The end of January is fast approaching, as is, for those participating in Dry January, a month of alcohol abstinence.
Run by UK charity Alcohol Concern, Dry January encourages participants to give up drinking for the whole month. Its aim is to raise awareness of the benefits associated with abstinence; and ultimately to inspire people to drink less overall, and reduce their risk of short- and long-term health issues related to alcohol.
The campaign is one which has generated a fair amount of discussion among health experts and even, to an extent, divided opinion.
Champions of the scheme point towards the outwardly noticeable health benefits experienced by those taking part, may of whom report an improvement in sleeping habits, weight loss (alcoholic drinks tend to be much more calorific than people suspect), and better overall energy levels after just one month of not drinking.
Research from the Royal Free Hospital has found that, for those with a considerable alcohol habit of 35 units per week, going dry for 31 days can help to ‘significantly’ lower resistance to insulin, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and lead to much-improved liver health.
Furthermore, in a 2014 survey of 900 people who took part in Dry January, Sussex University researchers found that, six months on, 72 percent had limited bingeing episodes and four percent had continued to abstain.
Critics of the campaign, however, say that some of those who manage to successfully complete a dry month might misinterpret the long-term aim of it; and be more inclined to indulge in a celebratory binge as soon as January is over, before reverting to their old pre-January habits.
Alcohol Concern have said that there is no evidence to suggest that people are doing this.
However, with January coming to an end, we still thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ways those who have embarked on Dry January can make their new, healthier drinking habits carry through into the following months.
Don't make February 1st a concrete drink date
Those who make a concrete plan to ‘atone’ for the previous month’s abstinence by drinking excessively on the first day of February obviously aren’t doing their efforts a service. In fact, they’re effectively undoing the progress they’ve made over the previous month. Some experts have argued that the hepatic benefits of not drinking for a month are negated if someone returns to their poor alcohol habits afterwards.
Undoubtedly then, it’s useful not to celebrate the successful completion of a dry month by making the first day of February an unshakable drink date.
Instead, it can be constructive to set parameters which ensure you ease yourself back in and keep your habits sensible; you might consider making February a one-drink-a-week month, or even trying to see how long you can make your abstinence last beyond January.
Whichever approach you chose, refraining from marking the end of the month with a pronounced blow out is the first step to continued healthy alcohol habits.
Know that continuous moderation is better than abstinence/bingeing
Participating in Dry January is a good start, but it shouldn’t be the only commitment someone makes to drinking less. Rather than viewing it as a free pass to drink more than you should during the other 11 months of the year, it’s better to see Dry January as a platform on which to build a healthier lifestyle all year round.
So even in the months where you aren’t going dry, you should still observe lower risk guidelines, which in the UK are as follows:
- Limit consumption to no more than 14 units per week on a regular basis;
- If you do consume 14 units per week, try to spread your consumption out over three days or more;
- And try to make at least two days a week alcohol free.
Avoid drinking just because it’s cheap
Special offers and happy hours in bars and restaurants can often be a gateway to over-consumption. In fact, visiting a bar and not getting value for money by taking advantage of these deals, particularly in the face of peer pressure from friends, can make us feel like we’re missing out.
But, aside from the fact that indulging in such deals might cause us to drink more than we initially set out to, it can also encourage us to ‘spend’ units on a drink we wouldn’t have chosen originally.
For instance, drinking a cheap glass of wine which we might not particularly enjoy may not cost much in financial terms, but it still might contain the same number of units as a more expensive glass of wine which we’ll appreciate and enjoy more.
With this in mind, it’s better from a moderation perspective to avoid special offers and happy hours, and instead spend your units on a drink you’re more likely to savour.
Choose social activities which don’t involve drinking
Once alcohol becomes a fixture in social gatherings with particular friends, it can be hard to get out of the habit. Consuming alcohol becomes the seemingly unavoidable thing you do together, and the doing something which doesn’t involve drinking might escape your consideration.
If you’re looking to drink less, it can be useful then to suggest other activities which don’t involve alcohol, such as going for a walk in the countryside, taking up a sport together, starting an evening class, or going to an art gallery.
The key essentially is to realise that socialising doesn’t need to entail drinking alcohol; other options are available to you, and may be cheaper, more physically or mentally stimulating, and better for your health.
Don’t pre-load in December
Perhaps the biggest motivator for participating in Dry January is the extent to which we over consume during the preceding month. When it comes to diet and lifestyle, it’s common for many of us to just write December off entirely; the amount we can drink over the festive period, we think we can make up for by taking a month off in the new year.
Once more, this might lead us to believe that we have a free pass to drink however much we like in December, and even encourage us to cram in as much as we can before the year is out. But in reality, this way of thinking belies the benefits of continuous moderation. Alcohol consumed during December has exactly the same effect on the body as alcohol consumed throughout the other months.
It’s better, then, not to view alcohol consumption during December and January as opposing absolutes. Just because you’re going dry for January, doesn’t mean that overdoing it in December is somehow mandatory.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the festivities with a drink or two, but keep in mind that the less alcohol you consume during December, the easier (and the less of a shock to the system) Dy January will be.