When Steve Byrne’s friend dared him to give up alcohol for the month of January five years ago, Byrne accepted the challenge.
He cleared his calendar of beer-filled social events and doubled down on his CrossFit workouts. He had expected a little sacrifice, but was surprised that he felt so much better.
“I had more energy, and I was proud of myself that I was able to set this goal and achieve it,” says Byrne, 49, a certified public accountant from Corona del Mar. Plus, he lost five pounds.
What started as a personal test has now evolved into an annual self-care ritual to recover from the sins of the season.
Each year, Byrne extends his booze-free lifestyle by two weeks. “I know instinctively that I need to shut it down for a while and give my body a chance to have a little cleanse,” he says.
Every January, we all attempt to give up everything that’s bad for us in a flurry of resolutions and regrets – for a week or so. Now a growing chorus of experts is touting the benefits of abstaining from alcohol for an entire month. So-called “Dry January” is even a public health campaign in the United Kingdom.
“It’s not necessarily for people who think they have a problem. I want people to think of it as a fun experiment, just to see how you feel after 30 days,” says Britta Starke, director of University of North Carolina’s Hospital Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program.
A month gives people’s psyches and brains time to “feel what’s it like without alcohol in your life,” explains Starke. She says the majority of her patients reported improved mood and better sleep, and half say they lost weight. “One week is not going to do it.”
In other words, that’s enough time to encounter a stressful day without a soothing glass of Pinot Noir or a football party without a bucket of beers. “You’ve set up a biochemical expectation that alcohol is going to be the only way you know to relax or go to sleep,” she says. “This throws a monkey wrench into it.”
According to Starke, the most successful candidates identify coping strategies in advance, enlist social support and practice saying “no” at social events. She suggests making a list of things they want to accomplish during this time period, such as taking tennis lessons or exploring local hikes.
To weather initial cravings, Starke suggests increasing cardiovascular exercise to help your brain adjust to the lack of alcohol. And beware of a sudden sweet tooth. “That’s your brain craving glucose because you’re not giving it alcohol,” she says.
The DIY sobriety isn’t designed for heavy drinkers, cautions Dr. Ramon Bataller, associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “If you stop completely, you can go into a coma, have a stroke or experience withdrawal symptoms,” he says. However, moderate drinkers who temporarily abstain can expect better blood pressure and liver function and fewer headaches.
Although a 2016 British study of more than 850 adults who had participated in Dry January reported drinking less overall six months later, Bataller says there’s little data on whether people change their habits in the long run. “The month is just a test to show yourself you’re in control and can give it up, rather than a strategy to stop drinking forever,” says Bataller. “The ultimate goal is to have a healthy alcohol intake.” (That’s one drink per day for women and two for men, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
This year, Byrne plans to welcome back wine into his life on May 1. He surprises himself when he goes longer every year. “It’s hard at first, but when I get into a streak, I think, ‘I could do another month,’ ” he says. “But then I remember, I like to drink.”
Here are tips for getting through the month:
My husband and I do it together. We fill our month with healthy activities in advance and say no to parties where everyone’s drinking. Instead of nightclubs and birthday parties, we plan hikes on Saturday or yoga workshops on Friday night.
--Lizzie Brown, co-founder of the Yoga Wake Up app, Culver City
If I’m in a social situation, I order a Perrier with lime or lemon. I like having something to hold, and no one really knows whether it’s a cocktail or not. Plus it feels refreshing and cocktail-like.
--Elizabeth Borsting, founder of Dine Out Long Beach, Long Beach
I decided to adopt this as a beverage-free month. I drink only water. This means that I am not tempted by anything else. Why? Because it isn’t as if alcohol is the only drink I am not drinking. [This rule] goes for everything, and that helps to keep me grounded and on track.
--Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, Van Nuys
Instead of going out, I have game and movie nights with friends at my place. Swap your alcohol for another habit, whether it’s Kombucha, La Croix, tea or even a new workout or meditation.
--Ashley Lennington, publicist, Konnect Agency, Los Angeles