Editor's Note for 2021: Anyone who feels their drinking has become a problem during the pandemic should consult their physician or an alcohol-recovery organization near them. The following article is geared to those whose alcohol consumption largely falls in the "moderate" drinking category.
From your friend who's currently off the bottle for Lent to the coworkers who asked you to join them for Dry January, abstaining from alcohol for a set period of time has become a full-fledged health trend. And whether you're the type to join in and see what all the fuss is about, or you prefer to sit back and watch the spectacle from over the rim of your wineglass, it's important to know what these personal Prohibitions can do for your health, and whether it's worth trying for yourself.
When it comes to the short-term effects, New York–based registered dietitian Jessica Cording is all for banishing the booze. "When you're talking just biochemistry, alcohol is a really selfish macronutrient," said Cording, who has guided many of her clients through short periods of abstinence. "It impacts the way that our bodies metabolize nutrients that we're consuming and it can make us more prone to store fat. It can also mess with our sleep cycle."
There are plenty of reasons why someone may opt to go dry for a month; in addition to better sleep and a trimmer waistline (provided you don't fill your alcohol-free void with unhealthy treats), many who go dry for a month can experience better skin, more energy and a clearer mind. Some people—those who live for a challenge—even do it just to say that they can. Aside from the physical benefits, Cording also suggests that short-term sobriety helps her clients evaluate their drinking habits. But it's important to keep in mind that these potential benefits will vary from person to person.
One of the most popular reasons people give for going dry is to "rest" or even "reset" the liver, which does the heavy lifting when it comes to processing alcohol. But can one sober month undo the potential damage racked up over the remaining 11? According to women's health expert and author Dr. Jennifer Wider, it could help, but not as much as some wish to believe.
"Resting your liver, in a sense, is not a bad idea, because most of us don’t pay much attention to our liver, which really does a ton of things for our body," Wider told Wine Spectator. "So when you add alcohol to the picture, your liver tends to be on overload."
However, though Wider acknowledges the merits of temporary abstinence, she doesn't want people thinking of it as a pass to overindulge every other month of the year. "Any time that you're drinking too much, there are health consequences, even if you go dry for a month," she said.
Cording concurs. "I've seen some of my clients do this, then the month ends and they go crazy," she said. "I find that people who tend to gravitate toward extreme behaviors are more likely to go to that pattern of deprivation and then excess after reintroducing alcohol."
This is why Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at England's University of York, has reservations about recommending dry periods. "Unfortunately, we just don't have a lot of evidence that it produces any kind of lasting change [in drinking habits]," he told Wine Spectator.
One of the largest studies, conducted in conjunction with Alcohol Concern, the charity behind the official Dry January movement, suggested that participation in abstinence challenges may be associated with changes toward healthier drinking. However, participants in the study self-reported their attitudes and behaviors toward alcohol, so there is plenty of room for bias and human error. "[Dry January] is hugely popular, but there's very, very limited evaluation of these types of campaigns, so we have to be careful that we have sufficient information," Hamilton said.
Though he recognizes the benefits a dry period can bring to moderate drinkers, Hamilton warns that it can be more mentally taxing than one would think. "I think whether it's alcohol, cigarettes, crack cocaine, whatever it may be, what these campaigns do is help people realize that it’s possible to go without something," he said. "[But] a month is quite a long time, and people I've spoken to about it say that they struggled, not because they're dependent, but because it's part of their relaxation to have a drink. I'm not sure everybody finds it a completely positive experience."
So what should you do if you're a wine lover who doesn't want to give up your favorite hobby? The experts recommend taking "mini" dry periods once a week, instead. While it may not sound as catchy as being a "Soberhero" (the name given to participants in the Go Sober for October challenge), you're less likely to overindulge after only a couple days of deprivation.
Plus, liver experts recommend it. "One of the great things about the liver as an organ is, as long as it's not too badly damaged, it does have the ability to rejuvenate," Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust told Wine Spectator. "So that's why we advocate, particularly for your liver health, to have two to three consecutive days off every week." It's important, he noted, that the days are consecutive, because it gives the liver cells enough time to generate effectively on a regular basis.
More important, make sure you're drinking in moderation on the days you do drink. "Obviously what we don’t want people to do on the other four days is to be drinking heavily," Langford added. "There's still that element of drinking as safely as you possibly can."
One problem many wine lovers face is understanding the complicated relationship between alcohol and health. One day, they're told a glass of wine will help you age better, and the next, they're told it may cause cancer. "We've seen a lot of studies where moderate alcohol use has potential health benefits, but people need to remember that it's not risk-free," Wider said. "Every individual is going to be different; we all have different medical histories, different family histories, so you always need to look at a person's entire picture."
Ultimately, experts agree that taking a dry month can be beneficial, but it's not the only way, nor the best way, to develop or maintain healthy drinking habits. If you want to drop a few pounds, save some money or simply challenge yourself, you might consider trying a dry period, but if you're serious about long-term wellness, it's the little changes that count.