How to Make Dry January Work for You

Whether you’re cutting down on alcohol or seeking help, learn more from an expert on how to shift your mindset year round.

The new year brings an opportunity for a reset and making healthy choices: more exercise and sleep, less junk food and stress. For some, it’s also a time to reflect on drinking.

The practice of Dry January, a monthlong challenge to take a break from alcohol, has become increasingly popular. But Dry January isn’t just about the physical benefits of abstaining from alcohol. It’s a time to evaluate your relationship with drinking and to be more mindful of choices.

Dr. Robert Brown

“Dry January can give people a moment to stop and think, ‘How important is alcohol in my life?’” says Dr. Robert Brown, chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “It’s a chance for introspection: What do you want to do better, and how can you come out of it a healthier person?”

If sustained for longer periods, lasting Dry January benefits can include detoxifying your liver, saving money, getting better sleep, reducing carbohydrate intake, and increasing mindfulness.

Dr. Brown, who is also the Vincent Astor Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, shared with Health Matters ways to approach Dry January and how to make the most out of the month so that mindful drinking can become a sustainable habit throughout the year.

Use the month as an opportunity to reflect on the role alcohol plays in your life.

Are you someone who likes to have wine every night at dinner? If alcohol isn’t served at a party, does that make showing up less appealing? Dry January is a time to think about questions like these, and more.

Put simply, you want to evaluate your habits and pause to think how often you drink and on what occasions you drink.

“If you’re having trouble with the idea of Dry January, you likely need it,” Dr. Brown says.You can have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and for those in the latter group, Dry January is a chance to either get back to a healthier attitude or recognize that you cannot maintain safe levels of alcohol intake, in which case abstinence is the answer.”

Remember how much alcohol is too much.

“No amount of alcohol use is healthy,” Dr. Brown says; however, an accepted safe limit for alcohol intake is one drink daily for women, and two drinks for men, according to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Standard drink sizes include:

  • Beer: 12 ounces
  • Malt liquor: 8 ounces
  • Wine: 5 ounces
  • Spirits: 1.5 ounces

“When drinking wine, if you and a partner are splitting a bottle, one of you is drinking too much, since there’s five glasses in there,” Dr. Brown says. “In general, if you stay below the safe limits you can enjoy having a drink with your friends or your family without terrible worry. But one can recognize how easy it is to exceed those guidelines.”

Forms of excessive alcohol use include binge drinking and heavy drinking.

For women, binge drinking means consuming four or more drinks in a single occasion, and for men, five or more drinks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks a week for women, and 15 or more for men.

Consider alcohol’s impact on your body.

Excessive alcohol use over time can lead to liver issues like inflammation and scarring, or cirrhosis, along with vitamin deficiencies and heart disease, says Dr. Brown.

While alcohol can affect many organs in the body, including the brain and heart, the liver is where most of the damage can occur. Nearly half of liver-disease deaths in the United States involve alcohol, he says, and alcohol-related liver disease has risen among women in recent years.

“Alcohol is metabolized in the liver, and when you drink too much, the first thing that happens is that alcohol gets turned into fat,” he says. The deposited fat can damage liver cells, causing inflammation.

“If you stop drinking, the fat and inflammation can go away. But if not, it can lead to scarring, which, when advanced, distorts the liver and its function,” he says. “Think of it as the body trying to contain inflammation, a foreign invader.” By abstaining from alcohol or limiting your intake, you’re allowing the liver to stabilize and regenerate.

"Think about ordering by the glass, or don’t be afraid of leaving the rest of your drink behind. What’s more valuable, your money or your health?"

— Dr. Robert Brown

Use the time to find alternatives to alcohol you enjoy.

Whether it’s a different type of beverage or an activity, it’s helpful to find alternatives to alcohol if you’re trying to cut down. If you enjoy the feeling of a cold drink in hand, you can try sparkling water, club soda, or alcohol-free beer or wine. Keep in mind that some alternatives, like tonic water and sugared beverages, can be high in calories.

For those seeking to relieve anxiety or stress, Dr. Brown emphasizes the importance of tapping into relaxing solutions that work best for you, such as deep breathing or guided meditation.

“Instead of reaching for that bottle of wine, consider spending that time doing yoga or something that would improve your health,” he says. “If you’re someone who goes out to a bar on the weekends, choose a different place: Go hiking, play pingpong, whatever alternative activity suits you. If you can’t do that, what will be your alternate drink of choice?”

Think about your road map for the rest of the year.

What happens after Dry January ends?

“By February, does a healthy relationship with alcohol mean zero, or staying within those safe limits of consumption?” Dr. Brown says.

For those who may drink in excess, abstaining for one month won’t be as beneficial if you return to the same habits, he adds.

“You’re going to rapidly undo any health benefits if you return to a problematic drinking level,” Dr. Brown says. “But if you return to a lower level, your liver may not only heal from that month of abstaining, you’ll also do less damage moving forward.”

Along with reflecting on your relationship with alcohol, practice mindfulness and moderation.

“You don’t need to finish that bottle of wine,” says Dr. Brown. “Think about ordering by the glass, or don’t be afraid of leaving the rest of your drink behind. What’s more valuable, your money or your health?”

Find support and seek additional help if needed.

For both the casual drinker and someone who may be struggling with alcohol use disorder, having a support system makes a big impact.

“We all need allies, so it always helps to have somebody who is encouraging, positive, and nonjudgmental,” Dr. Brown says.

For some, drinking is just a habit. “For others, it may be an addiction,” he says. “We can’t approach them the same way. There is a stigma we need to combat. Alcohol use disorder is a disease, and it needs to be treated as such. There’s no shame in asking for help.”

Certain medications can help reduce alcohol cravings, and therapy can provide additional support.

“The hope is that at the end of the month, you can either achieve steps to abstinence if you have an addiction or alcohol use disorder, or a reset where you resume a more modest, controlled manner of drinking.”

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