Dry January: Experts explain what a month without alcohol can do for your body, mind

·5-min read
What happens to your body on Dry January? Here's what happens when you stop drinking alcohol for 30 days for Dry January, according to experts. (Photo: Getty)
What happens to your body on Dry January? Here's what happens when you stop drinking alcohol for 30 days for Dry January, according to experts. (Photo: Getty)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

For some people who imbibe, the champagne toast at midnight on New Year’s Eve is the last drop of alcohol they typically touch for the next month. That’s the official start of Dry January, an initiative that was originally started in 2012 by Alcohol Change UK in order to get people to see the mental, physical, and even financial benefits of living without alcohol.

Yet most people who participate in Dry January have no intention of quitting alcohol for good — completing the month-long break is the goal. However, if the point of Dry January is to feel better and be overall healthier, is 30 days (or in January's case, 31) even enough?

Unfortunately, the experts Yahoo Life spoke with all agreed that 30 days isn’t enough time to reset your body after years of drinking regularly. However, there may be other surprising benefits of trying out sobriety in the short term.

According to Dr. George F. Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, participating in Dry January can be a great way to learn more about your drinking habits, which can help you make healthier choices moving forward.

“There are many potential benefits to taking a break from alcohol if done wisely,” Koob tells Yahoo Life. “At the very least, taking a break from alcohol gives a person a chance to evaluate their relationship with alcohol and cultivate alternatives for relaxing, socializing, coping and other reasons why people drink."

It can also shed light on how drinking alcohol affects your physical and mental health. "Some people might discover that their alcohol use was irritating their stomach, disrupting their sleep, contributing to weight gain, interfering with their morning exercise routine, affecting their relationships, or that they relied more on alcohol for stress relief than they thought," says Koob. "Waking up without the fatigue, malaise and other common symptoms of hangovers could potentially improve a person’s quality of life. And for some people the financial savings could be substantial.”

In terms of purely the physical results of Dry January, heavy drinkers may find they see the biggest change, Dr. Tyler Oesterle, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Health System’s Foundation Centers, tells Yahoo Life. “Alcohol is toxic to a lot of organ systems in the body," Oesterle says. "It can affect the liver, pancreas, heart and the nervous system, just to name a few. One month of abstinence, if any of these organ systems are compromised, could improve acute symptoms. For example, if individuals are heavy drinkers and have suffered some liver damage, then abnormalities in their liver enzymes can improve over the first 30 days."

Oesterle adds: "There may also be other improvements for heavy drinkers in the first 30 days depending on the physical impact of their alcohol use. If an individual is a light drinker, the one month abstinence can be used to establish a new abstinence-based habit. However, it is not really enough time to make any significant difference physically for light drinkers.”

Click and scroll in the window below to explore the body after 30 days without alcohol.

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Elective sobriety coach Amanda Kuda agrees that, while 30 days may not be enough time to make any meaningful physical changes, it can be a great start for someone who is sober curious. For those who might worry about the stigma of giving up alcohol, Dry January offers a built-in excuse to be sober, especially after what is most likely the “most intense drinking period of the year,” she says.

Kuda explains that “Dry January is a socially acceptable way to take a step back from alcohol, in a world that’s obsessed with booze. If you live in a place where alcohol is something you’re expected to participate in, Dry January is a perfect opportunity for you to take a step back without anyone questioning your motives. It offers you the opportunity to take a step back and say, ‘Is this something I want to explore further?’ I see 30 days as a great catapult to a longer term change, as well as a short-term break for your body.”

While she notes that people who believe they may have an alcohol dependency should consult with a medical professional before going cold turkey, even for 30 days, overall Kuda thinks Dry January can be “a great opportunity to be observant about our behavior around alcohol.” It might even encourage you to continue the sober experiment past January 31.

“Anyone can do anything for 30 days,” Kuda says, “but that real change in your relationship with alcohol is when you can extend it and see how it goes longer term.”

For those who are looking forward to or are curious about trying out alcohol-free living, even in the short-term, it’s now easier than ever, Kuda says.

“There are so many amazing non-alcoholic alternatives that you probably love to drink right now," Kuda says. "There are non-alcoholic wines, spirits, beers, that come pretty close to the real thing. If you’re looking for something special to enjoy, there are now so many options to make you feel included."

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