Dry January: why do we do it and is it actually worth it?

This January will see thousands of adults in the UK take part in Dry January. Starting on the first day of the month, participants vow to go 31 days without alcohol in a New Year tradition that has been endorsed by Cancer Research UK and Alcohol Concern.

Reasons for taking part vary, but most people are focused on the health benefits, including weight loss, decreased risk of cancer and improvements to mental health. But what do we know about the origins of this modern tradition – and is it worth it?

How did it begin?

In the UK, the official name “Dry January” has only been around for a few years – Alcohol Concern registered it as a trademark in mid-2014. The following January, the government started running ad campaigns endorsing the event. 

The Daily Mail is credited with coining the phrase “Janopause” in a 2002 article to describe a month of post-Christmas detoxing, but the idea of cleansing after Christmas is not new. In 1942, Finland instigated a programme called Raitis tammikuu (Sober January) to help aid the war effort against the Soviet Union. It’s believed Dry January may have been inspired by this.

How to banish the booze

Before taking on the mammoth task, participants are encouraged to sign up to help Alcohol Concern coordinate fundraising and statistics.

Tips for those who need a little help include going on long walks, taking up a hobby or trying a non-alcoholic version of your favourite drink. To make things a little easier, Italian restaurant chain Strada has created a non-alcoholic sparkling wine specifically for Dry January.

 Is it really worth it?

The benefits of Dry January are the subject of an ongoing debate among doctors and scientists. Alcohol Concern says: “Seventy-nine per cent of participants saved money, 62 per cent had better sleep and more energy, and 49 per cent lost weight.”

Staff at New Scientist attempted Dry January in 2014 and they discovered that those who gave up alcohol for five weeks lowered their blood glucose and blood cholesterol levels. However, the trial was at too small a scale to be considered scientifically accurate.

Speaking to The Independent, clinical psychologist Lauren Callaghan said the practice can have drawbacks from a psychological perspective, suggesting that abstinence causes people to “deny [themselves] of something completely and then totally blow out once it is reintroduced”.

However, Alcohol Concern stands by the event, with evidence on its website saying that for the six months after completing Dry January, participants not only get drunk fewer times in the year, but also drink less frequently.

What to try if you can’t manage a whole month

Championed by companies like Club Soda, mindful drinking is a new way to manage your alcohol intake without giving up completely. 

“If you enjoy drinking and aren’t addicted but do want to approach it in a healthy way, cleansing isn’t usually a long-term fix,” says RealSimple’s Julie Klam.

The idea behind mindful drinking is to change one’s attitude to alcohol, perhaps by stopping drinking altogether on some nights out, or just cutting down, but either way by learning to drink what you want to drink instead of what you perceive to be socially acceptable.

“For example, if you’re at the front of a bar queue, instead of automatically asking for a vodka and coke, you’d take a moment to consider whether that’s really what you physically and emotionally want,” explains Metro.

“In a good mood and fancy a lager to boost those positive vibes? Go for it. Had a stressful day and think a beer would somehow fix it? Maybe give it a miss,” the paper adds.

Club Soda offers an 8 week online course helping you achieve your drinking goals, whether you want to cut down, stop for a bit, or quit alcohol for good.