Should You Take a ‘Dry January’?

Thinking of trying a “dry January” after a particularly wet December?

No, we’re not talking about the weather.

A practice called dry January—that’s no drinking alcohol for a month—has gained popularity in recent years on social media and in real life. People say they do it to give their bodies a rest after holiday partying, to lose a few pounds and to improve sleep.

We talked to Britta M. Starke, director of the UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program, about the benefits of taking a dry January and how to be successful.

Is a month of alcohol abstinence a good idea?

A dry January—it really could be a dry month any time of the year—could be a great idea for you if you’re interested in exploring the impact of alcohol in your life.

In fact, it’s something we frequently ask patients to do when they come to our office.

A few of the questions that often lead our patients to take a sober month are:

  • Am I a problem drinker?
  • Do I have a disorder?
  • Is my sleep disturbance due to alcohol use?

If you have these questions, it might be a good idea for you. Taking a month away from alcohol can help you find out if drinking is an underlying cause of any sleep disorders, appetite issues, depression or anxiety you might be experiencing.

Of course, you don’t have to be worried about your alcohol use or commit to quitting forever to benefit from trying out a sober month. If you want to merely test whether you can be sober for 30 days, then that’s a great first reason.

What happens during a month of sobriety?

Typically if you quit drinking, you’ll notice an improvement in your sleep pretty quickly, and you might feel more rested. A lot of people drink to help them get to sleep, which is a mistake. Alcohol is a depressant, so it works only as long as the alcohol works: Your sleep is disturbed for the rest of the night, so it’s really not good for quality sleep.

You’ll notice a boost in your energy level almost immediately. Your mood will possibly stabilize. You might simply find yourself happier. There’s a good chance that you will feel more ambitious and focused.

A 30-day period of sobriety helps your liver rebound, unless your liver has been seriously injured by cirrhosis.

If you have diabetes, it’s not a good idea to drink anyway, but quitting drinking can help immediately stabilize your sugar levels. Alcohol is very high in sugar.

For folks who want to exercise more and get fit, quitting drinking will result in more energy to exercise. Sampling sobriety helps you lose weight because you’re cutting out a huge amount of calories and carbs.

People feel better, their drinking goes down for the next six months to a year, and their liver and glucose levels stabilize.

I think the biggest reason to give it a try is that if it’s a real struggle and you find yourself craving a drink because it has become that much of a habit, it’s time to look at that.

Who should not do a dry January?

If you’re a heavy drinker and you experience any withdrawal symptoms whatsoever—if you wake up with night sweats, chills, nausea or anything more severe—you should not quit drinking cold turkey.

In fact, for very heavy drinkers, withdrawal from alcohol can be fatal.

If you have withdrawal symptoms, then unfortunately your drinking has gotten to the point where you’re going to have to be medically detoxed, and that involves a hospital stay. That’s not something to do on your own.

Talk to your doctor first. Sometimes doctors can prescribe medication to help you reduce your alcohol consumption. The medication helps you avoid seizures and other withdrawal symptoms, and makes quitting safer.

What are your tips for taking a dry January or month of sobriety?

You’re going to feel much better after quitting drinking if you’re replacing the drinking activity with something else, like taking walks, spending time with your significant other, exercising, playing with your dogs, hiking … the list goes on. Replacing drinking with something else that you enjoy is what makes quitting sustainable. It can’t just be about checking the days off the calendar.

If you’re just kind of white-knuckling it, thinking, “It’s day 20; I only have 10 days left, and then I can have a drink,” then you may be missing the real goal. The goal is to live a full life, in which drinking doesn’t take your time away from the things you really enjoy, while making you feel anxious, irritable, tired and out of shape. The whole point is to live a great life.

Be prepared and know what you’re going to do instead of drink. For example, if you start on Jan. 1, you’ll be starting when it’s cold outside. What do you like to do in cold weather? A lot of people tend to stay indoors when it’s cold out, so what are you going to do instead? Are you going to go to the gym? Are you going to go to the movies? Are you going to read a book? Are you going to meditate? Are you going to take a class for the heck of it? Are you going to try to get together with friends for sober activities?

Make a list of things that you can do, because if you’re just going to sit at home, then it’s going to get tedious, lonely and boring. Boredom and loneliness are big triggers for folks—the reasons many people give up on a month of sobriety.

If I am worried about my drinking, or the drinking of someone I love, does insurance cover a consultation with the UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program?

If you’re insured, then your plan will most likely cover the consultation. But it’s always good to verify that information when you call to schedule your appointment. For patients who need help with financial assistance, UNC Medical Center offers resources to help. If you’re concerned about the possibility that your drinking has become problematic or if you have any questions about it whatsoever, then it’s worthwhile to sit down with somebody to talk about it.

Are you concerned about how alcohol is affecting your life? Talk to your doctor or make an appointment with the UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program at (984) 974-6320.