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Dry January: What Happens to Your Body When You Give Up Alcohol?

Updated: Jan 5


wine

First, I'd like to share a little story. I enjoy a nice glass of wine. It relaxes me and I like the flavor. Sipping on wine is also a part of my social culture. I realized how much I depended on wine in social settings when I first participated in a dry month in 2021. There were definitely some FOMO feelings and awkward moments while everyone else was drinking. (Keep reading to learn how I managed these social situations.)

 

However, in my 40’s, I was also realizing how much wine was affecting my physical and mental health. To put it in perspective, I would have been classified as a moderate drinker. According to the CDC, a light drinker is someone who consumes less than 3 drinks a week. A moderate drinker consumes between 3 and 7 drinks a week. For me, I was consuming 1–2 glasses of wine 2–3 times a week, therefore a moderate drinker.

 

It was that second glass of wine that did it to me. My inherent anxiety would rear its ugly head, irritability would skyrocket, and energy levels would plummet. All I would want to do was sleep … and eat arugula. True story. I would binge on a bowl of arugula after a night of drinking because I craved that peppery bitter taste. It's strange, I know, but I guess it was my natural detox mechanisms kicking in. 

 

My eyes would be sunken and skin dull (probably in part due to dehydration as well as nutrient-depleting effects of alcohol). My productivity levels were so bad that I would just write off the day as a day lost (what a waste when life is so short!).

 

My brain just wouldn’t work — memory, recall and critical thinking were nil. Most importantly, I wasn’t fully present and connected with people I love because I just wasn’t physically and mentally feeling well.


Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a daily thing. It was more of a weekend thing. But, after years of enjoying wine, a lightbulb moment surfaced — why am I consuming something that makes me feel so awful while also striving to consume food (plants!) and do things (yoga!) that make me feel so good. It just didn't make sense. 

 

I decided to first ditch alcohol in November 2021 in preparation for my parents coming to town over Thanksgiving. Because they live in NJ and we live in Atlanta, moments together are special and less frequent than we’d like. Therefore, I didn’t want the after effects of alcohol to cause me to miss even one minute of our four days together. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy at first, especially when wine is a symbolism of celebration in my family. But I made it through Thanksgiving then through the Christmas holiday and, before I knew if, that one month led to three months.

 

What kept me going was the energy, focus, positive mindset, and productivity I was experiencing from not only not drinking alcohol, but also from drinking healing beverages in its place. One huge factor was my sleep, which greatly improved, ultimately benefiting every aspect of my life. Sipping on alternative nurturing beverages that took the place of alcohol became habitual and the feel-good mornings were addictive, in the best way.

 

Now, I haven’t completely given up alcohol. I give myself some grace when I want a glass of wine since I do enjoy the flavor of particular wines (especially the Spanish varieties!). If there is an opportunity to experience a wine tasting, I may partake in it as I really enjoy the experience. However, I limit it to a few sips of a few different varieties rather than several ounces of many varieties. It’s the best of all worlds as I’m still partaking in an activity I really enjoy, but without the physical and mental effects that I used to experience.

 

The most valuable outcome I noticed after those three months of abstaining from alcohol was that I had a much greater awareness of when I really wanted a drink and when I didn’t want a drink. Prior to taking that challenge, I would drink in any social setting and drink whatever wine was on hand, just because it was the thing to do.

 

Now, I pause. I consider whether or not I truly want an alcoholic drink or if tea or seltzer water would feel more nourishing to me at that moment. I learned, through the three-month challenge, that I not only could make it through a social setting without a drink, but actually felt even better by not drinking. I was more present and connected when I didn’t have a drink. Abstaining from alcohol brought a certain level of awareness and conscious intentional decision making around drinking. It naturally fostered a level of mindfulness and empowerment that I had never before experienced.

 

While ditching the drinks may be tough at first, the heightened awareness, more presence, more physical and mental energy levels, and better connections, both with myself and others, was worth the challenge of moving through those first few weeks.

 

I'm sharing this in case you experience similar effects from alcohol or are just curious what refraining from alcohol might do for you. Keep reading to learn how shunning the spirits can improve your physical and mental health, and get some tips on going alcohol free for the month of January.

 

First, what’s wrong with alcohol?

mojito

Just to be clear, this is not about shaming anyone for drinking. I do know a couple of folks who have never had an alcoholic beverage in their life and, wow — I think it's pretty awesome! However, most of us have had a beverage (or a few!) in our lifetime and may still enjoy beverages during socializing or after a long day. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness around the effects of alcohol, foster inspiration for going alcohol free (at least for a month!), and provide tips on how to do it successfully.


Years ago, there was a thought that a glass of wine was good for your health. It’s true that the resveratrol and other antioxidant compounds in wine are beneficial, but you can get the same benefit from a bowl of grapes. A 2023 headline published on the WHO website reads, “No Level of Alcohol Consumption is Safe for Our Health.”

