When you’ve finished the last of the holiday punch and sipped the last drop of the New Year’s champagne, you might be feeling alcohol-ed out. Enter: Dry January. For many people, Dry January is as much of a tradition this time of year as putting away holiday decorations and setting resolutions. It might be an attempt to “cleanse” after a season of excessive drinking or a way to start off the new year focused on goals. While a health boost (and a break from hangovers) sounds enticing, I’m always skeptical about any temporary diet or detox—what’s the point of short-term change if you go back to old habits afterward? So whether you’re halfway through a booze-free month or just generally sober-curious, I asked experts for the 101 on Dry January, whether or not it’s worth it, and how to limit alcohol any time of year.
Just a brief disclosure: If you’re halfway through a totally sober month, the expert tips below will help you finish out strong (because you’re probably finding that it’s not as easy as it seems!). But if you’re new to this whole Dry January thing, you can start a sober week, month, year, or life at any time. And if a sober life is not for you, we can all afford to be more mindful—that also goes for mindful drinking. We have tips for you too. Read on for expert opinions on the Dry January trend, tips for the sober-curious, and how to be more mindful with your alcohol consumption year-round.
What is “Dry January?”
Dry January is pretty straightforward: You forego alcohol for the entire month of January. While the concept has become a wellness trend all over the world, it originated in 2013 when Alcohol Change UK started a movement to raise money for alcohol abuse awareness and treatment. The idea caught on and now, many people use a booze-free month as a way to reset after an indulgent holiday season or inspire major changes for the new year (#newyearnewyou). Here at The Everygirl, we don’t support fad diets or temporary fixes and always prioritize sustainable lifestyle changes that feel good over restriction. However, based on what the experts I talked to said, doing Dry January the right way (more on that below) can be pretty beneficial for many people.
What are the benefits?
To reevaluate your relationship with alcohol
The biggest reason to take time off booze is to learn more about yourself. “Cutting out alcohol for the month of January gives people an opportunity to evaluate their relationship with it,” explained Kelly Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and international women’s mental health expert. “You can take a mindful approach to recognizing triggers as well as identifying how alcohol affects your sleep patterns, exercise, nutrition, etc.” When anything is a habit, we may be less aware of how it’s affecting us. Removing the habit allows us to see how it is truly affecting our mental health as well as our routines.
For example, are you more nervous going into a social setting without a drink? Is it difficult to unwind from your day without a glass of wine? Are you more motivated to work out when you didn’t drink the night before? A break from alcohol is not meant to prevent you from ever drinking again (unless you want to!)—it’s supposed to make you aware of how to drink in a way that feels healthiest for you.
To benefit the body
While Dry January should not be a means to cleanse the body or lose weight (that’s not how the body works), the body can still reap some benefits. Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist, explained that since alcohol is dehydrating, limiting or cutting out alcohol can improve hydration in the body, which can promote healthy skin and increase energy. “Since alcohol is a depressant as well as a diuretic, regular intake can leave us feeling sluggish and unmotivated to complete tasks,” she said. “We may also notice our skin and hair tend to be more dry if we’re consuming a lot of alcohol.”
“Taking a break from alcohol (even for just a month) can have incredible benefits for your body and mind,” agreed Karolina Rzadkowolska, a certified alcohol-free life coach and the author of Euphoric: Ditch Alcohol and Gain a Happier, More Confident You. “Studies show that your sleep can improve, you wake up with more energy, and your body can heal. It also rebalances your brain chemistry and helps you experience more positive feelings.” Yes, these are some pretty tempting benefits, but know that this doesn’t mean you have to avoid all alcohol forever. “Alcohol in moderation is not an issue,” Jaramillo assured. “One drink a day for women, or two drinks a day for men, is generally a safe amount that will not displace other nutrients or lead to weight gain.” But if you’re regularly binge drinking (AKA most of us), a break can provide some temporary benefits for the body (and help you evaluate if you want to extend those benefits long term).
To save money
A break from booze doesn’t just have to be health related; many people participate in Dry January for financial reasons. Think about it: Alcohol is expensive. For one, those bottles of wine in your grocery hauls drastically increase the price, and the priciest part of a night out are the cocktails ($20 for a beverage? No thank you!). When you take a break from the bottomless mimosa fees or a drink with dinner (even $7 for the house red adds up), that’s money you can add to your savings account or put toward an immediate goal like furnishing a new apartment or paying off debt. While giving up alcohol permanently for financial reasons might cause deprivation (money is meant to be spent for a happier life, after all), foregoing alcohol prices for a short-term goal can help you save money.
