February 8, 2023

Health Mettler Institute

Healthy LifeStyle & Education

Can Dry January lead to ‘mindful drinking’?

It was right around the New Year when Kevin Crawley realized his clothes weren’t fitting quite right.

After a “fourth quarter of nonstop indulgence” — think Thanksgiving pie, Christmas cookies and festive drinking — his waistline had expanded, and he wasn’t thrilled.

That’s when 40-year-old Crawley decided to cut out alcohol for the first month of 2021.

Crawley had a pretty good handle on his diet during the week, but found calories piling up from drinking (and noshing) when the weekend rolled in. A beer lover, he’d sip on Friday and Saturday nights. Sunday football games went well with a brew — sometimes several. After 31 days off the sauce, he dropped 10 pounds.

Crawley, a Glendale resident, joined the ranks of those who participate in what’s known as Dry January, the conscious decision to ditch booze for the first month of the year. Many others opt for Dry-ish, Dri-er or Damp January — cutting back on alcohol but not quitting cold turkey. Many outlets report the contemporary practice started with a U.K. public health campaign in the early 2010s (though the idea dates back to at least the 1940s — when the Finnish government instituted a sober January as part of its wartime efforts).

Hello, my name is Lila Seidman and I’m a mental health reporter at The Times. This week, I’m taking over Group Therapy while my colleague Laura Newberry enjoys some time off. Like Laura, I’m studying to be a therapist when I’m not wearing my journalist hat. This week’s newsletter will delve into something that I’ve been thinking about as the New Year approaches: Is there something to the “sober curious” movement, one of the many buzzwords for giving up alcohol for a variety of health reasons?

Dry January, which is intertwined with the movement, is right around the corner, making it a perfect time to unpack the practice. To do this, I tapped mental and physical health experts, as well as some folks who developed apps geared toward helping people meet their sobriety goals. I also asked people on social media to share their Dry January experiences, and am immensely grateful to those who entrusted me with their stories.

At a glance

Some data suggest the idea is catching on. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults said they were participating in Dry January in 2022, representing a 13% increase from the previous year, according to a survey by Morning Consult, a market research company. About 52% of those polled said they were completely abstaining, while the rest were drinking little — or at least less than they normally would. On an anecdotal level, it’s hard to miss whiffs of an underlying cultural trend — stories about hip mocktails, nonalcoholic beers and sober raves — at least among a certain millennial milieu.

(It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that drinking rates have dropped off. Evidence suggests the opposite for certain groups, such as women, who reported a significant spike in heavy drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Many, like Crawley, temporarily ditch the drink for health reasons — both physical and mental. Heavy drinking is associated with a host of negatives, including increased risk for heart problems, cancer, liver disease and alcohol-involved car crashes. It can exacerbate depression, anxiety and insomnia. When stress strikes, it’s a common coping mechanism.

Significantly, experts told me that Dry January can serve as a reset or spur heightened awareness around drinking. It might be one of the most enduring gains of the activity.

It can boil down to “a conscious effort to examine one’s relationship with alcohol and how it’s serving you,” said Katie Witkiewitz, director of the Center on Alcohol, Substance Use and Addictions at the University of New Mexico. “Because many of us get into patterns of drinking that are habitual and maybe are actually making us not feel that great.”

Time to reflect, reset, go

The timing isn’t coincidental.

For one, people use Dry January as a resolution to reign in what they see as excessive drinking.

Alcohol consumption spikes during the holiday season, with one poll finding a 100% increase between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The 2018 survey, conducted on behalf of supplement company Morning Recovery, found that an average respondent’s typical four drinks per week leapt to eight during that festive period.

For two, New Year’s, a time for collective reflection, can offer a symbolic moment for the undertaking. Those who believe in the power of stock-taking and resolution-making on this calendar day might make Dry January one, or one of many, goals for the coming year.

Just this late November/early December, 16% of about 2,000 people surveyed reported they wanted to drink less as their New Year’s resolution, according to a poll commissioned by MUD/WTR, makers of a mushroom coffee alternative. It’s not a jarring finding, as a company spokesperson put it, but it suggests cutting down might be on the radar for some who want to change their lifestyle.

