Once the excitement of Christmas is over, many Brits attempt to reverse the festive overindulgence by setting themselves a dry January challenge.
According to Alcohol Change, nine million people planned to cut out alcohol in January 2024.
However, while many Brits will be aiming to go alcohol-free for the first month of 2024, Dr Alasdair Scott, a medical expert at Selph, says a dry January can have very few health benefits unless alcohol is significantly cut down in the long term.
“Alcohol has negative effects on many organs and tissues throughout your body, such as your bowel and brain, not just your liver. For example, alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer, breast cancer, and dementia. The negative effects of alcohol are from cumulative exposure, so the more alcohol you drink over a longer period of time, the more likely you are to experience related health problems.
“Cumulative exposure leads to a continuum of risk. There is no such thing as a ‘safe level of alcohol’, only a gradually increasing risk of health problems, from negligible to low to high.
“When it comes to dry January, there is a perception that this is an opportunity to give your liver a ‘break’, to make up for the excesses of December and the New Year. But the reality is, you can’t simply reset or detoxify the impacts of alcohol on your health in a month.
“It’s a bit like a crash diet, in that you do it for a short period of time and you lose some weight, but it’s difficult to keep up, so you just end up going back to what you did before and the weight goes back on. While cutting out alcohol for one month will leave you feeling much more energised and will help you sleep better, there is very little benefit if you then continue to drink heavily once January is over.
“For example, someone who drinks at the upper limit of UK guidelines (14 units or seven drinks a week) will drink 728 units a year. If they stop drinking entirely in January but resume average drinking behaviour afterwards, they’ll be down to 672 units for the year. In contrast, if they just cut down to 10 units a week, their consumption for the year will be 520 units, a far better outcome.
“Dry January could be the start of a new lifestyle in which less alcohol is consumed. If those new behaviours are maintained, they don’t even need to be ‘dry’. Life is for living, and low-level alcohol use, particularly in social settings, can absolutely be compatible with a healthy lifestyle.”
To help Brits cut down on their alcohol consumption for a sustained period, Alasdair shares his top tips:
Only drink with food
“Changing your mindset on alcohol and enjoying it as an accompaniment to a delicious meal you have worked hard to cook or a treat meal in a restaurant will help you to drink less in the long run.
“Educating yourself on the best wines to accompany certain foods, for example, will mean you have a better understanding and appreciation for the taste of the drink rather than just the ‘feeling’ alcohol gives you. It will also mean you drink alcohol less often, as these are usually viewed as ‘special’ treat meals that you don’t have every day.”
Only drink alcohol on certain days
“If you’re used to drinking most evenings, it can be a good idea to cut down on the number of nights you do this, for example, a Friday or Saturday night. However, it’s important you also monitor the number of units you drink, as you could easily end up binge drinking by consuming a large volume of alcohol in a more condensed time period.
“Having one or two small glasses of wine on a Friday or Saturday evening is much better than having one large one every day of the week.”
Book in exercise classes for the weekend
“Many people binge drink more on a weekend because they know they don’t have to get up for work in the morning. However, booking an exercise class for a Saturday or Sunday morning will mean you’re less likely to drink the evening before, as you’ll know you need to wake up and feel refreshed.
“It’s a good idea to book these in with a friend too, so you both have some accountability, and you can enjoy exercising together too!”
Try alcohol-free drinks
“A lot of people struggle to quit or cut down on drinking for the social aspect, as they fear the peer pressure of not drinking alcohol at an event will be too overwhelming and difficult to justify to friends.
“Choosing alcohol-free versions of your usual drink can help to overcome this, so you’re still holding a drink in your hand, which will help you feel more comfortable in social situations when others are drinking. These days, there are plenty of low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks available in bars and supermarkets, so you can spend some time finding the ones you like the best.”
Try the 20-minute rule
“Taking a 20-minute break after finishing one drink before pouring your next can make a big difference to the amount of alcohol you drink.
“Having this time to pause in-between drinks will allow you to process whether you are in fact craving more or if you actually feel tired and as though you’ve had enough. It also just slows down your drinking generally, so over the course of a night, you will automatically drink less this way.”