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.
How much alcohol do people consume in the UK? A recent digital survey by the NHS investigating the weekly alcohol consumption patterns of adults in the UK found:
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 quicker than we realise.
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.
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
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.
It’s not just the ‘energy’ in alcohol that’s a problem, it also raises your blood sugar levels very quickly. Then, after 60 – 90 minutes your 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.
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.
Alcohol suppresses healthy immune function, leaving you more exposed to potentially catching a cold or flu (e.g., Covid-19).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
So far, we’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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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