Dry January: benefits for mind and body

During Dry January, millions of people give up alcohol each year for a month. But do periods of abstinence like these really help the body?

Text: Robert Wildi; photo: Unsplash

The official challenge is already complete for this year. The “Dry January” campaign was first launched in 2013 in the United Kingdom. Back then, a few thousand Brits took up the challenge for an alcohol-free start to the new year. Today, over four million people willingly gave up alcohol for a month. France followed suit – and now Switzerland has officially jumped on the band wagon, with around 4,000 people signing up in 2021 via the website dryjanuary.ch. The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) is the main sponsor of “Dry January CH”. And with good reason. According to a study commissioned by the FOPH, alcohol abuse in Switzerland costs around 2.8 billion Swiss francs a year.

But does it make sense to abstain from alcohol for brief periods? And what happens in the body of occasional or regular drinkers? Below are the results of research conducted by the Forel Clinic, Switzerland’s leading clinic for the treatment of alcohol and drug dependency:

Better sleep quality and improved performance

Sleep often improves after about two weeks without alcohol. It becomes deeper and more restful. And taking a break from alcohol also reduces stress and increases productivity.

Lower blood pressure and clearer skin

After around four weeks of total abstinence from alcohol, blood pressure levels fall and the appearance of the skin improves. The skin looks fresher and the water balance of both the subcutaneous fatty tissue and the skin itself starts to normalise.

Blood and liver values normalise

After around four to six weeks the blood values start to normalise, particularly the liver values. This is an important indication that the liver is recovering. Stomach irritation or inflammation (gastritis) can also improve as less stomach acid is produced as a result of giving up alcohol.

Emotional stability and libido improve

After about three months there is a clear increase in mental performance as well as drive and motivation. Thoughts and actions become clearer. Generally speaking, people often find they regain their joie de vivre. And their sex drive improves. Overall, people feel better, more emotionally stable and more resilient to stress. And they often start to lose weight.

Of course, the extent and perception of all these effects vary from person to person, says Ralf Pelkowski, Medical Director of the Forel Clinic. “The results depend on their drinking habits beforehand.” For example, how much alcohol they drink per day and the period of time over which alcohol was consumed daily.

Pelkowski can say with certainty that abstaining from alcohol for longer than a month has a positive effect on body and health – the longer you give it up, the better. “In addition to improving physical and mental performance, the positive effect that giving up alcohol entirely has on the immune system and especially the liver reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.” Excessive alcohol consumption has been scientifically linked to tumours in the oral cavity and pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and in the female breast.

Does it make sense to do Dry January and then return to drinking alcohol as usual afterwards?

It definitely makes sense for the period of abstinence, because you benefit from the effects mentioned. However, if you revert back to your old drinking habits and quantities again after Dry January, the negative effects will return within weeks or months. It would be better to use this phase of abstinence to rethink your drinking behaviour and old habits in general.

What changes would you recommend?

I would advise people who drink alcohol every day to take at least one or two days a week off. And it’s definitely a good idea to stop drinking entirely for a week or more at a time.

How can someone tell if they’re drinking more than is good for them?

Taking regular breaks can help here, too. For example, if you’re taking a break from drinking, but find yourself longing for a drink after work and really missing the alcohol, you should see this as a sign to take a serious look at your consumption and seek professional counselling or help if needed. A strong need to drink alcohol every day, even in small quantities, as well as concerned comments and questions from relatives and friends indicate problematic drinking behaviour and are often signs of the start of a serious addiction.