Dry January: Are there any real benefits?
Banishing the booze in the weeks after Christmas has become very popular in recent years. But are you giving your health a boost, or just fooling yourself?
Published 07/01/2016 | 02:30
It's raining outside and half the country is up to its knees in floods, but the buzz word for January is 'dry'. After the festive excess of beers, wines and spirits many of us are swearing off booze for the month to detox away December's intoxication.
This month, the Irish Heart Foundation launched its second annual On The Dry campaign (onthedry.ie) expecting some 4,000 participants to sign up, earning sponsorship to steer clear of liquor and raising much-needed funds for the charity's fight against heart disease and strokes.
Chatter on social media would suggest that thousands more are waging their own 'alco-holidays'. In the UK last year more than two million took part in Alcohol Concern's Dry January, with more than 11,000 jumping on the wagon for Cancer Research's 2015 Dryathlon.
But does ditching the drink for a month really make that much of a difference?
The feedback from last year's On The Dry devotees suggests it does. Nearly half of respondents said they'd lost weight, 62pc reported sleeping better and 79pc had saved money.
The benefits don't end there. Researchers for University College London monitored 100 men and women in their 40s, who took part in a 'dry January' campaign, and found that it significantly reduced blood pressure, cholesterol, liver damage and resistance to insulin. If such results had been part of a clinical drugs trial, they reported, the pharmaceutical company would have been "excited beyond belief".
Moreover, a short break can have lasting effects regarding how we drink. A study in the UK found that, six months after taking part in an alcohol-free month, people were less likely to get drunk, drank alcohol less frequently and found it easier to say no to an alcoholic drink in social settings.
"A campaign like On The Dry helps an individual break their old behaviour and start to build a new, healthier habit and get on track to lose weight or reduce blood pressure, depending on their health goal," says Caroline Cullen, communications manager for the Irish Heart Foundation.
And there's plenty of evidence to suggest that many of us need to reassess our relationship with alcohol. In Ireland we consume some 11 litres of alcohol per person annually. Actually, that figure isn't quite accurate as the way alcohol consumption is worked out doesn't take into account the 20pc of non-drinkers in the country, making that personal allowance around 13.75 litres. The healthy limit is nine litres.
While alcohol consumption decreased across Europe between 1980 and 2010, it has increased by 24pc in Ireland in the same period. Some 75pc of alcohol consumed is part of binge drinking. It's estimated that alcohol-related issues (health, crime) cost the State €3.7bn per year.
Joe Barry, professor of population health medicine at Trinity College Centre for Health Services reckons putting the brakes on boozing for a month is a great idea and could stave off bigger problems down the line.
"In Ireland about 20pc of adults are abstainers, 40pc are low-risk drinkers, 10pc have dependency tendencies and the remaining 30pc are risky drinkers," he explains.
"This last group have the most to gain by trying dry January. Going off the drink is a realistic option for them. The 40pc group can help avoid moving into the risky category through initiatives like this."
"It's really hard to recognise quite how much of an impact regular alcohol consumption is having on your life when you're in the midst of it, so taking a month off allows the fog to lift and allows for a bit of clarity," agrees Lucy Rocca, founder of Soberistas (soberistas.com) a non-drinking online community that now has 1,335 members in Ireland.
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, those signing up to go on the dry are primarily aged between 25 and 35-years-old with a slight bias towards women.
"People go on the dry for a variety of reasons," says Caroline. "Because they want to lose weight, because they over-indulged at Christmas and want to take a break, because they have a family member who died from heart disease or a stroke."
But the campaign doesn't look to address those battling with an alcohol addiction. Nor are these drinkers likely to engage in these sorts of initiatives.
The nature of a dry January also raises some uncomfortable questions. Does treating a month-long abstention from booze as a feat, worthy of sponsorship, merely hammer home the fact that we are, as a society, far too reliant on alcohol as part of our social lives? Does it send out an 'all or nothing' message when a year-long call for moderation would be, less catchy, but more worthwhile?
Donal Kiernan, chairperson of Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, isn't wholly convinced. "A dry January does not promote an all or nothing message, but neither does it promote moderate drinking," he explains.
"It seems to promote 'reward drinking' following a period of abstinence. It puts drinking at the core of our culture and society, giving it a place of reverence that drinking does not deserve, espousing it to be the panacea for all our ills."
Furthermore, he fears that those who have a problematic relationship with alcohol - periodic, or binge alcoholics - could use a dry month as "good cover, allowing them to produce irrevocable proof that they're able to stop, thereby fooling themselves into continuing their drinking."
Ultimately what you'll get out of going teetotal for 31 days depends on one thing: You.
"Our approach to the exercise will determine whether or not you get any real long-term benefits from it," says psychologist Susannah Healy.
"We can use it as an awareness month, notice whether you struggle to unwind without alcohol or avoid going out. But if we use 'dry January' as self-justification to continue to con ourselves about our drinking habits then we learn very little.
"In fact it could potentially just lead to heavier binge drinking at the start of February."
'If you are having a glass of wine (even one), per night, you have a drink problem'
RTE presenter Damien Tiernan (pictured) is painfully delighted to be off the drink for January:
"I love a few, succulent creamy pints. Or a nice, slow glass of red wine. Or a fresh gin and tonic before a posh meal out. I feel very sorry for those who have to permanently 'give up' drink for whatever reason.
"Being addicted to anything is an awful scourge. Really awful. Not being able to have an alcoholic beverage because of the harm it can do physically or mentally is a terrible pity.
"But only - only - if you let it get to you. I have some close friends who have been through the wonderful, welcoming doors of the Rutland or other clinics; friends who are better people without drink; friends who are not to be pitied, who don't want pity, but rather should be admired as more complete human beings as they have been honest as to what is good for them and they have embraced it.
"And the gap between 'persistent social drinking' and 'potential alcoholism' is not that wide. A friend of mine who played high-level sports and later became what I thought was an-all-too-heavy drinker told me that if you are having a glass of wine (even one), per night, you have a drink problem.
"And he is right. If you feel you can't live without alcohol in our bloodstream, there's an issue. I kept a drink diary last year for a while and found I was having a drink on average three times a week, nothing excessive and no sessions.
"What surprises many though is that they can have alcohol in their system most of the time (if you take account of how long it takes for it to totally leave your body). That's one of the reasons I wanted to do this Irish Heart Foundation initiative.
"Apart from the fact that I think the group does amazing work, I wanted to see if I could stay off the drink for a month, something I realise I haven't ever done since I reached 18 (I am now 45). I had kept 'the pledge' until I was 18 when others around me were having a few pints and I feel I have a certain degree of willpower.
"So not having a drink since January 1 has been brilliant. Not only do I feel better physically, I feel better mentally.
"Watching Match of the Day and Match of the Day 2 (one has to be consistent) I would have loved a glass of wine. Instead it was an early cup of tea and some sparkling water with lemon. And I didn't even shout at the telly as much.
"I hope publicans don't take this the wrong way but I hope #onthedry is a great success.
"There are winners and losers in most walks of life but purely as an exercise in self-discipline and testing oneself, it's worth giving it a lash to not go on the lash for a month (at least).
"The only problem I can see at the moment is that February 1 is a darn Monday, and even though some friends of mine in Dunmore East sometimes do a Monday club, I think I'll wait until the following weekend. Best of luck to all taking part."