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Why avoiding alcohol in January might not help

Drinking Alcohol
 The pros and cons of not drinking alcohol in January Photo: Courtesy

Alcohol Concern, a leading charity working on alcohol issues, whose goal is to improve people’s lives through reducing the harm caused by alcohol, recently embarked on a ‘Dry January’ campaign, urging people to give up alcohol for 30 days

Could you manage a month without alcohol? After a Christmas heavy on the sauce, it seems like a tempting idea for many of us.

Advocates say abstention is the route to clearer skin, better sleep and a revitalized liver.

But one expert questions whether a booze-free month can really change a person’s long term drinking behavior and lead to lasting change.

Writing for The Conversation, Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at the University of York, discusses the pros and cons of the campaign.

The campaign, Dry January, aims to attract funding through donations, raise awareness of alcohol-related problems and educate people about the health benefits of abstaining from alcohol.

Aside from saving money, Alcohol Concern claims that abstaining will help you lose weight and improve your sleep.

There is no shortage of participants – more than two million people signed up last year, but is there any evidence that Dry January works?

Gram for gram, alcohol contains almost the same amount of calories as pure fat, so abstaining for a month could reduce your weight, assuming you don’t compensate for the lost calories by eating more.

Fat accumulates in the liver as a result of drinking. As little as two weeks abstinence can return your liver to good health, reducing the risk of alcohol-related liver disease.

As for improving sleep, there is clear evidence that you will get a better night’s sleep if you abstain from alcohol.

Things have been getting worse

So far so good, but the main ambition of Alcohol Concern is to change the drinking culture through events such as Dry January.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Dry January achieves lasting change in consumption or in our beliefs and behavior in relation to alcohol.

The campaign is premised on the idea of social contagion. If your friends start reducing their alcohol intake, you are more likely to adopt the same behavior.


Most people exhibit denial when asked how much they drink. This is demonstrated by the consistent difference between self-reported consumption of alcohol and total alcohol sales recorded by HM revenue and customs.

There has been an increasing trend in overall consumption of alcohol in the last sixty years.

As the long term trend in consumption has risen, so has the number of people developing alcohol-related health problems. Since 2009, there has been a 44 per cent increase in those aged 50 and over accessing alcohol treatment.

More generally, alcohol costs tax payers millions of shillings annually in hospital admissions.

If we discovered alcohol today, we would restrict and criminalise its use in the same way we have for drugs such as heroin.

Objective examination of harms associated with 20 of the most commonly used legal and illegal drugs ranked alcohol as the most dangerous.

For some people who are dependent on alcohol, abstaining can induce symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disruption and restlessness. Heavy drinkers can even experience seizures and hallucinations.

More harm than good?

For people who have developed a dependency on alcohol, abstaining can produce a rebound effect

As a person experiences withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disruption and restlessness – paradoxically the very things that many people find alcohol helps them overcome in the short term.

This rebound effect could lead to more serious implications for heavy drinkers such as seizures and hallucinations.

For this group, Dry January may not be the right thing to do as it could cause more harm than good.

The consistent advice has therefore been to have two dry days a week.

Guidance about alcohol has been difficult to communicate and there is generally confusion about safe levels of consumption.

Dry January might add to such confusion giving the message that a month of abstinence does away with the need for regular breaks from drinking.

-  Courtesy of Mail Online/Richard Gray

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