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Dry January

DRY — Did you complete dry January? Is not drinking alcohol in January beneficial and whether it is or isn’t, can we ever maintain a healthy approach to enjoying wine, spirits and beer.

By STEVE DAWSON

Did not drinking alcohol in January work for you? 

Dry January has never been something I’ve taken to. Plenty of people around me have however, much to my chagrin. 

I look forward to seeing the people whom 55 years of experience tells me will make my evening entertaining, enlightening and memorable. Rarely do such evenings not involve a good bottle of wine, a refreshing ale or a swanky cocktail or two. I’ve therefore faced numerous Januarys in disappointment as the people around me decline my invitation because they’re abstaining for the entire month.

It’s for this reason that I’ve never tried it myself. I’m certainly very concerned about excesses and health-related issues, but a blanket ban seems unpleasant, inconvenient and draconian for someone with my consumption profile.

10 months ago my doctor said I had mildly fatty liver and that drinking alcohol was probably a contributor to the condition. I asked him what a ‘safe’ level of consumption was and he gave me the standard reply of 14 units a week. I’m quite an obsessive person about numbers and schedules and plans etc., so I figured out what that actually meant in terms of wine (my main tipple) and dedicated myself to first of all establishing whether I was exceeding that (using facts rather than any biased perception).

Every day for several weeks I kept a diary. I took a view about strict weekly limits, such that if I exceeded one week, I would have to ease off in the following seven days. But my bon vivant tendencies also told me that if I was under my quota and the opportunity arose next week to go a little overboard, I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. As long as I stayed within the weekly limit on a rolling average basis, I figured it would be ok.

The first few weeks went by quite well. I tended to cut out the glasses that weren’t tied to a social engagement, for example, not partaking in a bottle of wine that might be opened on a Saturday night at home. But I only did that if I had a nice dinner or two the following week and therefore needed some leeway with my allowance. 

This worked quite well and I actually enjoyed the idea that I was making some progress. But before long, once a reasonable sample of data had been taken, I found that my natural consumption was leaving me with such a large quantity carried forward to each Monday, that my allowance became well in excess of 14 units a week. I was essentially giving myself a healthful excuse to drink in excess. 

Not long after that I ditched the diary and went back to drinking without counting, nonetheless keeping an overview of what might tip me over the healthy edge.

Being mindful of your consumption is certainly to be recommended, but is a dry January good for you in the short term, in a way that endures or is it simply a satisfying (if agonising) way to arrest your guilty concerns?

First of all, many dry Januarys become sponsored events, with charitable organisations the ultimate beneficiary. If that’s your approach, totally go for it!

But if it’s all about you and your wellbeing, then what?

Dr Gautam Mehta, a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, co-authored a paper on the benefits of periods of abstinence such as dry January and spoke about it to the BBC.

“Our work has shown that a month off alcohol, in healthy individuals drinking at moderate to high levels, does lead to tangible health benefits by the end of the month. Our study saw a weight loss of around 2kg, a decrease in blood pressure of around 5%, and improvement in diabetes risk of almost 30%. We also noted large decreases in blood growth factors that are linked to certain cancers. However, we don’t know how long these benefits last, or whether they translate to long-term improvements in health.”

While the long term benefits are unclear, there is some evidence that drinking behaviour can change over the longer term. 

“At six to eight months after dry January, the proportion of participants drinking at harmful levels decreased by about 50%. It may be that participating in dry January allows individuals to ‘reset’ their relationship with alcohol,” says Marcus Munafò, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol.

Professor Munafò says that a lot of people report sleeping better. If that is indeed the case and people can detect a causational relationship between sleep and abstinence, that may be incentive enough to cut back.

“I think it would help everyone if there was a more robust evaluation of what goes on after dry January,” said Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health and addiction at the University of York in an interview with The Guardian. He said he’s very sceptical about whether such campaigns could really help people reset their alcohol relationship, as they often claim to. 

“The millions of people who sign up to it are the millions of people who probably don’t have that great a problem with alcohol so they find it relatively easy,” he added.

Hamilton added that there was an additional risk that those who had given up booze for a month might then over-indulge in February. “At a drop of a hat I would scrap dry January in favour of people abstaining for two days a week – I think that would be far, far better,” he said.

I like that idea better, and it has a far less jarring impact on my social life.

Singapore-based Steve Dawson is a seasoned sports journalist and broadcaster who has covered thousands of sporting events at arenas, in studios and hunkered down in commentary booths.
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