October 15, 2021

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Quit the Dry January challenge? Health experts say it may be OK

Dry January has become a new year’s tradition, with more than 4 million people jumping on the bandwagon in 2020, according to Alcohol Change UK, the organization that brought us the campaign. For many, it’s a chance to examine their relationship with alcohol or to reset their habits after a month of merry-making.

Despite best laid plans, 2021 started on a challenging note, and many people didn’t even make it through a week of abstinence, let alone a full month. While limiting your alcohol intake is beneficial, experts say it can be OK if you gave up on Dry January. Here’s why.

Dry January can be successful even if you quit early

Alcohol use has risen during the pandemic, with one survey finding a 14 percent uptick in the frequency of drinking in 2020 compared to 2019. In particular, women seem to be drinking more often; that group reports a 17 percent spike in frequency (with a 41% increase in heavy drinking episodes). “We know that when people drink at home, they tend to drink larger measures and more as they lose the effect of pacing their drinking with others,” Ian Hamilton, associate professor at University of York in the United Kingdom, told TODAY Health.

Dr. Richard de Visser, reader in Psychology at Brighton & Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom, who is involved with research about Dry January’s impact, said that typically, around 70% of people who sign up for Dry January manage to abstain from alcohol for the month. Yet, the insurrection on January 6th, not to mention the ongoing pandemic and all the problems we’re facing as a result, led many to call it quits early.

If you fall into the dry-ish January camp, don’t beat yourself up. “I believe that Dry January succeeds, even if the drinker does not keep it up for the whole month,” Dr. H. Westley Clark, dean’s executive professor of Public Health at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, told TODAY, explaining that it’s a chance for personal assessment. “The most important thing is to get educated about the use of alcohol, to know limits and to self-monitor,” he added.

What should you do if you quit Dry January?

“The first step would be to ask what purpose alcohol is serving and what goals you want to create around drinking,” suggested Dr. Rachel Goldman, a New York City-based clinical psychologist and consultant in private practice. For example, you might decide to decrease your intake rather than abstain. “It may be more realistic to pick a number and then determine that you aren’t going to drink more than that number of times per week,” Goldman told TODAY.

If this month proved too stressful to deal with Dry January, you could also try again in a month or so. “You could choose any month to make this change,” noted Goldman. She points out that other people can help motivate you and add a layer of accountability so if you decide to reschedule your Dry January plans, see if your partner or some of your friends would like to join you as well.

If you found you needed a drink to deal with the insurrection or another part of your 2021 life, Goldman suggested identifying some alternative coping mechanisms to try in place of drinking. In her view, positive goals are more helpful than negative ones. She offered this example: ‘When I am stressed, I am going to do XYZ,’ instead of ‘when I am stressed, I am not going to have a drink.’

If you didn’t complete your Dry January run, Clark said to ask yourself if the problem was limiting your alcohol consumption or the all-or-nothing structure of the challenge. If reducing your alcohol intake was the problem, Clark said, “you clearly need to self-monitor.”

According to Clark, the following amounts signal that you’re drinking too much:

  • Women who drink more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per occasion.
  • Men who drink more than 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks per occasion.
  • People older than 65 who have more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per occasion.

And, he said, these are some signs that drinking has become a problem:

  • Worrying about having enough alcohol to last through an evening or a weekend.
  • Hiding alcohol or buying it at different stores so no one will know how much you’re drinking.
  • Not being able to stop drinking once you start.
  • Hurting someone else as a result of your drinking.

If you need help identifying if your drinking may be cause for concern, Clark said this online tool from AUDIT can help. “If you are worried about your drinking, that’s the first clue that you may be drinking too much and should either cut down or talk to your health professional,” he said.

Who shouldn’t stress about quitting Dry January

Remember that some amount of drinking can be part of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, studies suggest that moderate drinking raises good HDL cholesterol levels, which may be why observational studies have found a reduced risk of heart disease in moderate drinkers compared with non-drinkers. And a glass of wine as part of the Mediterranean diet and the similar MIND diet has been shown to slow down cognitive decline and lower the risk of dementia.

Moderate drinking is considered one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. One drink is considered:

  • 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor, like vodka or tequilla

If you’re a Dry January dropout, but you’re drinking within acceptable limits, and you don’t meet any of the criteria for having an alcohol-related issue, experts say it’s OK.

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