“These sort of exercises are valuable,” said Danny Groner, 39, of the Bronx, N.Y., who intends to go damp for the first time this upcoming January. Groner said he’s not participating because he drinks too much — he imbibes alcohol about three times a month — but to see if he can successfully cut back.

When the pandemic shuttered bars, Groner concluded that much of his socializing had been “automatically geared around drinking alcohol.” Now he’s more likely to steer a hangout to a coffee shop than a bar. Last summer, he tapped into unexpected joy when a friend suggested they opt for ice cream.

“Maybe he ushered in permission for me with the next person to say ‘Hey, do you want to get together for ice cream?’ And nobody would roll their eyes at it because maybe secretly all of us would rather be getting ice cream this whole time,” he said.

Forecasting a dry January

There are many different approaches to a Dry January.

Witkiewitz, a longtime promoter of mindfulness-based interventions, recommends meditating to learn how to slow down, be more present and judge yourself less.

One of the practices she encourages is mindful drinking, or closely examining your drinking experience.

For example, she said, “being aware of alcohol as it’s going into your body and really paying attention to what is that feeling, physiologically? What does it feel like … in the mind? What expectations do you have for that drink?”

And, of course, there’s an app for that. In fact, there’s a plethora of apps geared toward those who want quit or cut down their drinking.

Witkiewitz recommends Drink Less, a simple app that allows users to track their drinking and set goals. Of the more comprehensive programs, she name-checked Ria Health and Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System or A-CHESS.

Reframe aims to shift the way people think about drinking, co-founder Vedant Pradeep said, including through understanding why they drink and why they want to cut down, as well as identifying triggers and coping strategies. App users typically receive a 10-minute daily program that includes lessons, tips and activities. There is a forum run by mental health professionals, as well as online classes. Coaching is available.

Sunnyside focuses on mindfulness and good habits around drinking, according to Chief Executive and founder Nick Allen. Allen said the app begins with a diagnostic assessment and encourages users to develop a plan for themselves every week, which may or may not be complete sobriety. Users can track their drinking through texts to the app, which in turn sends messages updating them on their progress relative to their intention. Coaching is also available.

But does cutting out — or down — for a month really make a difference?

This is where it gets squishy.

Several experts said yes, at least in the short term. The longer-term picture is less well understood, in part due to a dearth of data.

Going dry for the month is associated with potential reduction in weight and blood pressure, as well as improved sleep and skin complexion, particularly for moderate to higher-level drinkers, said Rami Hashish, a body performance and injury expert.

“If you look at that long term and just look at the physiological changes, if people go back to drinking the same amount, those are kind of lost,” he said.

Others are more optimistic.

“If you take your average consumption over the year and add in 30 days of no consumption, that’s going to be a lot better for your health than continuing to drink throughout the month of January,” Witkiewitz said.

Though research is limited, there’s some evidence that benefits may last beyond January. A University of Sussex study, for example, found that all Dry January participants were drinking less six months later, with greater reductions recorded for those who fully abstained for the month.

Still, it won’t always be smooth sailing.

Sleep can actually get worse after cutting out alcohol, a depressant, before it gets better, Witkiewitz said. Sugar cravings typically kick in on Day 13 of sobriety, according to Pradeep, of the Reframe app. Then there are the cravings for alcohol, which Pradeep said can be the biggest challenge for the first 20 to 40 days.

Hashish said the greater benefits of temporary abstinence tend to be psychological in nature, including breaking bad habits, increasing awareness and gaining control over use.

Crawley described the gain this way: “Even being aware of what you’re doing, as opposed to just doing it, is helpful. So you’re making a more informed decision about your own body and your own health, and it’s not just kind of going through the motions.”

Important note

Dry January is not for everyone.

Individuals who are physically dependent on alcohol or have a severe alcohol use disorder should not participate in the event, said Dr. Carrie Mintz, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Mintz said individuals who meet this criteria need to talk to their doctor and seek medical treatment, rather than abruptly stop on their own. Doing so could be dangerous and potentially fatal.

For others, it’s a matter of personal choice and preference. After so much research, this reporter is certainly considering a drier, more mindful, January.

Until the next time I fill in,

Lila

If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email [email protected] gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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