Are there any cons?
Totally cutting out any food or beverage can be harmful because it can create fear around it (and you should see all food and drinks as a means of nourishment or enjoyment, not something to be afraid of). Say it with me for the people in the back: Demonizing one type of food is never beneficial. Yes, cutting out alcohol for a short period can provide the chance to reassess your relationship with it, and for many people who feel better without drinking, it can kick off a new lifestyle. However, if you’re cutting out alcohol because it’s “bad” for your body or to help you lose weight, any benefits will be short term, while the fear and negative relationship with your body can last a lot longer.
Lastly, since a break from alcohol may cause many people to realize how much they depend on it, you might notice stress, anxiety, or even depression surfacing. “You may discover that drinking is actually a coping strategy in your life, and without it, you might be feeling more anxiety, depression, grief, etc. symptoms,” explained Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed marriage and family therapist. If you think Dry January may provoke uncomfortable emotions or you’re struggling without alcohol, seek support from a therapist.
Tips to be successful with Dry January
Take it day by day
One reason restrictions or short-term diets can be harmful is if you do partake in the restricted item, you feel like the entire month is “ruined,” which can lead to bingeing and guilt. So to avoid the damage that comes with being hard on yourself if you do have a glass of wine after an especially tough day or a vodka soda while out with friends, focus less on the structure of a “month” and instead just take it day by day. Kitley recommended that if you “slip up” one day by caving to the temptation of a cocktail, that doesn’t mean the whole month has to be ruined or that you failed. Instead, see each new day as an opportunity. “Dry January” doesn’t have to be an entire month spent completely sober—any amount of time to better understand your relationship with alcohol is a win.
Let your friends and family know your plans
McBain said that the key for Dry January success is to let your friends and family know ahead of time so they can help you stay accountable, make plans that are not related to alcohol, and avoid uncomfortable or triggering situations. “Explain to family and friends (beforehand, if possible) that you’re not going to be drinking. Especially if you’re female, letting them know can help you avoid anyone asking if you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant—it’s so intrusive, but these types of comments happen all the time and can be incredibly triggering.” Bonus: When you let other people know, you’ll be more likely to resist that cocktail during girl’s night or a glass of wine at your family dinner because you know they’ll be expecting you to say no.
Use it as an experiment to know yourself better, not as a “cleanse” or “diet”
Just another reminder that Dry January (or restricting anything for a certain amount of time) can only be beneficial if it’s used as a way to get to know yourself better and learn how you want alcohol to compliment your life moving forward. If you view it as a chance to lose weight or “detox,” you’re subconsciously telling yourself that alcohol is bad. Just because you may notice benefits in your body or how it affects your emotions when you take time off does not mean that alcohol is “bad” or that you’re “bad” if you have a drink here and there in the future (unless, of course, you have an unhealthy dependency or addiction).
In other words, think of the booze-free time as a way to understand how alcohol affects your life and how you want to enjoy it in order to achieve your happiest life, not as a temporary health fix. Journal about cravings or difficult emotions that come up while living sans alcohol and take the time to get to know your body without it, not as a means to foster fear around drinking in the future. “You don’t need to cut alcohol out of your life to improve your diet or habit control,” said Dr. Anthony Puopolo, the chief medical officer of Rex MD and a board-certified physician. “However, being more aware of when and how much you drink, as well as why, can increase your mental and physical health significantly.”
Continue mindful drinking when Dry January is over
The problem with limiting anything (whether it’s food groups, phone time, or alcohol) is that any deprivation can lead to greater cravings or binges. Kitley warned to be aware if you start drinking on Feb. 1 (or whenever you start drinking again), as people tend to go overboard if they have felt deprived. If you’re excited to go out with friends and have a cocktail or know that a glass of wine will feel so satisfying with dinner, indulge in whatever your body truly wants, but be careful not to drink so much it stops feeling good for your body. Dry January is only beneficial if you take what you’ve learned and apply it to your life moving forward. Otherwise, it’s just 30 days that won’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of your well-being. Take time to think and act on what you’ve learned (i.e. you found other ways to soothe yourself after a stressful day so you no longer need to depend on a glass of wine, or drinking less during brunch helps you feel more productive during the day), and continue mindful drinking even after January is over.
