The start of a new calendar year represents a fresh beginning for many, with resolutions to eat better, workout more, or drink less at the top of minds for hopeful go-getters.
Chances are you’ve heard of the popular Dry January, one way to stick with a plan to drink less at the start of the year.
It’s been 10 years since Dry January got its official start in the United Kingdom. One woman campaigned for the idea through Alcohol Change UK after she noticed her own health benefits without a drink for a month.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of Americans have hopped on board, with an estimated 1 in 5 adults partaking in 2022.
UNM Center on Alcohol, Substance Use, & Addictions (CASAA) Director Katie Witkiewitz has conducted research on drinking reductions and has advice when it comes to the campaign. It starts with perspective.
“It’s really about a different way of framing alcohol in society,” she said. “There's a range of people who choose to drink different levels of alcohol or not drink at all, but everyone could benefit from reductions in alcohol use.”
She notes for those who are looking for a change, but not wanting to go completely without, then “drier January” may be an option.
“I think our society has been too focused on thinking about alcohol from the perspective of abstinence or not,” Witkiewitz said. “Alcohol use occurs on a spectrum of behavior and any reduction in use is actually associated with improvements in health.”
Recent polls regarding Dry January have found more people are picking up on Witkiewitz’s idea. Although there were fewer 2023 Dry January participants, that was because there were fewer drinkers to begin with.
CASAA Postdoctoral Fellow, Dylan Richards, has recently proposed a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to gain a better understanding of who is successful with Dry January.
January, or whatever month is chosen, Witkiewicz says, should be viewed as an opportunity to reevaluate and redefine your connection with drinking.
“The way I've been framing it a lot lately is looking at your relationship with alcohol,” Witkiewitz said.
From there, decisions can be made on how to make small, incremental changes. That could mean going from drinking to three to two or fewer nights per week or going from three to two or fewer drinks per session.
“Those kinds of changes are making a conscious decision that you're going to take a look at your alcohol use,” Witkiewitz said. “How is it serving me? How is it not serving me? Do I need it, or is it just kind of a habit?
On the flip side, participating in Dry January could also sometimes cause more harm than good. Binge drinking to celebrate the beginning or end of the commitment poses a higher risk of overdosing on alcohol. In addition, if you are already a frequent drinker, giving alcohol up entirely could lead to withdrawal–an experience that can also prove deadly.
“I definitely don't recommend the approach of going all out, stopping, and then going all out again,” Witkiewitz said. “I always say Dry January is not for you if you're going to binge drink on Dec. 31 and Feb.1.”
The benefits of cutting down on alcohol, even slightly, can make a big impact. Studies show doing so leads to an improvement in sleep, energy levels and a healthy weight.
“Even slightly reducing is associated with improvements in health and well-being. Dry January or Drier January can provide an opportunity to do a personal experiment, to see how alcohol fits into your life.”
It’s the same mindset for other things that are deemed bad for a person. The occasional fried food, chocolate, and candy proves delightful. Even skydiving once or twice is an exciting activity. There’s still, no reason to never try these things, or similarly, consume them every day.
“It's really important to think about alcohol use with these other behaviors that we engage in,” Witkiewitz said. “We should all go to the gym. We know that. Do we all go to the gym? No. So we need to think about it in light of those better decisions.”
There are also plenty of resources to guide your journey whether at the beginning or end. The New Mexico 5-Actions Program, UNM Alcohol Specialty Clinic, or Ria Health offer in-person and digital tools to help work through harmful alcohol use. The NIH also offers an online calculator to help you understand your rate of consumption.
“I think the bigger question, rather than ‘do I have a problem?’ is ‘do you have problems related to your drinking?’ It's not necessarily about how much you drink, it's whether it's causing problems for you,” Witkiewitz said.
CASAA additionally is conducting a study on alcohol use and cutting down on drinking right now. Information about recruitment can be found here.
Witkiewitz said whether it’s a bout of research, or attempts to cut down or go without alcohol for a certain duration, there are plenty of good opportunities to look at alcohol and our health and well-being.
“I love that Dry January has become so popular and also really like the option of drier January,” she said. “It emphasizes this idea that January is a good month to take a look at alcohol. It's the start of a new year, after maybe overindulging during the holidays. “So use the month of January, or whatever month, as a tool for looking at how alcohol is impacting our health.”
Learn more about how researchers like Witkiewitz are looking out for your health, right now at CASAA.