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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What happens to my body during Dry January?



For many, the holiday season is a time for celebration, which typically involves copious amounts of alcohol. So it’s no surprise that an estimated 15 to 19 percent of U.S. adults in recent years have pledged to participate in Dry January. But, there’s been little research into what, exactly, a month off alcohol can do for your health. (Eric Helgas/The New York Times)

By Melinda Wenner Moyer


Q: What are the health effects of Dry January? Can cutting back on alcohol for a month have long-term benefits?


A: Champagne, eggnog, mulled wine — for many, the holiday season is a time for celebration, which typically involves copious amounts of alcohol. So it’s no surprise that an estimated 15% to 19% of U.S. adults in recent years have pledged to participate in Dry January, or “Drynuary,” in an effort to atone for their December choices and, hopefully, slightly unpickle their livers.


There’s been little research into what, exactly, a month off alcohol can do for your health. And the benefits will depend on how much and how frequently you drank before, said Danielle Dick, a professor and director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center.


But, Dick added, we do know that alcohol has numerous and varied effects on the body, “so presumably, regardless of how much you drink, you will see improvements across many areas.”


You’ll feel worse — then better


If you’re a regular drinker, a sudden change in your habits may make you feel worse at first, not better, said Sara Jo Nixon, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Center for Addiction Research and Education at the University of Florida.


“You’re irritable, you’re a little depressed,” Nixon said. That’s in part because alcohol decreases levels of stress hormones, making you feel calm as you imbibe — but after you’ve stopped, the hormones rebound and spike to higher levels than before.


If you experience any alcohol withdrawal symptoms, particularly those that are severe such as confusion, hallucinations, fever or seizures, it’s important to consult with a doctor, said Dr. Duncan B. Clark, a psychiatrist who studies substance use at the University of Pittsburgh.


People who engage in daily or near daily binge drinking — meaning men who drink five or more drinks or women who drink four or more drinks within about two hours — should not quit drinking cold turkey without first discussing it with a physician, Clark said.


People who drink less heavily, though, will likely start to feel better after a few days of sobriety. Although alcohol helps you fall asleep faster, it impairs the overall quality of your sleep. By not drinking, you will most likely wake up each morning feeling more rested, Nixon said.


Alcohol is dehydrating, so avoiding it may also reduce headaches and fatigue and improve the appearance of your skin, said Dr. Aitzaz Munir, an addiction psychiatrist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.


The more you drink, the more likely your sexual function will become impaired. By cutting out alcohol, your sex life might improve, too, Clark added.


Your heart and liver will thank you


Research suggests that moderate to heavy drinking increases blood pressure and can cause blood vessel damage and abnormal heart rhythms, Clark said. Alcohol also increases blood levels of potentially harmful particles called free radicals, which can increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, Munir added.


Once you stop drinking, “these free radicals start to get removed from the body, and it improves heart health,” Munir said. “All these benefits start to occur from day one after the last drink.”


Binge drinking can also harm the liver, increasing the risk for liver disease, so time off can help it heal.


“Once a person stops drinking, the liver enzymes start to drop, and within a month or two they are back to their normal levels if there is not too much damage,” Munir said.


Benefits beyond Dry January


As for whether these benefits will persist if you start drinking again in February — that all depends.


If you start drinking the same amount you did before, it’s unlikely you’ll experience long-term health benefits from Dry January, Clark said.


But your month of abstinence is likely to decrease your tolerance, so you won’t need to drink as much to feel the way you did before you stopped, Clark added.


And you may not even want to. Among other things, Dry January can help people realize how much they drink and why. Quitting often prompts people to ask themselves: “Why am I drinking this amount? Does it play a role in how I feel? Do I think I need it?” Nixon explained.


Dry January also helps to break ingrained drinking habits, such as a having a glass of wine every day after work.


A study published in 2016 found that even six months later, people in Britain who had participated in Dry January drank alcohol on average one fewer day per week, and consumed nearly one drink less each day they did drink, compared with their alcohol use before the break.


In other words, beyond the immediate health benefits, Dry January may help you break bad habits, reflect on the role that alcohol plays in your life — and give you an opportunity to make healthier choices long after January ends.


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