Dry January: How An Alcohol-Free Month Benefits The Body And Mind?

Participants abstain from alcohol for the first month of a new year, with surprising health effects

From Mexican Pulque to Japanese Sake, humans have been brewing and fermenting alcohol for centuries! Almost all early alcohols were derived from overripe fruits. If you’ve ever left a banana in a cupboard for too long, you might recognize a familiar “boozy” smell. Sugars in overripe fruits attract natural yeasts, which convert sugar into alcohol. The process is known as fermentation. The first documented alcoholic beverage dates back to 7000 BCE. Clay pots from China possessed residues of fermented rice, millet, grapes and honey.

A Mexican illustration depicting the Goddess of the agave plant preparing pulque
A Mexican illustration depicting the Goddess of the agave plant preparing pulque. Credit: Wikimedia

How does alcohol affect the body?

Drinking alcohol sets off a long chain reaction in the body. Most alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream directly from the stomach as it is a small, simple molecule that doesn’t require much digestion. This means that alcohol acts on the body relatively quickly. Once absorbed, it alters the balance of brain chemicals, leading to feelings of intoxication and euphoria. Eventually it reaches the liver, where it gets broken down into harmless compounds.

Alcohol is  pretty universal and rarely banned. Despite this, some experts are concerned about potential health effects. Recent research has even suggested that no amount of alcohol consumption is good for health, as it’s a carcinogen. Dr. Carina Fereira-Borges from the World Health Organization stated that “The risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage.” In a publication on the WHO website, she continued to state that “The only thing that we can say for sure is that the more you drink, the more harmful it is – or, in other words, the less you drink, the safer it is.”

Consuming too much alcohol can lead to chronic health issues. The liver works overtime, and might lose functions. Nerves, blood vessels, and the heart can also be affected. It can also result in significant mental health impacts.

A representation of a health liver (left) and a liver experiencing alcohol overuse (right)
A representation of a health liver (left) and a liver experiencing alcohol overuse (right). Credit: depositphotos/eranicle

Moderation seems to be the key to avoiding the negative effects of alcohol use. Dry January is a way to explore moderation in moderation! Participants don’t drink for the first month of the new year – kind of like a resolution, Dry January began as an initiative from the NGO Alcohol Change UK to address high levels of binge drinking in the country. It’s the most popular campaign so far, but there’s also Dry July in New Zealand, 28 days of mineral water from Belgium, and Dry November in Hungary!

What can dry January do?

One of the most powerful aspects of Dry January is the fact that you don’t have to do it alone. Many people around the world participate. People share their experiences on social media and form communities. #DryJanuary has been tweeted hundreds of times this year alone! Alcohol Change UK runs an email campaign, sharing valuable information around the benefits of alcohol moderation and personal experiences. Knowing that the experience is collective and not lonely can really encourage people to complete the entire month.

Henry Yeoman, a professor studying collective behavior in the UK notes how ingrained drinking is into everyday culture and social settings. In an email communication, he stated that “Lots of adults in the UK have never gone a month without drinking before so the experience tends to prompt reflections about whether they need to drink alcohol or, if so, in what way.” He noted that it’s an opportunity to explore how drinking fits into participants’ lives. When groups of people challenge norms together, it helps affirm that moderation or even complete abstinence isn’t something abnormal.

A study conducted by the University of Sussex compared people who wanted to control their drinking but hadn’t signed up for a campaign and those who had signed up for Dry January. Those who did sign up found it easier to say no to a drink, and were less likely to feel the effects of peer pressure.

Refusing drinks seems to be easier when you’re not doing it alone
Refusing drinks seems to be easier when you’re not doing it alone. Credit: depositphotos/serezniy

88% of people saved money. Over two-thirds reported sleeping better, losing weight, having more energy and better concentration, and even seeing improvements in skin. The body, brain, and even the wallet seem to like it!

Henry Yeomans also stated that there may be indirect mental health benefits, though these haven’t been studied clinically. Many people often feel anxious, even experiencing panic attacks, during hangovers. He stated that there was “no ‘hangxiety’ after drinking sessions.” People also “report a general improvement in wellbeing”.

An 1887 painting by Suzanne Valadon depicting a young woman with a hangover
An 1887 painting by Suzanne Valadon depicting a young woman with a hangover. Credit: Wikimedia/Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

It seems these effects last well past the month of January too. Even in August, participants were still reaping benefits! The number of drinking days a week, times being drunk, and the amount of alcohol consumed all dropped significantly.

 

Moderation can be part of a formal campaign like Dry January. It can also be something you’d like to try out for yourself to explore for yourself in order to figure out your relationship with alcohol. Either way, you’re likely to experience some pretty strong health gains! Would Dry January be something you’d like to try?

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 55.5
Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 9.3

Glossary

Carcinogen: A cancer-causing compound.

Fermentation: The conversion of sugars into alcohol, usually by yeast.

Contributors

  • Yamini Srikanth
    : Author
    Yamini's (he/they) interests lie in environmental education, science communication and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, they can be found outside, poking at any insect, bird or plant. They love making science accessible, especially to those who aren't encouraged to pursue it. Yamini hopes that the young women who read Smore love learning from their articles and get just a little bit more excited about science!

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