and she feels better for it.

INSKEEP: I was going to end this report by saying cheers, but...

AUBREY: (Laughter) Hey, look - you can cheers, you can toast with some seltzer water. You don't have to have alcohol in the glass to feel a sense of celebration.

INSKEEP: Well, then, cheers.

AUBREY: Cheers.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. If you do want to start this, even a little late, you can find more tips and strategies at NPR Life Kit which is at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.