Dry January and beyond: the health benefits of not drinking
Pioneered by the charity Alcohol Change UK in 2013, Dry January challenges people to take a month-long break from booze. It has grown in popularity year on year, with people taking part across the nation. In January 2020, supermarket sales of no- and low-alcohol beer went up by nearly 40%.
This month of abstinence aims to encourage people to reset their relationship with alcohol for the long-term. By understanding the effects that alcohol can have on their body, some may choose to go teetotal for good, or at least cut down on their alcohol consumption.
For many, December is a time of excess drinking, so January, with its associations with new beginnings and resolutions, is the perfect time to abstain.
But how easy is it to give up drinking for a whole month, or even completely? We asked some experts to share their insights and tips.
The nation’s booze problem
According to a survey on adult drinking habits, carried out by the ONS in 2011, 57% of over-16s drink alcohol. Statistically, men are more likely to be drinkers than women, with 61.9% of the men surveyed having consumed alcohol in the past week, compared to 52.4% of women.
Interestingly, the highest consumption was found amongst the older generation – 64.6% said that they had drunk alcohol in the last week. ‘Binge’ drinking (defined as 8 units or more of alcohol on their heaviest dring day for me and 6 units for women, was more prevalent in the younger generation. The over 65s were least likely out of all age groups to binge – 14.7% of men, 7.6% of women.
It’s also worth noting that people tend to either consciously or unconsciously underestimate their alcohol consumption, so these figures are likely to be higher, in reality.
Is it time to change your drinking habits?
You may have noticed a difference in your drinking patterns during 2020, and feel the need to address this in 2021. Or perhaps you just want to get fitter and healthier. According to Alcohol Change, 86% of those giving up alcohol for Dry January saved money, 70% had better sleep, 66% had more energy, and 65% reported generally improved health.
Dennis Relojo-Howell, founder of psychology website Psychreg and a PhD researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Edinburgh, explains more about the effects of alcohol on the body: “It's a widespread view that alcohol consumption can make us feel better. However, this is just an initial and temporary effect.. Research has shown that regular alcohol consumption can exacerbate stress and can elevate feelings of depression and anxiety. Essentially, regular heavy alcohol consumption can inhibit the production of chemicals in the brain, which is essential for maintaining positive mental health.
Denise Roberts, founder of Live Rehab and author of The Sobriety Success Method, agrees: “The benefits of cutting out drinking are vast, and contribute to lots of different areas in your life. Significantly, the elimination of alcohol results in better sleep (fall asleep faster and less waking in the middle of the night), better overall physical health (decreases organ damage, increases heart health, reduction in empty calories), improves your mental health space and has the added benefit of saving you money too.
“Some of these benefits materialise quite quickly, like not waking up with a hangover for instance! Other benefits take time to manifest but in time your body will find its way back to natural equilibrium.”
The benefits of giving up alcohol
After completing Dry January, you may find that the benefits of giving up are so great that you want to prolong your abstinence, or maybe your relationship with alcohol needs a bigger reset than just four weeks off. Here are just some of the benefits:
- Improved mental health
When someone stops drinking, they will cease to experience the low mood, tiredness and anxiety that can be felt the day after drinking. They will have more time to do things they enjoy and theyre likely to have a more positive outlook..
- Healthier appearance
Alcohol contains the same amount of calories as fat, and, depending on the type of drink, it can contain a lot of sugar. This, coupled with the late-night snacking or hangover junk food that often accompany a drink or two, can quickly affect a person’s health. By stopping drinking, hydration levels improve, skin looks tighter and more refreshed, and wrinkles won’t be as prominent.
- Better health
Cutting out alcohol will contribute towards weight loss, lower blood sugar levels and an improved immune system. A teetotaler will be able to fight common illnesses much more easily, and will probably have fewer headaches and heartburn caused by alcohol. Organs will begin to restore themselves, so the risk of liver complications and heart problems will be reduced.
- More energy
Abstaining from alcohol will not only improve your sleep cycle, giving you better sleep in terms of quality and quantity, it will also give you more energy. This will allow you to focus on doing the things you love, and will improve your overall wellbeing.
- Save money
While your body will be thanking you, so will your wallet. With an average weekly household spend of £9.10 on alcohol consumed at home, and another £8 being spent on alcohol outside of the home (according to a 2019 ONS survey), you are likely to be saving lots of money. Why not put back the money you would have spent on alcohol and save it for a treat for yourself at the end of the year?
“I caught sight of a better life without booze”
After making the decision to stop drinking alcohol, BBC Radio presenter Janey Lee Grace, 60, has become an advocate for sobriety. She is the author of Happy Healthy Sober – Ditch the Booze and Take Control of Your Life, and has her own podcast – Alcohol Free Life. She talks us through her lifestyle change, and how it has impacted her.
“I'd known for years that something was off. I didn't have a rock bottom moment; I was functioning fine, but I now know I was what we call a 'grey area drinker'. I didn't need rehab but I was certainly on the booze elevator going down! I was waking at 3am, berating myself for drinking too much, and knew something had to change. After reading The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley, I decided to do Dry January in 2018. Somehow I managed to break through and catch sight of a better life without booze – and I never went back.
“For someone like me who doesn't have an 'off switch', moderation doesn’t work, so I stopped immediately. Instead, I started drinking great alcohol-free drinks to feel part of the social scene. We're lucky that there are so many amazing alcohol-free drinks available now. I have a mantra: 'Keep the ritual, change the ingredients’.
“Initially, it was hard because everything was 're-calibrating' – so there were mood swings, sleep was poor, I felt irritable and quite chaotic. But I immersed myself in 'quit-lit' and podcasts and started to realise I wasn't giving anything up – only gaining!
“There are way too many benefits to list. Physically, I actually feel as if I have got younger (a friend I hadn't seen in ages thought I'd had a face lift!). I am less bloated, my skin is better, my hair is shiny, I no longer get menopausal hot flushes… the list goes on. But mentally, well the difference is incredible. I hadn't even realised just how anxious a person I was – until I wasn't. I am now able to practise self-care, because I value myself. I have a sense of joy and optimism, and huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm.
“For people wanting to cut down on alcohol, my advice would be to nurture yourself in the early weeks: sleep, eat well, get fresh air – all the basics that we forget! Above all, get connected. They say the opposite of addiction is connection, which is why I started The Sober Club, to focus on health and wellbeing and self-care, underpinned by choosing not to drink; it’s totally non-judgemental.”