Is “Dry January” something worth thinking about?
A few years ago “Dry January” began to gain traction in the United Kingdom and it appears to have gathered momentum in Canada this year. Some research actually discovered this tradition dating back to the 1940s in Finland. After a holiday season of over indulgence, over eating, and general excess the theory is that a month off booze fits nicely with people’s resolution to live healthier.
Studies done by the University of Sussex have shown that the health effects of abstaining for a month are in fact noticeable. After going 31 days without alcohol, people said they experienced a number of positive side effects, such as sleeping better, losing weight and feeling more energetic. Not surprisingly, three quarters of the participants saved money and felt better about themselves. The study also reported that 4% actually remained abstinent when follow up surveys were done six month later.
What does it say, however, about your relationship with alcohol if you even have to contemplate a month of abstinence? For most people it is no more relevant than swearing off brussel sprouts. After all, about half of the adult population doesn’t drink at all.
Do you drink a glass of wine with dinner every night? That puts you in the top 30 percent of adults in terms of per-capita alcohol consumption. If you drink two glasses, that would put you in the top 20 percent. It seems shocking but Philip J. Cook’s study using the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) data tells us that the top 10% of American adults consume on average 74 alcoholic drinks per week. It would seem that a small percentage of people consume the majority of the alcohol sold. It is that top ten percent that present the most concern for addiction professionals.
For problem drinkers “Dry January” can offer either a wake up call or, more dangerously, a false sense of security. Most people who come to me for help with their drinking describe an ability to abstain for periods of time. I remember, years ago, swearing off booze for the month of February (the shortest month!) just to prove to myself that I didn’t have a problem only to begin drinking again in March. Substance use disorder or alcoholism occurs on a continuum. Like cancer, for instance, some cases are more severe than others. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people accessing treatment for alcoholism are not homeless and drinking out of a brown paper bag. Like cancer, it makes no sense to just treat the most severe cases and ignore the rest. Patients who haven’t reached the far end of the continuum respond very well to treatment. The prescribed treatment for patients doesn’t, therefore, focus as much on how not to drink as it does on discovering why someone drinks and what they can learn to do differently without having to reach for the bottle. Holding their breath for a month might only serve to tell the problem drinker where they are on the continuum. It ought not be confused with a green light to continue drinking with impunity.
If you, someone you love, or someone you work with has a problem with alcohol then “Dry January” might be the perfect way to begin discussing healthy change. That’s never a bad thing.