Dry January: Does It Help Or Hinder Us?

By Phil Cain 01/26/17

Can a "sober binge" make a beneficial impact on our lives?

Phil Cain

On the other side of The Pond the media is split over the alcohol-free challenge “Dry January.” Is it a marvelous idea or a pointless waste of time? Love it or hate it? Optimist or cynic? The choice is yours.

Simple positions like these are attractive to us, particularly when an issue is complex or superficially boring. And a want of alternative approaches makes them seem almost unavoidable. But simplicity masks impracticality, with reality ignored by hasty verdicts.

There is no such choice. Forming views which take account of reality is more difficult. We need to take the time to explore a subject in detail, rather than hoping we can hitch a ride on a lucky hunch. To plot a reliable chart for ourselves we need to combine a number of accounts. 

Alcohol has no shortage of counter-intuitive complexity to explore, as I discovered when writing Alcohol Companion. Such complications should be no surprise, however, because at its core is not an organic molecule, but our astronomically complex brains.

The search for understanding is worthwhile. Science tells us a lot and we are better equipped than ever to discover more. And it is no idle parlor game: Our views shape our drinking which in turn helps shape our well-being. We can sink ourselves into foundations on which to flourish.

Dry January, at the very least, provides a good opportunity for drinkers to explore the issue. Just as our views shape our drinking behavior, our drinking behavior shapes our views. A month off can allow us to engage in unfamiliar behavior and help us broaden our outlook.

Convincing catch-all results quantifying Dry January’s impact are, perhaps, impossible to produce. There is unlikely ever to be uncontested evidence of its success or failure, being an informal experiment conducted by self-selecting subjects. That is still okay.

We can still make educated guesses and choices by asking relevant questions and by looking at related research. We might usefully begin by asking ourselves if the timing suits us? And do we, personally, think that revealing a bid to stop drinking on social media might help or hinder us?

We can also usefully manage our expectations. As critics of so-called “sober binging” point out, a month off does not give alcohol immunity for the rest of the year. That said, like a holiday, a change can have benefits which stretch well beyond its limited timeframe.

Abstaining entirely, though it might sound drastic, is consistently found to be easier than moderating. And moderating is often more difficult for those likely to benefit from it the most. So, to explore low-level drinking, drinking nothing at all could be a sensible choice of vehicle. 

It need not be a “success” to be worth trying. If we cannot manage the month or go back to drinking heavily soon after, it might help us recognize that we have difficulty in controlling our drinking? This might pose a tricky problem for us, but one we can overcome in the longer term.

If we can get close to a month without immoderate drinking we might start to experience noticeable benefits. Common ones are improved sleep, cognition, memory and mood. We might also usefully learn alcohol-free ways to calm our anxieties and to socialize.

Our experience might also be mixed, with troubling niggles alongside benefits because heavy drinkers might experience withdrawal symptoms they normally blot out. Commonly these symptoms include: craving, emotional instability, anxiety, fuzzy thinking and feeling “flat” or anhedonic.

If we do feel out-of-sorts like this then continuing to be abstinent for much longer is likely to be the long-term answer. It typically takes between three months and a year to be rid of the emotional and cognitive symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, with subtler benefits reported thereafter.

Dry January, or dry-whenever, can have limited direct benefit. But there are potential benefits and, with some knowledge, we can find ways to harness them while avoiding pitfalls. Piecing together useful fragments of information allows us to chart a reliable path for ourselves. 

In this way moderate thinking about alcohol offers greater benefits than leaping to conclusions, as the media encourages us to. A more measured, moderate view provides a solid foundation which can underpin our well-being and the source of simple, reliable solutions.

Phil Cain is the author of Alcohol Companion, an amiable science-based portrait of alcohol and its effects. He is a freelance journalist who has written on a wide range of issues for media including the BBC, Economist, Financial Times, Observer and CBC.

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Phil Cain is the author of Alcohol Companion, an amiable science-based portrait of alcohol and its effects. He is a freelance journalist who has written on a wide range of issues for media including the BBC, Economist, Financial Times, Observer and CBC. You can find Phil on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.