Why Dry January May Be the Health Boost Moderate Drinkers Need in 2021

“Quarantinis” and “Zoom happy hours” may have been popular in 2020, but in the new year, some are resolving to put their drinking behind them – at least for the month of January. This health trend, known as “Dry January,” involves abstaining from alcoholic beverages for 31 days and has been around for years, but is especially welcome on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fear and boredom set in for many after recommendations for social distancing were announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaving some Americans reaching for a bottle to comfort themselves or break up the monotony of lockdown. A study by RTI International discovered that survey respondents’ alcohol intake indeed increased between February and April of 2020. Nielsen, a global marketing research firm, similarly found that online alcohol sales soared by 234 percent during April of 2020.

Glimmers of Hope

While there are some concerning statistics about drinking in quarantine, not all of the news is bad. Coronavirus stressors may have caused alcohol consumption to climb in the general population, but this is not the case across the board. A 2020 article from the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs concludes that drinking among college students actually decreased in terms of drinks per day and per week. This change can be attributed in part to students having to leave campus to return home during the pandemic, and for those who remain on campus, fewer opportunities to socialize with alcohol.

Others have also used the lockdown as an opportunity to reevaluate their lifestyle habits, including their drinking. For those with alcohol use disorders, this may have meant checking themselves into rehab to pursue a life in sobriety, but even some moderate drinkers have chosen to cut back to strengthen their well-being. For people who have not already done so, Dry January presents the perfect opportunity to learn to drink in moderation after the month’s end – or abstain from alcohol entirely.

The Advantages of Sobriety in a Pandemic

Refraining from drinking may make all the difference in the face of a deadly public health crisis. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that over time, heavy drinking can impair immune function and irritate the lungs. Those who drink excessively are therefore more susceptible to illnesses, including COVID-19, and can even experience more severe coronavirus symptoms as a result of their excessive alcohol consumption, per the NIAAA. Furthermore, sobriety lessens one’s chances of developing other serious health concerns, such as alcohol poisoning, pancreatitis, liver disease, and strokes. It also greatly reduces the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors and the accidents associated with them.

Because drinking takes such a toll on the mind, sobriety can lead to improved concentration and better decision-making abilities. This clearer thinking can promote more meaningful connections with others rooted in shared interests. Those who do not drink may notice a decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms as well – a welcome change for many in the face of social isolation and other risk factors that threaten mental health. On top of these advantages, abstaining from alcohol has the added bonus of supporting skin and hair health!

A Note for Heavy Drinkers

Make no mistake: Dry January is not intended for those with a serious drinking problem. In fact, for such individuals, quitting alcohol use abruptly on one’s own can be more dangerous than many realize. For this reason, people with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) should strongly consider beginning their recovery process in a medically monitored detox program, where professionals can treat potentially severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures.

People can generally recognize that they have a drinking problem by asking themselves the following questions:

  • “Do I find it difficult to stop drinking once I start?”
  • “Is alcohol interfering with my personal or professional obligations, or has it replaced activities I previously enjoyed?”
  • “Has my alcohol tolerance increased?”
  • “Do I feel withdrawal effects, including nausea, sweating, or restlessness, when I’m not drinking?”
  • “Have loved ones pointed out my excessive drinking?”

For people with alcohol use disorders, sobriety is a necessity and a long-term commitment. But for those who are simply “sober curious,” Dry January is a manageable way to reap the short-term health benefits of abstaining from alcohol and determine whether they are willing to commit to lasting change. After a year in which the nation’s collective mental health has suffered, initiatives such as Dry January encourage a much-needed embrace of holistic wellness.