Dry January: a recipe for a February binge?

Maddy Lawson | January 2019 | 7 minutes

This year's favourite Dry January criticism: “We should drink in moderation all year round, not cut out the booze for a month and binge in February.”

Those critics are right; year-round moderation is certainly much, much healthier than cutting out alcohol for a month and bingeing on either side. And the idea of the post-Dry January binge makes sense, right? After a month without something you enjoy, you can imagine wanting to run straight back to it, dive in, drenched with pride and smugness at a whole month booze-free and eager to give your renewed liver a workout.

The thing is, that’s not what actually happens.

Let’s start with the evidence: research by the University of Sussex with over 800 Dry January participants shows that, even six months after Dry January, participants are drinking less. In fact:

  • drinking days fell on average from 4.3 to 3.3 per week;
  • units consumed per drinking day dropped on average from 8.6 to 7.1;
  • frequency of being drunk dropped from 3.4 per month to 2.1 per month on average.

That confirms research published in 2015 which found that six months after Dry January 72% of participants are still drinking less riskily than they were before they started the challenge.

(We’re not resting on our laurels; the long-term impact of Dry January is what matters to us at Alcohol Change UK, so this year we’ve funded independent research with a control group to further investigate.)

Research by the University of Sussex with over 800 Dry January participants shows that, even six months after Dry January, participants are drinking less.

But why does Dry January work to change behaviour? How can just four weeks alcohol-free make a difference long-term?

Starting Dry January is tough for lots of people. For the first week, or even few weeks, breaking ingrained habits can be a real struggle. There are cravings to contend with. Then there are all of the events and moments that might usually be met with a drink that can’t be: nights out; social awkwardness; stress; boredom; happy news; birthdays; nights in; afternoons at the pub. Getting through all of those for the first time without a drink can be hard. Some people slip up and do have a drink – it’s pretty normal.

But if you push through – come back from cravings and slip ups and keep on trying – you end up having a month where alcohol isn’t your go-to solution and pastime. You have a month when you have fun, relax, socialise, party – all without a drink in your hand. You have a month of no hangovers. A month of trying new things. A month when you sleep better, have more energy, your skin glows, you save money.

You have a month when you realise that you don’t need alcohol.

That realisation is a powerful thing. It means that for the rest of the year having a drink can be a choice – not a default. Dry January gives you the skills and the will you need to turn down the drinks that would be too much, or you just don’t fancy. You might, in fact, find yourself fancying rather fewer drinks as you want to carry on getting those brilliant Dry January benefits.

The long and short of it is that Dry January isn’t about January. Sure, the benefits during the month are great – who among us wouldn’t welcome a bit more money in our pockets and less Paracetamol on our bedside table? – but it’s the benefits that last us all year round that make the real difference to our health and happiness.