Pausing drinking for a month after the excesses of the holiday season — otherwise known as Dry January — has become a popular New Year's resolution. And this year, even as the stress of the pandemic and a new variant might make a nightcap even more tempting, experts say it's still worth taking time to reevaluate your drinking in the new year.
"With the pandemic, what the research is telling us is that people are using substances, in general, more," said Erin Goodhart, the senior clinical director of women's services at Caron Treatment Centers, a substance-use treatment program with several facilities in the Philadelphia region.
Although some people do quit drinking entirely after a month of abstinence, many use Dry January as a jumping-off point to explore drinking habits and modify them as necessary. "One of the benefits of Dry January is using it as a way to maybe look at some of your substance use or drinking and developing new habits," Goodhart said.
There's not an extensive body of research on Dry January itself, but some studies show that quitting drinking for a month can have health benefits, Patricia Powell, the deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, wrote in an email. A 2016 study on more than 800 adults in the United Kingdom who undertook a Dry January found that most participants drank less and got drunk less frequently afterward, Powell said.
Many Dry January participants try to abstain from alcohol entirely for a month, but any reduction in drinking can be beneficial, said Henry Kranzler, a physician and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. Some participants might quit drinking during the week or simply reduce their alcohol consumption generally.
"I think the safest approach to alcohol is to think about it like driving," Kranzler said. "There's no safe level at which people drive. If you drive, you are at risk of having an accident, and potentially a fatal one. But how you drive can dramatically influence your risk, just like how much you drink can dramatically influence your risk of alcohol-related harm.
The evidence points strongly to the idea that men or women should not drink more than, on average, a standard drink per day." (A standard drink is a 12-ounce bottle of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or an ounce of liquor.)
Kranzler is not a teetotaler — "Alcohol is not good for you, by and large, and I say that with a certain degree of discomfort, only because I really like good wine," he said, laughing. But he does try to limit himself to those guidelines.
Recovery or wellness doesn't look the same for every person, Goodhart said. "Even if participants don't drink problematically or have no intention of maintaining long-term abstinence, there's still benefits of doing Dry January," she said. "You can develop new hobbies, develop a support system, find other things you like to do with friends that don't revolve around alcohol." That may not even mean avoiding the bar — many restaurants have developed increasingly sophisticated nonalcoholic cocktails over the years.
"If your idea of unwinding or self-care at the end of the night is to have a glass of wine or a cocktail, think of things you can do to still feel rewarded — taking a hot shower, reading a book, journaling," Goodhart said.
Developing new coping mechanisms might be especially necessary as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year. Powell said that research from 2020 suggests that more people increased drinking during the pandemic.
Stress was a particular contributor to increased drinking, she said. "Being female, having kids at home, dealing with depression or anxiety and losing income were associated with greater alcohol use," she said. "Early data suggest more people developed alcohol-related liver diseases and needed transplants during the pandemic, and one study suggests hospitalizations related to alcohol withdrawal increased as well."
People who are physically dependent on alcohol should be careful about quitting drinking abruptly because alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in severe cases. Powell said heavy drinkers should consult their physician before attempting to teetotal to talk about the possibility they'll enter withdrawal. And, she added, it's important to try not to make up for lost drinking once you begin drinking again — in the U.K. study on Dry January, about 11% of participants reported drinking more heavily six months later.
For people who find quitting harder than they expected, the NIAAA has an online navigation system to help connect patients to alcohol use disorder treatment.
For anyone planning to abstain for the month, Goodhart said, letting friends and family know your plans can make it easier to achieve your goal.
"The more connected you can be — with a professional or a peer support system — the better. Just by opening the door to a friend, having someone you can check in with — we can really reduce shame or stigma by having one or two trusted people you can go to if you're struggling," she said.