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It’s Dry January, and Why Are We Doing This Again?

Does repenting for your Wet December actually do anything for your health and well-being?

HHeineken’s January Dry Pack looks like an advent calendar but for nonalcoholic drinks. The pack contains 31 cans of 0.0% alcohol by volume beer — one for each day of January — hidden behind tear-off cutouts. Every day of the month, abstainers can enjoy the taste of a cold beer without cheating on their resolution to give up alcohol.

“Dry January” is both a badge of honor and a kick-in-the-pants response to the guilt that can come with excess. You got a little too sloppy over the holidays; why not repent for your “Wet December” with a “Dry January”?

While the concept of a month without drinking isn’t novel (“detox” diets like Whole30 ask people to give up alcohol for 30 days), the New Year’s timing adds an extra element of “renewal.” Since people tend to drink more in November and December, a January free of alcohol can feel like an opportunity to reset and reconsider drinking habits.

Dry January unofficially started in 2011 when Emily Robinson, then the deputy CEO for a U.K. charity called Alcohol Concern, gave up drinking in January while training for a half marathon. Robinson was thrilled with the results: Not only did she lose weight, sleep better, and have more energy for the race, it seemed everyone wanted to talk to her about what it was like to stop drinking for a month. She decided to take her experiment to her job, where she could help more people experience the same benefits of a monthlong alcohol fast.

Alcohol Concern merged with Alcohol Research U.K. in 2012 to form Alcohol Change, a nonprofit focused on improving public health in the U.K. by reducing alcohol-related harm. Inspired by Robinson, Alcohol Change launched the first official Dry January initiative in 2013. Around 4,000 people took part that year according to a survey by market research firm YouGov. The Dry January movement has grown steadily since: Between 2017 and 2019, YouGov surveys show more than four million people in the U.K. have participated each year.

“Dry January is a time when each of us can take a look at our drinking habits and decide whether we’re happy with them, setting us up for the year ahead,” says Julie Symes, a senior communication manager at Alcohol Change. “Drinking alcohol can be fun, but it also has drawbacks and risks, so it’s vital that we all talk and think about our drinking, so we can make decisions rather than falling into habits that might not be healthy.”​

There’s evidence to suggest that a month of abstinence from booze can do the body some good, especially if you’re someone who consumes alcohol regularly. Research published in the U.K. in 2018 found that quitting drinking for 30 days had a notable effect on health.

The study followed 141 moderate-to-heavy drinkers who consumed an average of 30 drinks a week (more than double the U.K.-recommended limit of 14 drinks a week for both men and women). Of these people, 94 gave up drinking completely for a month while the remainder continued drinking as normal. Blood samples drawn at the end of the month showed no significant changes among the people who drank while the nondrinkers saw benefits in the reduction of blood cancer proteins along with other health benefits, like lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and a reduced risk of diabetes.

The Dry January alcohol fast can also have a longer-term effect on drinking habits for some people. A different 2018 U.K. study of more than 800 Dry January devotees found that 70% of people who abstained were still drinking less seven months later. Among the people in the study, the average number of drinking days per week dropped from 4.3 to 3.3 from January to August, and the average number of times a month people reported being drunk dropped from 3.4 times to 2.1.

Whether people choose to abstain from alcohol because of health concerns or guilt about gluttony, Dry January makes for an appealing challenge for anyone who wants to ensure that their drinking habits are “normal” or at least within their control. This motivation can feel especially strong in American culture, where hitting the brakes on a bad habit is just as prevalent as bad habits themselves.

America’s moderation problem

In the United States last year, 1 in 5 people (of 1,496 participants) surveyed by YouGov said they were doing Dry January. There’s no official, government-sanctioned effort for Dry January in the States, but it’s not hard to find grassroots support for alcohol abstinence. There are Dry January programs sponsored by local health care systems, Dry January Facebook groups, and brands like Heineken peddling their own Dry January products.

Longer-term abstinence, sometimes referred to as elective sobriety, has also become an American trend. As writer Virginia Sole-Smith wrote in Elemental in April, it’s not surprising that people in the U.S. are questioning their relationship with alcohol given how great an influence drinking has on American socializing. “I thought often of all the times I’ve ordered a drink I didn’t particularly want to avoid the social awkwardness of not holding one; of how many friends’ pregnancies I’ve sussed out because it’s so noteworthy when they suddenly switch to seltzer,” Sole-Smith writes. “We’ve made alcohol a de facto part of ending the workday, eating brunch, celebrating birthdays, and so many other mundane moments of daily life; it is embedded in what it means to be a sophisticated adult, eating amazing food, wearing great clothes, and generally living the good life.”

When people swing between excess and deprivation, it’s usually due to what he calls an “evolutionary mismatch” between the brain and its surroundings.

