Magpie Anthology

Dry January: A Survivors Guide

What is Dry January exactly? Is it different from Sober October, is there an ‘official’ way to do it? Who started it and when, can you get support and does it confer real health benefits, especially lasting ones? Above all, does Dry January have to be a joyless battle of willpower?
Here’s what I found out …

You may be well into your Dry January by now (or wistful of others undertaking this mushrooming challenge), but now is often the time of flagging and fear of failure when some motivation may be in order.

Dry January started in 2012 with 4,000 people signing up to a challenge set by the founding organisation, Alcohol Change UK (ACU). This new charity was formed by the merger of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK. In 2018, 100,000 signed up online and 4 million ‘Dry Janners’ took part in total.

There’s only one rule for Dry January: no alcohol from when you wake up on New Year’s Day until 1st February. You can go solo, team up with friends/family/colleagues or go official and register on ACU’s web site. The site helpfully offers an App, Podcasts, a Blog and a Facebook page link, as your chances of nailing a booze-free month are increased by teaming up and getting support.

Here are some tools to help you stay 28-days sober:
• Alcohol Change UK’s Dry January App helps you track your units, calories and money saved, among other handy things, and it works for one month or all year. (ACU also sends regular support emails if you sign up for them.)
• A weekly Podcast throughout January is hosted by Lauren Booker, author of Try Dry: The Official Guide to a Month Off Booze.
• Use booze-free evenings to read: Quit Alcohol for a Month by Helen Foster or The 28-day Alcohol-free Challenge by Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns.

Plenty of folks find raising money for charity is a big motivator and ACU surely needs it as Government cuts are obliterating vital alcohol support services. This, at a time when alcohol-related problems are estimated to cost the NHS £3.5bn per year! Loss of funding was the main motivator for the start of Dry January and last November ACU published The Alcohol Change Report,
calling attention to the current crisis in the alcohol treatment sector.

Regarding Dry January, the charity says, “The biggest benefit of all is that you’ll see you don’t need alcohol to have fun, go out, stay in, relax or do anything else you might associate with drinking. And knowing that will help you take control of your drinking year-round … it’s the perfect way to reset your relationship with alcohol as it only takes three weeks to break a habit, so this could be your route to happier, healthier drinking long-term.”

Attitude Shifts
I like Dry January as my refusal of a hard drink tends to cause less consternation or discomfort. I still encounter pressure to drink, but it used to be worse and I often felt obliged to pretend I was on antibiotics or suggest I might be pregnant (the latter option ran out quite a while ago!). The social pressure is definitely lifting though: the cool, new ‘sober curious’ and the ‘abstemious millennials’, thankfully, aren’t so judgey.

If I do choose to disclose that I am year-round tee-totaller (I prefer ‘soberista’), drinkers in my own age group tend to be the most bewildered – those with drinking problems more so. They want to know why I stopped and how, how much was I drinking and, interestingly, do I think it’s OK if they just drink (for example) wine not spirits, only at weekends, only with friends or not before 6pm etc. It seems obvious that my interrogators are struggling with their alcohol consumption and weighing up alcohol dependency or even alcoholism. I have many other articles with my musings on such questions. For now, according to Dr Jeanie Speirs (a recently-retired leading Psychiatrist at The Priory in Roehampton), “if you can avoid alcohol for three months without too much trouble, then your relationship with alcohol is likely to be healthy”!

Are there lasting health benefits?
Most of the research says a resounding YES! The main worry/criticism is whether Dry Janners think they offset the ill effects of drinking heavily for the rest of the year. Gautam Mehta, the lead author of a study published in the BMJ in 2018, which investigated the health gains from a month off alcohol, says that a dry month “isn’t a detox that resets the clock … the health risks associated with drinking too much reappear if the same level of drinking returns.” However, the research findings did demonstrate that abstinence from alcohol in moderate to heavy drinkers rapidly improves insulin resistance, weight loss, blood pressure and cancer-related growth factors.

According to The Alcohol Audit (a World Health Organisation measure of risky drinking), 72 percent of people who do a Dry January are still drinking less riskily six months later. Another significant piece of research, ‘Voluntary Temporary Abstinence From Alcohol During “Dry January” and Subsequent Alcohol Use’ from the University of Sussex, showed that after graduating as Dry Janners, 800 participants found their ability to confidently say no to alcoholic drinks improved and their consumption of alcohol went down, whether they had succeeded in quitting for the entire month or not. Yes, even failed attempts at Dry January led to many positive changes in behaviour, such as ‘drink refusal self-efficacy’ or DRSE to you!

Interestingly, the Government doesn’t advise taking a month off alcohol, favouring alcohol-free days every week instead. But I think an ideal plan might be to do Dry January with all the support you can muster, raise some money to help problem drinkers because the Government won’t or can’t, and then have another go for Sober October if you can’t make it the first-time round. (Do not despair if you don’t make the first go: many Dry Janners have made repeated attempts before joyfully sticking to the ‘14 units regime’ or even going dry permanently.) Then, with a whole shiny sober month under your belt, you can introduce weekly booze-free days and drink more of the wealth of new soft drinks on offer (rather than just choosing from Coke, Britvic orange juice or bitter lemon – have I given away my age yet?).

Remember, no booze usually equals better sleep, weight loss, increased energy and reduced anxiety. And there are so many fabulous non-alcoholic drinks to try out:
• Seedlip – my personal favourite – an alcohol-free spirit, which gives a good kick on ice with tonic water;
• Kombucha – sparkling fermented green tea. (According to, the fastest-growing industry sales are in fermented drinks which, far from toxifying you, aid your digestion and immunity);
• The Alcohol-Free Shop sells alcohol-free wines, beers and others goodies online, including Teetotal Cuba Libres and Teetotal G ‘n’ T’s which, at the time of writing, have completely sold out. (Be careful though, some of the beers and wines have a very low percentage of alcohol in them and that’s cheating.)

Words: Jane Cooke

For further reading and information:

The Alcohol Change Report

A study published in the BMJ in 2018

The Alcohol Audit

Voluntary Temporary Abstinence From Alcohol During “Dry January” and Subsequent Alcohol Use.


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