Dry January: Taking a Break From Alcohol Can Boost Health

Starting the new year by refraining from alcohol may provide some surprising benefits, including reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.

For many people, the start of a new year signals a time to set various health and wellness goals. Some may set weight loss or exercise objectives, while others choose to eliminate or cut back on unhealthy habits such as smoking or alcohol use.

While much is known about the dangers of smoking, health experts say that alcohol can also negatively impact health and increase the risk of several diseases, including cancer.

For example, a study published on December 5, 2023, in the Journal of Epidemiology found links between light-to-heavy alcohol consumption and a higher risk of several types of cancer, including lip, esophageal, colorectal, stomach, and gallbladder cancer. The study also showed that heavy alcohol consumption may raise liver, pancreatic, and lung cancer risks.

In addition, previous reports suggest that alcohol consumption may raise the risk of 60 different health conditions.

However, a special report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that reducing or eliminating alcohol may lower some of these risks, especially the risks of oral cavity and esophageal cancer.

For instance, the study showed that living alcohol-free for 10 to 19 years may reduce the risk of oral cancer by 55%, and refraining from alcohol use for 15 years or more can lower esophageal cancer risks by 65%.

For those interested in reducing their alcohol consumption, the Dry January challenge might be an option. To participate in this challenge, a person voluntarily takes a month-long break from drinking. Although it sounds easy enough, cutting out alcohol can be difficult for some, even for those who do not have alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Still, participating in the Dry January challenge can provide several health benefits and may lead to a long-term reduction in alcohol consumption.

The benefits of taking a break from alcohol

Abstaining from alcohol, whether it's beer, liquor, or wine, can help stabilize sleep patterns and boost mental health. It can also improve liver function and, as recent research suggests, lower the risk of certain types of cancer.

Jennifer Steiner, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Florida State University, tells Healthnews, "The risk of cancer does not immediately disappear but it will slowly decrease over the years towards the risk of someone who never consumed alcohol."

Additionally, Steiner says that abstaining from alcohol may allow beneficial bacteria to repopulate in the gastrointestinal tract and help the gut biome recover.

People who stop drinking may also notice an improvement in energy levels and focus, which can help increase productivity. Because many alcoholic drinks are high in calories, those who refrain from drinking may experience weight loss.

"Some studies suggest rapid improvements in 2 to 4 weeks or even less time," Steiner adds. "Something like sleep should likely improve shortly after stopping alcohol and it not being in the system."

Strategies to manage the Dry January challenge

Some people can go without alcohol easily, while others might find it more difficult, especially those accustomed to drinking socially or having a glass of wine at night to relax.

Still, overcoming the challenges associated with taking a hiatus from alcohol is possible. Some tips to consider include:

Examine the reasons behind alcohol use

Some people might drink alcohol to reduce stress or anxiety, while others drink due to social pressures. Once a person understands why they drink, they can identify healthier alternatives to replace alcohol. These may include taking on a new hobby, exercising, or reaching out to friends who also abstain.

Moreover, some folks might benefit from psychotherapy to help overcome underlying mental health conditions that could be contributing to alcohol use.

Develop a game plan

Before embarking on the Dry January challenge, consider coming up with strategies to handle temptation. For example, a person can tell their friends they are not drinking and ask them to support the decision. In addition, an individual abstaining from alcohol can avoid attending certain social events.

In some instances, replacing alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic cocktails, or "mocktails" made with healthy ingredients, might help stave off the desire to drink.

Use a reward system

Figure out a way to reward the month-long abstinence from alcohol. For example, put aside money usually spent on alcohol to buy something special, have dinner at a favorite restaurant, or donate it to a charity.

Long-term outlook

After a month of not drinking, some Dry January participants find alcohol less appealing and continue to abstain, while others may choose to drink but not as much as they did before the challenge.

"In several studies many participants decreased their alcohol use after the challenge ended when they resumed drinking and were better at refusing alcohol at 1 month of follow-up after the end of the challenge," Steiner said.

Still, some individuals may drink more after completing the month-long challenge, and the reasons behind this are unknown, Steiner notes.

Nonetheless, the positive physical and mental health changes experienced during a successful Dry January challenge may make it easier for a person to continue their alcohol-free journey well into the future.

"Treat alcohol as a delicacy to be savored and enjoyed during special occasions and not as a daily food group or way to cope," Steiner said. "Focus on how you feel when not drinking: are you sleeping better? Do you have more energy? Are you able to have better or more consistent workouts? Is your mind clearer and sharper? Remembering all these things can help improve your resolve to not drinking too much again."

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