As much as it’s a chance for better health and personal growth, Dry January is also reflective of the excess and deprivation cycle that’s become rampant in American culture. Giving up alcohol might seem like a natural, necessary consequence after a period of heavier drinking or even a method for setting better future habits in motion. But experts say a monthlong fast isn’t the best way to promote healthy, long-term habits even if there are short-term health benefits.

“I do think that there is a mentality in the U.S. especially that people will drink to excess in parties and other social situations, and the counterweight to that is ‘let me just do something like Dry January and cut it off.’ It’s a boom or bust kind of cycle,” says Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies consumer behavior and decision-making. “But the strategy of a one-month trial period doesn’t create a process for living your life with moderation.”

Moderation isn’t exactly a hallmark of American consumption, partly because people are hardwired to want more when more is available. Glenn Geher, an evolutionary psychology professor at SUNY New Paltz, says when people swing between excess and deprivation, it’s usually due to what he calls an “evolutionary mismatch” between the brain and its surroundings. Basically, the brain hasn’t evolved to deal with having an abundance of resources available. Geher says evolutionary mismatches can occur in virtually any context, from technology and pornography to substances like alcohol and tobacco.

Thousands of years ago, because food was scarce (and needed to be hunted and gathered), human ancestors wouldn’t have taken a “break” from food or other substances. Today humanity has an abundance of resources, including easy access to a cheap bottle of chardonnay, but people are still wired with the same scarcity mindset — which can lead to an unhealthy excess.

“We, like any organism, evolved to hoard resources because once, resources were scarce,” Geher says. “We now live in a world where you can get as much high-calorie cheap food and alcohol as you want, and that’s why we go on diets and need to moderate. We have environmental conditions we didn’t evolve to anticipate.”

Unhealthy consumption patterns are also associated with how accessible everything is for most Americans, Geher says. “Most middle-class people can afford to drink every night if they want. We live in an existence where the resources we evolved to crave because they were rare are now plentiful,” he says. That means it’s easier to overdo it, and not just with food.

Geher recognizes how hard it is to maintain a healthy balance when surrounded by things the brain is wired to desire. But he doesn’t see total deprivation as the solution. “Cultivating moderation, especially with alcohol, is famously difficult,” he says. “All of these unnatural things co-opt our brains and give us more than we ever would have had under ancestral conditions, but I think the all-or-nothing, on-the-wagon, off-the-wagon thing can be dangerous.”

“You truly have a lot more agency when everything is on the table and nothing is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

Christy Harrison, a dietitian and author of Anti-Diet, believes a more moderate approach to cutting back could yield more health benefits than cycles of abundance and periods of deprivation because most black-and-white approaches are inherently self-perpetuating. “When people are pulled over to the side of restriction, there’s this inevitable pendulum swing into feeling out of control. That’s a natural response to restriction,” she says.

It’s also due to an American tendency to label things — especially food and even alcohol — as “good” and “bad.”

“If you feel out of control in an area of your life, the solution isn’t to exert even more control and forbid something but to try to make peace with that thing, to find a middle ground,” she says. “You can choose what feels good, satisfying, and pleasurable. You truly have a lot more agency when everything is on the table and nothing is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

Avoiding the “what the hell” effect

If people drink because they’re wired for excess and then deprive themselves to make up for it and neither is an effective long-term strategy, how can they achieve moderation? Markman says as much as deprivation fuels excessive behavior, adopting moderation can breed motivation. It’s often easier to stick to goals when you allow yourself a bit of a gray area. That’s thanks to a real psychological phenomenon called the ‘‘what the hell effect.” Essentially, when you draw a bright line between right and wrong, on the day you happen to step over the line, you’re much more likely to say “screw it.”

“You think, ‘As long as I’m already across the line, I may as well do whatever. If I’m doing Dry January and have a drink, I may as well have six drinks,’” Markman says. On the other hand, if you adopt a more realistic, moderate goal to have four drinks a week and you accidentally have five, you’ll be more likely to stay the course for the long haul. “Five is still close to four, so you’ll have more motivation to stick with what you’re doing,” Markman says.

In addition to promoting deprivation and binge cycles, there’s another reason Dry January — and really any fast — may not work long-term: It doesn’t give you any opportunity to rehearse moderation. “You’re not practicing going out in a social situation and having two drinks. It is that practice that turns out to be important because you have to confront a temptation to have more and develop strategies to avoid that,” Markman says. “If you don’t figure that out in advance, you’re putting yourself in the face of temptation, and the most natural thing to do is to give in to it.”

For a better shot at long-term sustainability, Markman says it’s probably best not to treat it as a crash diet. “Even if you nail Dry January, you haven’t learned anything that would lead you to be able to change your life,” he says. If you do opt to participate in Dry January, the key to a better long-term relationship with alcohol is thinking through how you plan to handle drinking when February 1 rolls around. Because in the absence of any additional planning, February 1 is really no different than December 31.

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Your life, sourced by science. A publication from Medium about health and wellness.

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Ashley Abramson

Ashley Abramson

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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