Dry January – what is it, what are the benefits and how can I get started?

If you’re looking for a way to boost your mental and physical health, and save money – then giving up the booze for a month could be a helpful way to kick start the New Year. The events of the last year have seen many people using alcohol as a way to cope; with over half of UK drinkers turning to drink for mental health reasons (Alcohol Change UK). This, coupled with the usual January blues (and the fact that lots of us drank much more than usual over the Christmas period!), could make this the ideal month to give our bodies a break from alcohol, and to explore new, healthier habits and coping mechanisms.

Each year, many people across the UK experience powerful benefits as a result of Dry January – a public health campaign, designed to encourage people to live completely alcohol-free for 31 days. This short-term change has the potential to make for some life-changing long-term benefits, with over 70% of people continuing to make healthier drinking choices when the challenge is over. While many people start Dry January on the 1st, you can start your 31 days at any time to start reaping the benefits.

Here, we’ll explain more about where the idea for Dry January came from, what the benefits are, and how you can get started.

Where did the idea for Dry January come from?

In January 2011, Emily Robinson signed up for her first half marathon, which was to take place in February. To aid her training, she gave up alcohol for the entire month, and found that she lost weight, slept better and had more energy to run. Many people around her were inspired by her actions, and wanted to know more about the positive lifestyle changes she’d made.

A year later, Emily joined Alcohol Change UK (the UK’s leading alcohol charity), and gave up alcohol again in January. This time, even more people wanted to talk to her about her experience – which sparked many different discussions about the benefits of giving up drinking completely for a month.

Then in 2013, the first Dry January public health campaign was launched by Alcohol Change UK, and 4,000 people signed up. Since then, awareness of the campaign and its benefits have grown, with over 100,000 people signing up and 4 million people taking part in 2020.

Who are Alcohol Change UK, and what is their mission?

Alcohol Change UK is the UK’s leading alcohol charity. The charity highlights that alcohol has become a large part of many of our lives, whether we intended that to be the case of not. This is because many of us turn to alcohol to celebrate, to find comfort, to wind down after a long day, and to cope with life’s challenges. Alcohol is also treated differently to many other drugs because it tends to be socially acceptable (and even encouraged), and is perfectly legal – however, despite this, one person in the UK dies every hour as a result of alcohol.

Alcohol Change UK emphasizes how destructive alcohol abuse can be, not only to an individual drinker, but to the families, friends and communities, associated with that individual. The charity is not anti-alcohol, but aims to create a future where drinking alcohol is a conscious choice, not a default. This means tackling issues that could lead to alcohol abuse, like mental health issues, poverty and homelessness, by providing high-quality support to anyone that needs it.

What are the benefits of taking part in Dry January?

More and more people are signing up to take part in Dry January every year after hearing about the experiences of those who have improved their mental, physical and financial wellbeing, by giving up alcohol for a month.

Alcohol Change UK report that:

  • 65% of people notice an improvement in their general health
  • 70% of people sleep better
  • 86% of people save money

Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2018 also found that having an alcohol-free month can reduce the risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce levels of cancer-related proteins in the blood.

Alcohol Change UK are also keen to highlight the long-term benefits that Dry January can have on a person, both mentally and physically. Research has shown that 70% of people who take part in Dry January continue making healthier drinking choices after the challenge is over, and have improved levels of wellbeing.

This is because going without alcohol for 31 days can allow us to see that we don’t need it to relax, have fun or socialise, and gives us the opportunity to explore other, healthier methods of coping. Doing this can help us to feel better equipped to make decisions about when they drink and how much, throughout the rest of the year. This can help us to avoid turning to drink as a default at certain times in our lives when we don’t really want to drink, but feel it’s the only option.

Alcohol is linked to 60+ health conditions, including depression, seven types of cancer, liver disease and high blood pressure. It also carries the biggest risk-factor for death, disability and illness and people aged 15-49 in the UK. This makes the benefits of reducing our long-term alcohol consumption, huge – as it can help to lower our risk of developing any of these conditions.

How can I tell if I’m drinking too much?

The UK’s Chief Medical Officers have said that it’s safest not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread over three or more days, or with a few days off. The number of units in a drink is determined by its strength and size – for example, a pint of lager contains three units.

To find out more about what alcohol units and how to work out whether the amount you’re drinking is healthy, have a read of this guide on units from the NHS. Or for more information on the current drinking guidelines, you might want to read this page from Alcohol Change UK.

You can also check how healthy your drinking is by taking this quiz here.

Important note!

If you have become dependent on alcohol, then it’s important that you do not stop drinking suddenly, as this can be incredibly dangerous, and can lead to symptoms such as seizures, depression and hand tremors. If you’re concerned about your dependency on alcohol and need some help and support with getting this under control, then it’s important to speak to your GP who will be able to get you the help needed to cut down your alcohol consumption safely.

Even if you feel that you are not dependent on alcohol, but are at risk of becoming dependent, and feel that you might need some extra help cutting back, it’s also worth speaking to your GP about the help that might be available.

How can I get started with Dry January?

You can take part in the month-long Dry January challenge without the help and support of Alcohol Change UK. However, many people find that downloading the Dry January app for iOS or Android, and/or signing up for free coaching emails, can help them to stay motivated.

Downloading the free Try Dry app can help with accountability – as you’ll be able to track your calories and units, and see exactly how much money you’re saving. As you make progress, you’ll also be rewarded with badges, and will have the opportunity to set yourself goals and track your progress, even after the 31 days of the challenge are over. While Dry January is popular in the first month of the year, you can also start your alcohol-free month any time, and the app offers a great year-round support system.

Download the app for Android

Download the app for iOS

If you wanted to stay connected to the Dry January community, by hearing stories from others, and getting daily updates and tips, then you might also find it useful to sign up to receive free coaching emails. These emails can help you to feel part of the larger movement (which is great for motivation), and remind you why you started the challenge in the first place. You can either sign up for these via the app – or, if you’d rather not download the app, and you’d like to receive emails only, you can sign up for these here.

It’s also worth noting that while going booze-free can be challenging even under ‘normal’ circumstances, the stress, anxiety and boredom brought on by the current climate can make this year’s Dry January feel different from other years. To get tips and advice on how to undertake Dry January in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty, you might want to read this guide from Alcohol Change UK. Or to get some inspiration by hearing from people who took part in the challenge last year, have a read of this page here.

A final thought...

With another lockdown upon us, 2021 hasn’t gotten off to the start that many of us were hoping for. And while there’s nothing that we can do about the ever-changing guidelines, and how quickly our lives return to ‘normal’ – what we can control is how we choose to look after ourselves day to day. Dry January might not be easy, but the short and long-term health benefits are incredibly powerful, and at a time when our health is taking centre stage, there’s never been a better time to start making positive lifestyle changes.

However, it’s worth noting that while Dry January can be a great way to kick off a healthier New Year, if you’re concerned about the amount you’re drinking, or feel that you have become dependent on alcohol, then it’s important to have a chat with your GP. You should never stop drinking suddenly if you have an alcohol dependency, as this can have dangerous consequences for your physical and/or mental health.

There are also a number of organisations that can offer you help and support if you’re looking to quit or cut down on drinking, including Alcoholics Anonymous, whose helpline is open 24/7 on 0800 9177 650, or Drinkline, (a free, confidential helpline for anyone who is concerned about their drinking, or someone else’s) who you can contact on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm). Or for more information, help and support you might want to have a read of this page from Alcohol Change UK.

Are you taking part in Dry January? Or perhaps you’re considering starting it soon? Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

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