Pros and cons

Is Dry January really worth it?

A New Year detox has become an annual tradition but may prove trickier as the Covid crisis takes its toll

Dry January is an established event on the UK calendar that saw more than four million people signing up to take a month-long booze break at the start of 2020.

But 2021 may bring the first decline in participation since the challenge was launched in 2013, as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on our good intentions. A survey of more than 2,000 people conducted by Alcohol Change UK in April found that one in five – which equates to 8.6 million adults in the UK – were drinking alcohol more frequently in lockdown.

On a positive note, 6% of pre-lockdown drinkers said they had shunned booze following the introduction of the restrictions, while one in three of those quizzed were “taking active steps to manage” their alcohol intake. As the nation faces a further tightening of the Covid rules following a let-up for Christmas, many people will once again be weighing up the pros and cons of kicking the habit.

How did it begin?

In the UK, the official name “Dry January” has been around for only a few years – Alcohol Concern, now Alcohol Change UK, registered it as a trademark in mid-2014. The following January, the government ran an ad campaign endorsing the event. Other charities hold similar fundraising events, such as Cancer Research UK’s Dryathlon in January and Macmillan’s Go Sober for October.

The idea of cleansing after a boozy Christmas goes back much further, however. In 1942, Finland instigated a programme called Raitis tammikuu (Sober January) to help aid the war effort against the Soviet Union.

Is it really worth it?

Alcohol Change UK said that in January 2017 “88% of participants saved money, 71% slept better and 58% lost weight”.  

A study by researchers at University College London, published in the BMJ, examined 94 moderate drinkers over the course of a month as they cut their alcohol consumption. After 30 days, the subjects’ insulin resistance improved, along with “weight, BP, and cancer-related growth factors”, according to the conclusion of the study.  

“We found striking benefits from a month of abstinence, in these otherwise healthy volunteers,” says the study’s lead researcher, Dr Gautam Mehta, reports Healthista.

“The change in insulin resistance in particular was large, around 25%.

“Our participants also felt a lot better, in terms of sleep and concentration. It allowed them to reset their relationship with alcohol. Six months later, the proportion of drinking at harmful levels had decrease by over 50%.”

But Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health and addiction at the University of York, told The Guardian that those who enjoy success with Dry January do not accurately represent problem drinkers.

“The millions of people who sign up to it are the millions of people who probably don’t have that great a problem with alcohol so they find it relatively easy,” he said.

Hamilton added that it is inadvisable for dependent drinkers to give up alcohol abruptly, since it could result in side-effects ranging from headaches to convulsions. “I think anyone drinking several glasses of wine after work each day should seek support before they abstain completely from alcohol,” he said.

Nevertheless, Alcohol Change UK stands by the event, citing evidence of its long-term success, including a University of Sussex study that found that former Dry January participants drink less even six months after completing the challenge.  

How to banish the booze

Before taking on the mammoth task, participants are encouraged to sign up to Alcohol Change UK, where they can choose to receive a daily support email or download a free app to help track the calories and money they are saving, as well as monitor their year-round drinking habits.

Some of the best advice includes hiding the bottles in your house to make them harder to reach, using the money you save on alcohol to buy an unrelated treat, assembling a support group or taking up a new hobby.

And, for those missing the taste of booze, there are plenty of alternative drinks available. Major brands such as Heineken, Kopparberg and Becks have well-known alcohol-free variants.

For wine substitutes, Town & Country recommends the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon non-alcoholic red and the St Regis de-alcoholised Chardonnay. Spirit lovers might enjoy Everleaf, a creation of London bartender Paul Mathew, which has a “strong vanilla, cream soda character”, says Henry Jeffreys at BBC Good Food. He also recommends Three Spirit, a drink with a malt and liquorice taste that is supposed to mimic the positive effects of alcohol.

Meanwhile, a new sparkling cold-brewed tea brand, Saicho, has launched just in time for Dry January. It comes in jasmine, darjeeling and hojicha flavours, all designed to be chilled in a champagne flute – the perfect non-alcoholic alternative if you have a celebration this month.

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