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. People do it to give their bodies a rest after holiday partying, to lose a few pounds and to improve sleep.
We asked Dan Velez, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor at UNC Substance Treatment and Recovery, about the benefits of taking a dry January and how to be successful.
Should I do a dry January?
A dry January—or a dry month at 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, or giving your body and mind a refresh, Velez says. (And it doesn’t have to be January, or only in January. “Sober October” has gained steam too, he says.)
“This ‘sampling sobriety’ concept is something we frequently ask patients to do when they come to our office,” Velez says. “Taking a month away from alcohol can help you find out if drinking is an underlying cause of any depression, anxiety, relationship issues, appetite problems or sleep disorders you might be experiencing.”
If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, trying a sober month might be helpful:
- Am I a problem drinker?
- Can I stop if I want to?
- Are blackouts normal?
- Is my sleep disturbance due to alcohol use?
- What other activities (unrelated to substance use) are out there?
Of course, you don’t have to be worried about your alcohol use to benefit from a sober month, and it doesn’t mean you have to quit forever. If you merely want to test whether you can be sober for 30 days or so, that’s a great reason to try, Velez says.
What happens during a month of sobriety?
If you take a break from drinking, you’ll notice an improvement in your sleep pretty quickly, and you’ll probably feel more rested. A lot of people drink to help them fall asleep, but that is a mistake, Velez says.
“Alcohol is a depressant and works only as long as the alcohol works. During that time, your body is attempting to restore and rebuild while it’s under the influence, which is a tall order,” he says. “Our bodies then experience a sort of backfire when the alcohol wears off in our sleep, and—poof—we’re wide awake at 3 a.m.”
Recent studies have shown that even one drink can negatively affect your sleep.
You’ll also notice a boost in your energy level almost immediately, in part thanks to no hangovers, which is the body’s response to alcohol wearing off, Velez says. Without alcohol, your mood can stabilize, and you might find yourself happier, more focused or more ambitious.
“Taking alcohol off the table immediately opens up your mind and your schedule to new things,” Velez says.
As for your body, a month of sobriety helps your liver health and function rebound, unless your liver has been seriously injured by cirrhosis. (If that’s the case, it’s critically important to talk to your doctor about strategies for sobriety.)
If you have diabetes or are prediabetic, quitting alcohol can help immediately stabilize your sugar levels, Velez says. “Alcohol is very high in sugar, and there’s no way around that, not even with vodka or those ‘skinny’ drinks or seltzers.”
Some people with hypertension have a near-immediate improvement in their blood pressure when they stop drinking alcohol, Velez says.
And of course, if your plans for the new year include getting more exercise or losing weight, sobriety can be a powerful tool.
“Quitting drinking will result in more time and energy to exercise, and fewer excuses not to exercise,” Velez says. “Sampling sobriety helps you lose weight because you’re cutting out a huge amount of calories and carbs, and possibly cutting out some junk food if you’re like so many who tend to pair drinking and unhealthy foods.”
Finally, living without alcohol for a time can improve your mental health by offering a chance to practice mindfulness, Velez says. “Alcohol typically results in mindlessness. But during a dry January, you’ll be fully mindful in your life, present in your experiences and clear-minded in decision-making.”
Who should not do a dry January?
If you’re a heavy drinker and you experience any withdrawal symptoms—if you wake up with cold sweats, chills, nausea or vomiting, unsteadiness, lightheadedness, shaking or trembling hands—you should not quit drinking cold turkey, Velez says.
“For heavy drinkers, withdrawal from alcohol can be fatal,” he says. “If you experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, then your drinking has unfortunately reached a level in which you likely need medically supervised detox. This typically involves a stay at a hospital or detox center.”
You may need to talk with your doctor before trying a sober period if you have any concerns or feel you may be at risk. Occasionally, healthcare providers can prescribe medication on an outpatient basis to help you reduce or stop your alcohol consumption. Medication may help you avoid seizures and other withdrawal symptoms, and generally make your break from alcohol safer. Be honest with your doctor and follow their advice.
What are the best tips for taking a dry January or month of sobriety?
You’ll feel much better after pausing drinking if you replace it with another activity, Velez says. That could mean spending time with your significant other, trying a new type of exercise, playing with your dogs, hiking, creating art or anything else you find enjoyable. Replacing drinking with something else that you enjoy is what makes the break sustainable, so it’s not just about checking days off the calendar.
“If you’re just kind of white-knuckling it, thinking, ‘It’s day 21; I only have 10 days left, and then I can have a drink,’ then you may be missing out on the full experience,” Velez says. “If that’s the only way you can accomplish a dry January, then your body will still thank you, but the true opportunity here is a chance to live a fully present life, one without avoiding or numbing.”
Be prepared and know what you’re going to do instead of drinking. Make a list of things you might enjoy doing, such as:
- Watching movies
- Tackling a craft or another project
- Taking a class
- Meeting with friends for sober activities
“If you’re just going to sit at home without a plan or agenda, then things may get a little lonely, monotonous or boring,” Velez says. “Boredom, loneliness, monotony and unplanned time can be big triggers for drinking.”
For some people, mocktails and nonalcoholic beer can be a big help, replacing alcoholic beverages with drinks that feel similarly social, Velez says. But these drinks aren’t for everyone, he adds. Some heavy drinkers may find these alternatives too close to the real thing, which can trigger cravings.
Social media can provide motivation and inspiration too, as there is a large and vocal sober movement, Velez says. “Social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Twitter are full of sober people and sober resources. Surround your virtual self with these social media consumers and influencers,” he says. “Likewise, avoid ‘doomscrolling’ social media for alcohol-associated content.”
If I am worried about my drinking, or the drinking of someone I love, does insurance cover a consultation with UNC Substance Treatment and Recovery?
If you’re insured, 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 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,” Velez says.
If you have questions or concerns about alcohol use, talk to your doctor or contact UNC Substance Treatment and Recovery. Need a doctor? Find one near you.