“Damp January” risks making people “massively complacent” about their drinking habits at a time when deaths from alcohol are at an all-time high, a Priory expert warns.
Speaking ahead of Dry January, Dr Niall Campbell, of the Priory’s Roehampton Hospital, says an increasing number are being urged to redefine “dry” by moderating their drinking rather than imposing a ban on themselves during the month.
Although more adults (some 9 million) say they are participating in Dry January in 2023, many will not fully abstain from alcohol. One survey suggests many give up by the second week, and 3 in 10 would rather give up alcohol for a shorter period. Some say “Damp January” is an opportunity to drink less, say two or three drinks a week, “but better”.
However, Dr Campbell said people should be encouraged to abstain for a full month to understand the impact of their drinking habits on their mental and physical health – and experience the significant benefits of voluntary sobriety.
He said this was especially important given that a record number of people died from alcohol in 2021, the latest year for which figures are available; there were 9,641 “alcohol specific” deaths in the UK in 2021, compared to 7,565 in 2019 – a 27% increase. Alcohol-specific deaths are defined as a direct consequence of alcohol and most are from alcoholic liver disease. They account for around a third of all deaths linked to alcohol.
Dr Campbell, one of the UK’s leading experts in alcohol addiction, said: “Priory has seen a 55% increase in inquiries in 2022 related to treatment for alcohol addiction. People have sought to self-medicate with alcohol for the cost of living crisis, stress, work insecurity, depression and anxiety. In January, there are the added pressures of Christmas debt, poor weather and going back to work.
“Relationships may have seriously fractured over the holidays – couples have been cooped up together, or struggling with children and elderly parents. The new year can bring many difficult emotions to the surface. Lots of people who work ‘hybrid’ are drinking like hell, at home and ‘under the radar’. It’s difficult to hide your drinking habits when at work but at home, and especially if you don’t need to drive, people are drinking much more.
“So Dry January is a reckoning of sorts for people, and that is a very good thing. Yes, some people will ‘white knuckle’ it until February, but, for very many more, they will reassess their relationship with alcohol and start 2023 with a far more mindful approach. Some will quit altogether.”
Damp January, which has been around for some years, is regarded by some as a backup plan if they can’t stay alcohol-free for 31 days. The Urban Dictionary says it’s a ‘lesser version of Dry January for those with less willpower or need to celebrate special events or just want a drink’.
Dr Campbell said: “Forget Damp January. Dry January is a period for pause when you can reset your relationship with alcohol. So many people I see have let their drinking creep up on them, from one bottle a night to two or three. They habitually order wine or beer online in significant quantities. Some hide it from partners by keeping it in the boot of the car. So stepping back and experiencing the very real benefits of an alcohol-free month is so important – from sleeping better, to financial savings, to weight loss, to better mood, improved skin, lower blood pressure, and reduced diabetes risks – the benefits are enormous.”
Dr Campbell offers 10 pieces of advice on how to give up alcohol for Dry January and beyond.
What’s your motivation?
“Ask yourself ‘why’? I say to patients that they should assess alcohol’s true toll on their physical, mental and emotional health. Remind yourself of your worst or most embarrassing hangover. Do you constantly feel lethargic and foggy-headed? Do you ‘lose’ days to hangovers? Do you find it hard to kick-start yourself in the mornings? Thinking about these things will help you because the benefits of giving up alcohol are manifold.
Talk to a friend and, if possible, get them to give up alcohol at the same time as you – then support each other. You might take up a sport at the same time, go running or walking together. Discuss times when you might be tempted to go to the pub and opt for the cinema or binge-watch Netflix. Have a Netflix party. Discuss your mutual motivations for giving up alcohol. A phone App, like Priory’s My Possible Self, might be useful as your supportive buddy.
Swap lagers for lattes
Swap your wine or lager culture for coffee culture. You can still be just as sociable.
It is very hard to attend social functions where alcohol is plied and you are under peer pressure. Stay away. If you do go, mentally prepare how you will refuse alcohol. Keep away from supermarket aisles stocked full of alcohol. Don’t put yourself in a high-risk situation.
The ‘look yourself in the mirror’ moment
“I see lives devastated by alcohol. You need to look honestly at your weekly alcohol consumption. Keep a drink diary if you don’t know. Familiarise yourself with what a “unit” consists of and what the alcohol unit guidelines are (no more than 14 units a week). It’s not as simple as one drink, one unit. Large wine glasses hold 250ml, which is nearly three units or more in a single glass. Likewise, one pint of strong lager can contain more than three units of alcohol. A 750ml bottle of red, white or rosé wine contains around 10 units. By knowing what you consume, you can make the decision to stop. If you are a heavy drinker and stop suddenly, you can get withdrawal seizures so you should always consult a doctor.
Instead of alcohol?
You might think low-alcohol beer is ok but it can give you a taste of the real stuff. Think of this period as a detox. Get into the habit of drinking at least five glasses of water each day as your body desperately needs water for almost everything it does. Fruit juices are better than caffeinated, artificially sweetened soft drinks.
Think of losing weight
Giving up alcohol is a huge incentive to lose weight and look better because there are lots of hidden calories in alcohol. According to a YouGov survey, the average wine drinker in England takes in around 2,000 calories from alcohol every month. Drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200 calories over a year, which is equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts. Reducing your weight brings a lot of other benefits; you help to reduce further your risk of developing Type II diabetes and you lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Your blood pressure drops, and you may find pain in your joints reduces as the body isn’t trying to carry as much weight.
You can drive everywhere
Giving up alcohol means no more worrying about who is driving at the end of a night out or a weekend lunch, or no more expensive taxi journeys home.
Count the cash
You will have more money in your bank account when you give up drinking. If you spend, say, around £30 a week on three bottles of wine, you will save £120 by the month’s end and £1,560 if you continue the whole year. Invest in something you enjoy, and reward yourself.
Save your skin (and sleep)
This is an important confidence booster in our image-obsessed world. Drinking alcohol causes blood vessels to widen, which increases blood flow and causes facial flushing. As alcohol is a diuretic, drinking heavily can also lead to dehydrated and dry skin. Over time, it can also result in the permanent reddening of the face, spider veins and psoriasis, particularly on the fingers and hands. But there are loads of other benefits to giving up alcohol; your blood sugar will normalise, you will feel much more clear-headed, and less depressed and your sleep patterns are likely to improve within a week. Heavy drinking causes blood cells to become larger and that makes you more tired because they are unable to transport oxygen efficiently around the body. Your liver will begin to repair itself in as little as two months. Many people report that their mood or outlook on life seems better.
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