 

Here is something to ponder — alcohol is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a class I carcinogen.  This means that there's enough research to show that alcohol ranks as high as tobacco, asbestos, and radiation in causing cancer. That's pretty shocking! 


Alcohol is responsible for more than seven types of cancer, including bowel and breast cancer. In fact, recent research shows that more than half of the attributable cancers (including breast cancer) in the European Union are caused by light to moderate drinking. As if that’s not enough to make you think before you drink…

 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 diseases and injuries. Alcohol use disorder is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Alcohol consumption has been linked to high blood pressure, stroke, weight gain, fatty liver, poor digestion, dementia, depression, anxiety, and weakened immune system. And, that’s the short list!

 

What is Dry January?


January is a time of starting fresh with a clean slate, as a new year can spark inspiration and motivation to create healthier habits. One campaign that aligns with healthy habits and has gained momentum over the years is Dry January, created and led by Alcohol Change UK with a goal to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol. The campaign, promoting abstinence from alcohol, was created for the large numbers of individuals who steadily drink, perhaps a bit too much or too often, without realizing the harmful effects it may have on their physical and mental health. Maybe you enjoy a wind-down drink every night after work or drink casually when out with friends. Or maybe you sometimes find yourself enjoying that extra glass of wine that leads to a terrible morning after. According to Alcohol Change UK and recent research, sober-curious casual drinkers who have participated in Dry January have experienced immense physical and mental health benefits after ditching the alcohol for just one month.

 

The 31-day Dry January Challenge sets out to create a total body and mind reset.


Thousands of sober-curious drinkers across the U.S. participate in the challenge every year. Participants have reported better sleep, improved mood, financial savings, more time, and better skin and hair. And it’s not just anecdotal evidence that will give you incentive to go dry in January.

 

A 2022 study found that a one-month break from alcohol in challenges like Dry January and Sober October may improve various aspects of a drinker's health from blood pressure to liver enzyme values to mental health and quality of life.

 

Another study involved over 4000 adults who participated in Dry January. The subjects completed a baseline questionnaire and a one-month follow-up questionnaire, showing that participation in Dry January was associated with increases in well-being.

 

What’s more, things don’t just improve for that month. Follow up research shows that Dry January is effective for long-term behavior change and healthy habits. The University ofSussex found that 72% of participants had sustained reduced levels of harmful drinking (drinking over recommended limits) six months after completing just one month with no alcohol.

 

Below are ten benefits you may notice when ditching drinking for the month of January:

 

Younger-looking skin

lemon water

Alcohol dehydrates you and one of the first places it may show up is your skin. Dehydration can zap your skin's moisture and elasticity, leading to saggy, dry, and dull skin. Sure, you can drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage, but alcohol is also inflammatory and can lead to inflammatory conditions if you’re prone to them, like rosacea and psoriasis.

 

What to drink instead: Skip the alcohol and sip on hydrating water infused with cucumber, mint or lemon to notice dramatic differences in your skin at the end of the night.

 

Improved brain health

brain health

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and makes it harder to do simple things like balance, speak, memorize, and make sound judgement calls. Drinking alcohol is linked to reduced volume of the brain's white matter (the part of your brain that helps communication). Alcohol consumption above recommended limits (2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less a day for women) over a long period of time may shrink the parts of the brain involved in memory and thinking skills. Long-term drinking can also result in vitamin B1 deficiency, which can affect short-term memory.

 

What to drink instead: Try a nootropic beverage, like green, gingko or ginseng tea, which may promote brain health.

 

Weight management

spritzer

Alcoholic drinks are often referred to as “empty” calories because they provide lots of calories in exchange for very little, or no, nutrients. There are almost 155 calories in one 12-ounce can of beer, and 125 calories in a 5-ounce glass of red wine. A night out with several drinks can lead to consuming a few hundred extra calories. Mixed drinks that include simple syrup or soda contain even more calories. What’s more these sugary drinks can wreak havoc on the gut microbiome, negatively impacting metabolism even further.

 

When alcohol is consumed, it’s burned first as a fuel source, which means anything consumed along with alcohol has a greater chance of being stored as fat.

 

Finally, alcohol affects decision making, including decisions around food. You’re more likely to opt for salty fatty French fries over a nourishing salad while consuming alcohol.

 

What to drink instead: Sip a fiber- and nutrient-rich smoothie instead (great for weight management and gut health!). To create a festive mocktail experience, swap out traditional soda-based beverages with a fun-flavored OLIPOP soda that only has 2–5 grams of sugar per serving and a whopping 9 grams of fiber and phytonutrients that your gut will love! (Compare OLIPOP to traditional soda, which has up to 40 grams of sugar and zero fiber or phytonutrients – yikes!)


