After indulging over the holidays, the New Year, for some, is a chance to reset. And over the past few years, something called Dry January – abstaining from alcohol for the month – has become an increasingly popular ritual in a culture where “wellness” is all the rage.
But more and more people are thinking they might extend their Dry January into later in the year – and there may be solid reasons to do so.
Professor Kim Fromme, director of the Studies on Alcohol, Health, and Risky Activities Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, joined Texas Standard to share some guidance on the practice, as well as practical steps for reducing alcohol use.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s talk a little bit about recent drinking trends in the U.S. I know that we saw an increase in Americans’ alcohol consumption during the pandemic, but at the same time, we’ve been hearing about how a lot of brewers are making alcohol-free beverages and they can’t keep up with demand for it. What have you noticed about drinking habits right now?
Kim Fromme: Well, both are true. There was definitely a spike in drinking during the pandemic, quite a bit of increase likely related to social isolation, stress and anxiety about COVID. And we’ve seen continued anxiety regarding things like the economy. And I think that’s led to people reevaluating their relationship with alcohol. And Dry January – or what I’ve been hearing more of, “Drier” January – is an opportunity for that.
What do you make of that increased cultural interest in things like Dry, or Drier, January? And sober-curious, that’s another term we hear a lot – people not necessarily swearing off alcohol altogether, but making an effort to reduce their consumption. What seems to be driving that?
Well, I think the initial wave was, as you pointed out, Dry January. And I think that was a reflection of people overindulging during the holidays and, you know, having weight gain and potentially other negative consequences and an effort to compensate for that. And I think there’s just become a greater awareness about the potential dangers of overdrinking. And people are trying to find ways to not completely abstain, but to reduce their consumption.
In just talking casually with friends and folks, I find that for some, this is a matter of trying to sort of making sure that they remain in control of their life. They don’t want alcohol to be too much of a component of it, which makes good sense. But I’m curious, are there measurable health benefits to the short-term elimination of alcohol, whether you’re talking Dry January or maybe any other time of the year where you decide, okay, over this particular period of time, I’m going to abstain?
Yes, it’s an opportunity to reset the body, both in terms of maybe weight loss, reducing tolerance, giving the liver a break from processing alcohol, I think are all definite health benefits.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t attempt something like a Dry January – perhaps someone who has alcohol use disorder? And how does one make such a determination for themselves?
Well, that’s correct. Those with serious alcohol use disorders may need medically assisted detoxification. It’s an evaluation best done by medical professionals. But one can also consider their own drinking in accordance with the World Health Organization and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, [which have] have set standards for recommended and problematic alcohol use. But that’s really not going to tell you whether or not you need medically assisted detoxification.
Are there any potential negative consequences to a Dry January?
Well, there are: If you happen to break the promise to yourself to abstain, you could end up feeling bad about yourself. This was first talked about by Alan Marlatt in the 1980s, and it’s called the Abstinence Violation Effect. So when you’ve made a vow to abstain and you have one slip, you just give up completely. You know, “I blew it.” And then you’re back to a heavy drinking pattern, which is why I recommend moderation as a goal and Drier January versus attempting a Dry January with a potential failure, like many of us do with our New Year’s resolutions.
What are some practical steps one can take if they want to reduce or eliminate alcohol use altogether? What would you recommend?
That’s a great question and one I’ve spent a large part of my career focusing on starting in graduate school, and we’ve come up with some pretty good ideas, I think:
– Set limits for yourself: So you can set limits in terms of the number of drinks or perhaps set specific days or times that you will and will not drink.
– Choose lower alcohol-content beverages: beer or wine versus liquor, or some of the no alcohol content beverages
– Pace your drinking: Use awareness of your drinking to pace it and to also alternate alcohol with water or other nonalcoholic beverages.
Those have been proven strategies to help people limit or moderate their drinking.