Dry January, is it Really Worth It?

Many who take part in dry January probably do so for their health and wellbeing, but what are the true benefits of dry January if we go right back to square one on 1st February? Consistency is key for solidifying many good habits and that is as true here as ever before.

Dry January seems to be a growing new trend. After indulging over the holidays in beer, mulled wine, cocktails and the like, the concept is that a complete U‑turn’ in the New Year will help you to hit the reset button and revitalise you in January. But is committing to going entirely alcohol-free’ to start the year a good strategy? Might it help you to lose weight, and what about the effects on your behaviours in the long-term? Let’s explore a few of the nuances. 

Why Go Dry’ In January? #

How much alcohol do people consume in the UK? A recent digital survey by the NHS investigating the weekly alcohol consumption patterns adults of in the UK found: 

  • 60% up to 14 units per week,
  • 17% consume 14 – 35 units per week
  • 4% consume more than 35 units per week1

One pint of beer, a regular glass of wine (175mL), and a double shot of spirit are all approximately 2 units. Doesn’t sound like much, but alcohol units add up more quickly than we realize.

For example, if you drink a bottle of wine over the weekend or have a couple of pints on a Friday and Saturday night, that’s 8 – 9 units right there. But it’s not just the effects of alcohol directly, but how the trickle-down effects of alcohol impact other behaviours, such as your food choices, whether or not to exercise, time spent with friends or family, and so on. 

Dry January is touted as a kick-start to better health and a better year – but how much truth is in this? Let’s review some of the potential health benefits.

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The Health Benefits of Cutting Out Alcohol #

Better Sleep

Alcohol is one of the most powerful inhibitors of deep REM sleep, compromising your sleep quality. The primary role of REM sleep is to strengthen and consolidate your existing neuronal connections, crucial to learning new information, problem solving, and mental performance. Even a single glass or two of wine before bed adversely effects your sleep (regardless whether you feel’ it or not).2

Less Energy in Your Diet

Alcohol brings onboard a significant amount of energy (aka – calories), and worse yet, typically in the late evening. A pint of beer nets you about 200 – 250 calories and a glass of wine 100 – 150 calories, and if you don’t burn it off immediately via movement (i.e., walking, dancing, etc.) it will be stored as body-fat.

Better Blood Sugar Control

It’s not just the energy’ in alcohol that’s a problem, it also raises your blood sugar levels very quickly. Then, 60 – 90 minutes you’re blood glucose comes thundering back down the rollercoaster leaving you to struggle with low energy and mood. This leads to poorer food decisions, greater peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels, and poorer overall health.

Better Mood

Lack of sleep, weight gain, high blood glucose levels, along with excess alcohol consumption all impair your mood.3,4 By cutting out alcohol, you improve all of these areas and create a foundation for better mental health.

Improved Immunity

Alcohol suppresses healthy immune function, leaving you more exposed to potentially catching a cold or flu (e.g., covid19).5 It impairs the function of both arms of your immune system; the innate first line of defence’ arm and the adaptive seek and destroy’ arm.6

Is It Better to Personalise’ Your Dry January? #

So far, I’ve highlighted some pretty compelling evidence to make the case for a Dry January. However, the major pitfall is that if your new behaviours don’t continue on throughout the rest of the year, the benefit is very limited. So what’s the best predictor of success in nutrition, exercise or weight loss?

Consistency.

If you can keep up your new habits for 12 months, no matter how small or simple, you can achieve significant results.

For this reason, the all or nothing’ approach isn’t ideal. Better to lay down new habits you can truly integrate into your lifestyle. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Set 5 – 6 no drinking’ days per week (e.g., Monday to Friday)
  • Days you do drink, cap it at a maximum of 1 – 2 glasses.
  • Buy smaller bottles of beer or wine
  • Use a smaller wine glass
  • Pour your own wine (no top ups!)

Why is this a better approach? If you save money for one month, only to go back to your old spending habits in the months that follow, you’ll end up in the same position in the long run. Narrow the behaviour change gap’ by making your January goals realistic and achievable.

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Know Your Tendencies #

There are certain individuals for whom moderation’ just doesn’t work — an exception to the above suggestion. If this is you, then a Dry January sets the clear ground rules needed to achieve success. That said, you should consider what your plan will be when you reach February (and onward), because reverting straight back to old behaviours does little to help in the long-term.

Inspiration and Motivation #

Use the inspiration and motivation of the New Year to propel you into action. But just remember, you can’t rely on them to get you through the year; inspiration and motivation (even discipline) are finite resources. Build the right habits so your new behaviours become automatic; you don’t even need to think’ about them.

So to summarise, the tip of advice I’d like to leave you with is to find the right Dry January approach that suits you and your goals.


If you are looking to upgrade your health and nutrition this year, or want to lose some weight, Marc is currently offering a 12-week programme created to help you build the right habits. For more information about our TRANSFORM Nutrition Coaching Program, click here.


References

  1. NHS Digital (2018): Health Survey for England 2017, Table 13
  2. Maurice Ohayon et al., National Sleep Foundation’s sleep quality recommendations: first report,” Sleep Health 3, no. 1 (2017), https://​doi​.org/​10​.​1016​/​j​.​s​l​e​h​.​2016​.​11.006.
  3. Markku Timonen et al., Insulin resistance and depressive symptoms in young adult males: find- ings from Finnish military conscripts,” Psychosomatic Medicine 69, no. 8 (2007), https://​doi​.org /10.1097/psy.0b013e318157ad2e.
  4. J. C. Felger and F. E. Lotrich, Inflammatory cytokines in depression: neurobiological mechanisms and therapeutic implications,” Neuroscience 246 (2013), https://​doi​.org/10.1016/j .neuroscience.2013.04.060.
  5. World Health Organization. https://​www​.euro​.who​.int/​_​_​d​a​t​a​/​a​s​s​e​t​s​/​p​d​f​_​f​i​l​e​/​0010​/​437608​/​A​l​c​o​h​o​l​-​a​n​d​-​C​O​V​I​D​-​19​-​w​h​a​t​-​y​o​u​-​n​e​e​d​-​t​o​-​k​n​o​w​.​p​d​f​?ua=1. Accessed on January 6th 2020.
  6. Dipak Sarker et al. Alcohol and the Immune System,” Alcohol Res 37, no. 2 (2015).