The science of Dry January

 

Millions of people are spending January 2019 alcohol-free. But just how much of an impact will it have on our long-term relationship with alcohol?

Endorsed by Alcohol Change UK, Cancer Research UK and the UK Government, Dry January looks set to be the biggest yet, with one in ten drinkers predicted to attempt Dry January this year. For many who take part, it’s a step towards losing weight, saving money, and improving mental health. But excess alcohol consumption has a greater impact not just on the body but on health services too. 

Alcohol increases the risk of serious health outcomes. Whether it’s through heart disease, liver disease and stroke, or cancer, moderate to heavy drinkers increase their chances of early death. Alcohol also costs the taxpayer £120 a year through hospital admissions directly related to alcohol.

If the month-long abstention encourages Dry January participants to reconsider their relationship with alcohol, it is surely a step forward? It’s not quite so black and white, however. Despite increased participation and completion of Dry January, issues related to alcohol are seemingly not improving.

The UK’s bleak relationship with alcohol

Figures from the 2016 Health Survey for England revealed that 31% of men and 16% of women consumed more than the recommended 14 units every week. In addition, 4 out of every 5 adults drink alcohol.

Research from leading academics indicates that around 63,000 people in England will die in the next five years from liver diseases related to heavy drinking. Not only is this a tragic loss of life that could be saved with more careful drinking, it could cost the NHS £16.74bn.

Liver disease is a public health crisis. Not only are these figures shocking, they don’t take into account the deaths and serious chronic conditions that are caused by excessive drinking. According to 2015 WHO data for alcohol consumption in OECD countries, we consume the sixth highest level of alcohol per capita, above the United States, Germany and Ireland. Alcohol industry data suggests we are consuming 1.4 litres more alcohol per person than in 1975.

Though the picture appears bleak at first, there are glimmers of positivity to be gleaned in our national outlook. 2018 Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest that more than a fifth of people aged 25-44 are teetotal, a 30% increase in eight years.

Whether Dry January itself has an impact on this trend is unclear. And though a month-long abstention is beneficial for casual drinkers, there are some in science who suggest that it might not be the safest for heavy drinkers.

Dry January unlikely to be a help for problematic drinkers

If you are a casual drinker, you are likely to see some positive outcomes from Dry January. For problematic drinkers, however, 31 days without alcohol comes with risks.

Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be grim. Alcohol-dependent people can experience sleep disruptions, anxiety and depression. Symptoms which are often why people begin drinking heavily in the first place. More serious side effects include seizures and hallucinations.

Because of this, health professionals don’t advise heavy drinkers to undertake Dry January alone. For anyone dependant on alcohol, they should seek medical advice first before abstaining for any extended period of time.

Science suggests Dry January produces positive effects

Aside from problem drinkers, Dry January has proved to be positive in a number of test cases. The most striking of which came in 2018 from University of Sussex research led by Dr Richard de Visser. Following over 800 people who took part in Dry January 2018, it found that following completion:

  • 93% of participants had a sense of achievement;
  • 88% saved money;
  • 82% think more deeply about their relationship with drink;
  • 80% feel more in control of their drinking;
  • 76% learned more about when and why they drink;
  • 71% realised they don't need a drink to enjoy themselves;
  • 70% had generally improved health;
  • 71% slept better;
  • 67% had more energy;
  • 58% lost weight;
  • 57% had better concentration;
  • 54% had better skin.

In addition, six months after Dry January had been completed, drinking days fell from 4.3 to 3.3 days per week, whilst alcohol consumption per session fell from 8.6 to 7.1 units. Moreover, the frequency of being drunk fell from 3.4 days a month prior to Dry January, to 2.1 days.

The long-term health benefits for people who undertake 31 days of abstention are clear. Seven in ten people sleep better, three in five lose weight — both of which have a positive impact on health outcomes, both short-term and long-term.

Long-term reduction the key to sustained health outcomes

Which brings us to the long-term impact of Dry January. We know that the UK is drinking more than we did in the past. This despite the fact that more young people are teetotal. Could Dry January be the boost needed to reduce the rest of our nation’s excessive consumption of the sauce?

One of the biggest impacts is that Dry January teaches participants that you don’t need to consume alcohol to have fun. Though Dry January might not encourage us to give up alcohol completely, it might make us reconsider a fourth or fifth pint or glass of wine on a weeknight.

With healthier livers, hearts and a reduced risk of diabetes, reduced alcohol consumption is key to public health.

Even for those who participate in Dry January but slip up, there are still benefits, albeit reduced. So if you slip up this month, get back on track. When we consider the science, Dry January might just be the greatest national tradition devised this century.

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