The Nuance

Does Dry January Actually Improve Your Health?

The evidence is mixed on whether taking a month off drinking makes a difference

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJan 10, 2019

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Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

MMaybe you’ve heard of “Dry January”? It’s an alcohol abstinence campaign, launched a few years ago, that encourages people to give up drinking for the first month of the year. (“Sober September” is a similar public health initiative.) Dry January’s organizers say a month without booze can promote weight loss, improve sleep and energy levels, and offer many other health benefits.

Many Americans are boozing more than they should. Roughly one in seven adults meets the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). These criteria include occasionally drinking enough to black out or drinking to the point that alcohol is interfering with your work or social life.

By some estimates, men are actually drinking a little less than they used to, while women are drinking more. Between 2002 and 2013, rates of binge drinking jumped 14 percent among women and declined slightly among men. “Men and women are moving in entirely different directions in terms of alcohol use,” says Aaron White, an alcohol researcher and senior scientific adviser at the NIAAA.

For people who abuse alcohol, the benefits of cutting back or abstaining are multiple. Heavy long-term drinking — usually defined as knocking back more than one drink a day for women or more than two for men — is associated with an increased risk for liver disease, heart disease, and some forms of cancer (including cancers of the breast, colon, mouth, and throat).

While the evidence is controversial and often contradictory, some research suggests moderate drinkers may want to consider some of these health issues. A widely covered 2018 study in the Lancet found that, compared to nondrinkers, those who downed just one or two drinks a day were at a higher risk for death and disease. But the jump in risk was small, and the study also found only a correlational link, not a causal one.

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.