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Alcohol has many negative health impacts. Dry January offers a reset.

Mixing Cocktails
Thought Leader: Leana Wen
January 23, 2024
Written by: Dr. Leana Wen

“Dry January” has been picking up momentum in recent years. Last month, a survey found that nearly half of adults 21 and older who drink alcohol reported being “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to take part in the month-long abstention from alcohol, with Gen Z respondents expressing the most enthusiasm.

These are promising statistics, because trying Dry January can lead to both short- and long-term improvements in health in four key ways:

1. Reducing drinking, even for a month, produces health benefits. A study from Britain, where the Dry January campaign started, found that 62 percent of participants had better sleep and 49 percent lost weight after a month without alcohol. Another reported improved insulin sensitivity and reduced blood pressure, and research from the Netherlands documented a change in a marker of liver inflammation after just 28 days.

These health benefits probably won’t sustain if people resume previous drinking patterns. But some might choose to continue cutting back once they experience positive effects. Indeed, in one of the British studies, nearly 3 in 4 maintained lower levels of drinking after Dry January.

2. Better understanding one’s relationship with alcohol could reveal a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder — known colloquially as alcohol addiction or alcoholism — is the most prevalent substance use disorder in the United States. Nearly 29 million adults, or more than 1 in 10, meet the criteria for it. That means more people suffer from this condition than all other substance use disorders combined, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Loss of control is an important element in the diagnosis. Leena Mittal, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told me it’s a red flag if someone “has an intention to drink a certain amount and then is unable to stop at a certain point, or is drinking at times that aren’t acceptable in their life.” Another worrying sign is if that person is experiencing challenges in meeting work, caregiving and social obligations. A third is if they have physical manifestations such as sweating, restlessness and other withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking.

Despite the high prevalence, less than 10 percent of people with alcohol use disorder receive any treatment. People who find themselves unable to cut down on drinking for Dry January should contact their health-care provider. Treatment options range from inpatient care to outpatient talk therapy and 12-step programs. There are also three approved oral medications that can reduce cravings and ease withdrawal symptoms.

3. Tracking alcohol consumption can make people aware of excessive alcohol use. This is especially helpful for people who don’t meet criteria for alcohol use disorder but whose level of intake poses health hazards.

More than 60 million adults reported binge drinking during the past month, which means they consumed five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more for women. About 1 in 4 who binge drink do so at least weekly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 140,000 Americans die from excessive alcohol use every year. Some of these deaths are from car accidents, falls and other injuries sustained while intoxicated, though most are the result of chronic illnesses because of years of heavy alcohol consumption.

For example, alcohol-associated liver disease is the leading cause of liver transplants. And alcohol itself causes approximately 24,000 deaths each year from heart attack and stroke and is linked to at least six types of cancer.

Dry January is an opportunity to take an honest look at the frequency and amount that people drink. Those who are not intending to cut down can still track their consumption and compare it with national recommendations, which counsel women not to have more than one drink per day and men not to have more than two.

4. Being intentional offers introspection around why individuals drink. Mittal explains that Dry January offers space for people to “reflect on what is the role alcohol is having for them.”

Is there something else that is prompting them to drink? Are they experiencing depression and anxiety? Are they turning to alcohol as a form of self-medication? These are reasons to seek care from a primary-care provider or a mental health professional.

All these benefits apply to those who aren’t sure they want to commit to an entire month without drinking. The more lenient “Damp January” can similarly prompt people to probe their relationship with alcohol. And, of course, this doesn’t have to be done just in the month of January. Problematic alcohol use is a major health risk, one that many Americans might not know they have.

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