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Dry January: What Doctors Need You to Know

What is Dry January?

Between the sparkling excess of the holiday season in December and the romantic booziness of Valentines Day in February, there are a lot of occasions during the winter months to celebrate with an alcoholic beverage or two. Cue Dry January, the season of sobriety. It may not be as exciting as the other holidays but for a lot of people, its an annual tradition as a way to detox, reset, and start the New Year off right.

By the numbers

Why Dry January? Nearly 90 percent of American adults say they drink alcohol, with 55 percent saying they drink once a month or more, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. They also found that over a quarter of adults say that they participated in binge-drinking (drinking four alcoholic beverages for women or five beverages for men, consumed at the same event) during the past month. These stats likely dont even give the full picture as people often under-report how much they really drink.

Who should try Dry January?

Thats a lot of people downing a lot of booze, yet what exactly constitutes a problem with alcohol? Some people have an alcohol use disorder and may be physically dependent on alcohol. For those people, abruptly stopping alcohol can be dangerous and shouldnt be attempted without medical supervision. However, you can still be a problem drinker even if you can stop drinking for extended periods of time, according to Alcohol.org. That said, temporarily stopping drinking, like during Dry January, can help you examine your relationship with alcohol. Lots of people say, I can stop drinking anytime I want but for many people, its easier said than done,says Keith Heinzerling, MD, an internist and addiction medicine specialist at Providence Saint Johns Health Center and the medical director of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine. Dry January can give you a fresh perspective on this, helping you see exactly how much alcohol is playing a role in your life.

You dont have to be an alcoholic for drinking to cause problems

One of the most common myths out there is that unless youre a full-blown alcoholic then theres no need for you to quit drinking, even for a month. The truth is that even light or social drinkers can experience ill effects from drinking and will benefit from a 31-day break, Dr. Heinzerling says. Doing a month-long trial quit is a lot easier to handle mentally for most people than saying theyre going to give up drinking forever, he says.

You may not realize how much drinking is affecting you until you stop

Think that once the hangover wears off and youre feeling normal that your body is back to normal? Not necessarily, says Taylor Graber, MD, an anesthesiologist at the UC San Diego medical school, and founder of ASAP IVs, and who has participated in Dry January for the past three years. He explains that alcohol causes inflammation and has immediate effects on almost every system in your body, from your digestion to your circulation to your brain. This can lead to both short and long-term complications with your physical and mental health. You may not even realize how much its affecting you until you stop for a period of time and Dry January is a great way to do that, he says.

The psychological addiction can be powerful

Drink often enough for long enough and your body will become physically dependent on alcohol to function in your daily life. For most drinkers, however, this isnt the case; rather, they become mentally addicted to drinking, making them psychologically dependent on alcohol to deal with difficult feelings, Dr. Heinzerling says. Dry January is the perfect way to break the habit of using alcohol as a crutch and learn healthier ways to manage your anxiety, feel comfortable in social gatherings, be able to relax after work, and other tricky emotional situations, he says.

Youll see immediate improvements in your health

One of the great things about this challenge is how quickly you can start to see positive health changes, Dr. Heinzerling says. Within just a few days of not drinking youll have lower blood pressure and heart rate, improved blood sugar regulation, better sleep, and less anxiety and depression. Another bonus is that quitting alcohol often makes it easier to start and maintain other good habits, like daily exercise and healthy eating, which in turn leads to even more health benefits, he says.

You will lose weight

Dry January can help you accomplish some of your health-related New Years resolutions, says John La Puma, MD, an internist, author, and co-founder of ChefMD, a company that teaches culinary medicine in medical schools and to the public. Like soda, alcoholic drinks are high in calories, have no nutrition, and they dont fill you up, making it harder to recognize when youre satiated, he explains. When you stop drinking your calories youll find its easier to control your caloric intake. Its not just about the calories; drinking alcohol also makes you hungrier.

It cant fix everything, however

While you will notice some immediate positive effects, know that the damage heavy drinking can do is long-lasting, and some, like liver damage, are permanent, Dr. Graber says. A month of abstinence is likely to decrease inflammation in your body and improve your health, even if a small degree, he says. It wont, however, undo the impact of your alcohol consumption from the rest of the year. Many people who try Dry January decide to reduce their alcohol intake even after the challenge ends in order to improve their health.

Fill up your time with a new hobby

You may be surprised at how much free time you discover you have once youve given up drinking and the activities associated with it, Dr. La Puma says. Use this as an opportunity to learn a new skill or get back to a hobby you love. (If you need ideas he recommends taking a class in healthy cooking, which may continue to improve your health long after the challenge is over.) Not only will you gain knowledge and have fun, but staying busy will keep your mind occupied and help reduce the temptation to drink, he says.

Plan sober events

One of the biggest challenges of doing an alcohol fast is how it changes your social interactions, something Dr. Graber said hes experienced personally. Alcohol permeates into so many of the activities we do, without even noticing it. For instance, bowling, dinner out, happy hour, and barbecues all usually involve alcohol in some facet, and it will feel different, even awkward, to do some of them without a casual drink in your hand, he says. The solution is to plan activities with your friends that dont revolve around alcohol. Consider telling some friends about your goal or asking them to join you in Dry January; group support can make all the difference in your success, he adds.

Start drinking again slowly

It seems like every week theres a new study out either claiming health benefits or harm from drinking alcohol and it can give you whiplash trying to figure out whats best for your health. The poison is in the dose, Dr. Graber says. Many of the studies showing possible health benefits are looking at low doses; the problem is that low dose alcohol can easily lead to moderate or high intake, and these health benefits can quickly be outweighed by the harms. So if youve noticed your drinking creeping up over time, doing Dry January can help reset how much you drink, he says. So if you do decide to start drinking again after the month is up, its important to reintroduce alcohol slowly and in small amounts; you dont want to go right back to the amount you were drinking before, he adds.

Its all about breaking bad habits and making healthy ones

The whole point of doing a challenge like Dry January is to focus on breaking bad habits and create a healthier relationship with alcohol, Dr. Heinzerling says. To do that successfully, youll need to use these 31 sober days to really take a look at all the ways you use alcohol in your life and be honest about the ways that it may be hurting you, he says. Dry January shouldnt be something you muscle through, just to say youve done it; rather it should be the beginning of a healthier lifestyle overall, he says.

Dry January isnt for everyone

Quitting drinking cold turkey can have disastrous and even deadly consequences for people who are physically dependent on alcohol, Dr. Heinzerling says. For these people, suddenly quitting alcohol can cause seizures, delirium, and in some cases, death, he explains. Talk to your doctor before you start Dry January, and dont be afraid to ask for medical help if it ends up being harder than you thought. We have a lot of options to help you get sober and manage the pain of detoxing. Other people who shouldnt attempt Dry January without medical supervision are teenagers, the elderly, or people with other serious medical conditions, he adds.Next, find out which plant can help reduce your alcohol cravings.

The post Dry January: What Doctors Need You to Know appeared first on Best Health Magazine Canada.

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