How to embrace mindful drinking year-round
Set some guidelines before drinking
While mindful drinking is all about staying present (checking in with how your body feels consistently in the moment), some guidelines before any time spent drinking may be helpful. Kitley suggested a simple guideline like having a glass of water in between every drink can not only help prevent hangovers but can also help you stay mindful. Another helpful guideline to try is my personal favorite: the “three drink rule,” where if I’m drinking an alcoholic beverage, I’ll also try to have two other drinks at the same time, like water and tea or coffee. Some people also find it helpful to limit the days a week they drink (like only drinking three days total) so they are more mindful of when it’s really worth having alcohol.
Ask yourself “why”
Before drinking, ask yourself what your purpose is: Are you drinking because you want to enjoy the delicious taste of wine with friends or because you love trying new cocktails? Or is it because you’re feeling socially awkward or need something to take away stress? Another helpful thought exercise is to ask yourself if the next drink will bring you joy or regret. If the drink will bring you joy, then enjoy every sip. If the drink will make you feel regretful? Opt for a mocktail or sip on water instead. “Drinking mindfully means taking a moment before you grab an alcoholic drink,” explained Dr. John Mendelson, an alcohol addiction specialist and chief medical officer of Ria Health. “Before drinking, consider why you’re making that choice. It’s all about paying attention and drinking with awareness.”
Be more self-aware about your drinking habits
As with any health goal, self-awareness is key. It’s difficult to know how to drink more mindfully if you’re not aware of what your drinking habits actually are. Whether or not you participated in Dry January, it may be helpful to spend a week or two recording your alcoholic beverages as well as any emotions, physical symptoms, etc. so you are aware of how alcohol is truly affecting your life. “Keep a simple drink log and measure your alcohol consumption patterns,” Dr. Mendelson suggested. “This could be as easy as emailing yourself every drink or using a free drink-counting app. The basic count will establish the baseline to begin.” For example, are you drinking a lot more than you realized? Identify how to cut back and be more mindful. Or are you noticing symptom flare-ups after drinking? Talk to your doctor about a possible correlation between alcohol and your health. In general, mindfulness is self-awareness, so start collecting data on how alcohol plays into your life.
Fuel your body with proper nutrition
Mindful drinking comes when you’re also mindfully eating and aware of taking care of your body in every way possible, from exercise to sleep to fueling your body with nutrients that help it feel its best. Dr. Victoria Glass, MD, a doctor focusing on medical research, suggested that “healthy” alcohol consumption means overall taking care of your body, and fueling your body properly is key. Being more aware of the alcohol you put into your body happens much more naturally when you’re aware of the food you’re putting into your body too.
Also, food can help when you are drinking alcohol too. “Make sure to eat first before consuming any alcohol,” Dr. Glass said. “Food allows you to be more aware of how the alcohol is affecting your body, and for some people, food reduces cravings for alcohol.” And if you do drink a little too much and get a hangover? No biggie, but know that you don’t need to eat greasy breakfast sandwiches or chug Bloody Marys in order to feel better. Take the opportunity to eat more nutrient-rich foods that will help your body recover and feel its best.
Seek support to continue understanding your relationship with alcohol
The truth is that most of us enjoy an alcoholic beverage for more reasons than because it tastes good (especially those of us who have ever had a shot of vodka). We often use alcohol to numb negative emotions (like destressing after a long day), help us feel more comfortable in uncomfortable situations (like a party with a new group of friends), or even as a way to celebrate (as if a job promotion or wedding engagement doesn’t feel like a true celebration without a champagne toast). While alcohol can make us feel happier and more carefree, it shouldn’t be a reaction to emotions or something you depend on to feel comfortable in any situation. Continue working with a trusted professional like a therapist or sober-curious support group to understand what emotions you relate to alcohol consumption. For more resources to help you understand your relationship with alcohol or if you’re sober-curious, check out a book like Quit Like a Woman.
While this article addresses emotional dependencies and behaviors related to alcohol, it is not meant to help treat addiction. If you are struggling with substance abuse, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for assistance.