If the bars look a bit emptier this month, it may be because more people are trading happy hour for Dry January.
The tradition, in which people abstain from alcohol for the entire month, is growing in popularity. In 2022, almost one in five US adults said they would give Dry January a try, up from 13 percent the year before. An estimate 8.8 million people in the UK, where the movement originated 10 years ago, said they planned to participate this year, according to the charity behind the movement. In 2013, that number was just 4,000. Temporary sobriety is contagious, and studies show that pushing away the bottle for a month does have immediate health benefits. But whether the health benefits last—or reach those most in need—remains unclear.
“This concept, that it’s a one-month detox or spring clean that gets you ready for the rest of the year, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that,” says Gautam Mehta, an associate professor in hepatology at University College London who has studied the effects of month-long sobriety. “But people do seem to get more of an understanding with their own relationship with alcohol and what they want to do with their relationship with drinking for the rest of the year.”
In 2018 study Mehta worked on following a group of moderate drinkers who went sober for a month and compared them to a control group that kept up their old habits. The most noticeable benefits for the nondrinkers include better sleep and weight loss. They also experienced more subtle effects; their blood pressure fell and their biomarkers for insulin resistance improved, an indicator of decreased risk for developing diabetes.
And some people say a sober month does help them to cut back overall. In 2019, University of Sussex researchers analyzed a survey filled out by several thousand people. They found 59 percent of respondents reported drinking less six months after Dry January, and 32 percent said they were in better physical health. However, only about 38 percent of people who started the survey followed up at the six-month mark.
Still, taking only a short break does not necessarily give the body time to fully recover from the effects of drinking. That’s what two British doctors, who are also identical twins, showed when they carried out their own experiment in 2015. (Mehta provided expertise in the experiment, which aired as an episode of BBC’s Horizon.) They each spent one month sober, and tests showed they had identical healthy livers. Then, they spent a month drinking 21 units of alcohol weekly, the recommended limit for men in the UK. There was a difference in how they got the job done: One drank three units (about one large glass of wine) every day for a month, and the other drank only once a week, but binged all 21 units. At the end of the month, both had increased liver inflammation. For the binging twin, it was clear that even taking six days off between binges was not enough time for the organ to fully heal.