Boosted mood and less anxiety

pineapple juice

Alcohol is a psychoactive substance, radically changing the way you think and feel. While it may help you feel good in the moment, the long-lasting effects of alcohol can be detrimental, contributing to low mood, anxiety and depression. Part of this has to do with your “happy” neurotransmitters called dopamine and serotonin. Drinking makes your body produce extra dopamine and serotonin, leading you to feel extra happy. To compensate, your body stops making your own production of these neurotransmitters. In essence, you disrupt your own internal mechanisms for creating happy feelings. What’s more, long term alcohol consumption can lower blood sugar and increase dehydration. All of these factors are a recipe for anxiety and feelings of depression.

 

What to drink instead: Sip on serotonin-boosting beverages, like pineapple juice + seltzer water or warm pistachio milk with cinnamon spice.

 

More energy

green tea

Alcohol can make you physically and mentally drowsy, especially if it affects your sleep. Not only is alcohol devoid of protein, healthy fat, vitamins and minerals, but it can deplete essential nutrients, like, B1, B12, and zinc, that support energy production. What’s more, the dehydrating effects of alcohol can zap your energy.

 

What to drink instead: Sip on energizing green tea instead.

 

Strong immune system

golden milk

Alcohol can weaken your immune system, increasing your susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections by reducing antibodies to fight infection. Another way alcohol impacts your immune system is by disrupting your gut microbiome, where 70% of your immune system lives.

 

What to drink instead: Sip on golden milk with healing turmeric and spices, which can support your immune system.

 

Better sleep

tea

Alcohol may help you fall asleep quickly, but it also leads to sleep disturbances, lower less slow wave sleep (deep sound sleep), more periods of wakefulness, and more rapid eye movement. Poor sleep can result in various issues, including mood changes, poor food choices, less productivity and, long term, lifestyle diseases.

 

What to drink instead: Sip on chamomile or lavender tea an hour before bedtime for sleep support.

 

Long term disease prevention   

mocktail

Alcohol use is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, increased risk of diabetes, and increased risk of cancer, as mentioned above. Reduce your risk of all lifestyle diseases when you ditch the drink and opt for healthier alternatives.

 

What to drink instead: Make a mocktail that fights disease with antioxidant-rich ingredients, like Pomegranate Sangria or a Blackberry Mojito Mocktail.

 

More productivity

matcha latte

If you consider all of the above — better sleep, more brain power, more physical energy, and happier feelings — then you have a formula for productivity, whether it’s personal or professional.

 

To support productivity even further: Sip on a matcha latte or my personal favorite tea, Energy Mate.  

 

Costs savings

water

Try this simple activity: Consider all of the alcoholic beverages you consume in a week. Perhaps you enjoy a drink at home or order a drink or two when eating out. How often do you do this each week and what is the average cost? Multiply that number by four to get your cost savings per month.

 

What to drink instead: Water. It’s free!

 

 

Tips for going dry in January:

 

1.    Identify why you choose alcohol. Do you socially drink? Is drinking a part of your unwind routine after a long day? Do you drink when you’re stressed? Identify why you drink and see what healthy habits you can replace with drinking this month (and beyond!). For example, if you drink when you’re stressed, perhaps exercising or taking a yoga class would be a healthier alternative. If you drink to unwind, maybe a meditation or treating yourself to a good movie would be a better alternative to drinking.

2.    Tell friends and family. Give them a heads up so they know what to expect (and don’t pester you to drink!). Who knows, maybe they’ll join you!

3.    Find a Dry January buddy. Join a community or ask a friend if they want to join you in the challenge. This helps with accountability while also providing support.

4.    Make a plan. This is especially helpful when you’re planning to socialize. Bring your own tea or plan to order seltzer water and cranberry juice. Whatever the situation, make a plan and stick to it. (Thinking about that great morning-after feeling will give you incentive to stick with your plan.)

5.    BYOT: Bring your own tea. I’m that person who walks into a restaurant with my own tea tumbler if I know I want to abstain from drinking. Restaurants often offer tea but sometimes they’re limited in their options. Or, bring your own tea bag and ask for hot water and a mug. There are so many delicious, healing teas and adorable tea tumblers on the market, making tea drinking way more fun than alcohol. :-)

6.    Be intentional: Check out our article on mindfulness to see how it can benefit everyday food and beverage choices, especially when it comes to choosing alcohol free. Practicing mindfulness can help you be more intentional when it comes to making the decision to abstain from alcohol and choose a healthier alternative.

 

The real magic happens when Dry January is over. Dry January helps people to choose healthy beverages year-round. Research has found that six months after Dry January, people are still choosing healthier beverages. It may be the improved mental well-being, better sleep, and realization that you don’t need alcohol to have fun, relax, or socialize that charges that continued motivation. Moving through life without alcohol, or minimal alcohol, can help you develop healthy habits that naturally support your happiness, as well as your physical and mental well-being. 


Have you participated in Dry January or Sober October? What was your experience? Please share in the comments below!

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