The number of people participating in the month-long alcohol detox known as Dry January has increased fifteenfold in the last four years, and more of these booze-free months are popping up to address the apparently ever-growing desire to take a momentary break from trying to murder our livers.
Last year, an estimated 75,000 people participated in Go Sober for October, raising more than five million pounds (approximately 6.5 million dollars) for the British charity Macmillan Cancer Support. Meanwhile, nearly 10,000 Canadians participated in last year’s Dry Feb to raise more than $380,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society.
While most are noticeably less philanthropic than those mentioned above, sobriety challenges have been applied to practically every month of the year by drinkers hoping to recalibrate their relationships with alcohol. (Sober September seems to have gained a significant amount of recognition this year.) I, too, have begun taking random month-long breaks from booze in the last year or so, although I haven’t gotten around to giving any of them alliterative names yet.
“One of the reasons that [these sober months] are becoming more popular is that they’re often used to raise money,” says Aaron White, senior scientific advisor at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge, and all of the different challenges — maybe [sober months] also have that sort of appeal to them.”
Whatever the reason, the real question here is what such a month-long break from alcohol actually does for your body/life in general. Considering that all forms of detoxing are bullshit scams, let’s get into the pros and cons.
The Benefits of a Month Without Booze
“At the very least, taking a break from alcohol gives a person the chance to evaluate their relationship with it and cultivate alternatives for relaxing, socializing and whatever other reasons they have for drinking,” White says. “Some people might discover that their nightly drink was irritating their stomach, disrupting their sleep or affecting their food choices — [taking a month off] can certainly save money and empty calories.”
Science agrees with White on all of the above: A 2016 study of 857 British men and women who partook in Dry January found that 79 percent saved money, 62 percent slept better, 62 percent had more energy and 49 percent lost weight. Additionally, roughly 50 percent of the participants reported a reduction in drinking days, drinks per day and days spent drunk during a six-month follow-up.
Similarly, a 2018 study of 94 drinkers who abstained from alcohol for one month also found that participants experienced an overall reduction in body weight, a significant increase in insulin sensitivity (which is a general marker of good health), a reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, improved liver function, improved cholesterol levels and reduced levels of vascular endothelial growth factors, which have been known to promote cancer.
But if your health isn’t motivation enough, as White previously mentioned, you can also save a significant amount of money by going sober for just one month. “I know people who put the money that they would have spent on alcohol into a jar,” he says. “By the end of the month, if you’re drinking $20 or $30 bottles of wine every night, that jar can end up with a lot of money in it. Even if you’re drinking at a dive bar, that can add up to quite a bit of money.”
Once again, he’s right: After doing some cocktail napkin math, my colleague Nick Leftley figured out that he had spent enough on booze in his life to buy a house outright. And that didn’t include post-drink munchies, cab fares, cigarettes and basically anything else that goes hand-in-hand with boozing it up. So yeah, putting down the bottle for even one month can save you a lot of cash.
The Drawbacks of a Month Without Booze
“Some people in public health have criticized the promotion of one-month periods of abstinence from alcohol out of concern that stopping abruptly could be dangerous for chronic, heavy drinkers and could lead to rebound increases in drinking once the month is over or if the attempt at abstinence fails,” White says.
In other words, if you’re an alcoholic, abruptly taking a sober month is a bad idea. “If you drink so much that you go through withdrawal when you try to take a day off, this can be risky for you,” White emphasizes. “You really have to think carefully about trying to do this, and it helps to see your doctor — make sure that somebody knows what you’re about to do, because alcohol withdrawal can kill you. I mean, it’s the only withdrawal we know of that death often results from.”
For less intense drinkers, there’s also the possibility that taking a month off might end up encouraging you to drink even more once that month comes to a close. According to the 2016 study mentioned above, about 10 percent of people who participate in Dry January reported increases in drinking days per week, drinks per day and days spent drunk when surveyed six months later.
“Avoid making the mistake of setting your sights on the end and daydreaming about plans to get wasted when your month is up,” White says. “During that month, you’ll lose some of your tolerance, and that’s one of the reasons why you don’t want to overdo it at the end of the month: You’re going to be overdoing it with a baseline level of tolerance that’s lower, so you might go back to your original amount [of alcohol] and end up drunker than you expected. You’re not going to find that your tolerance is low enough for a six-pack to put you into a coma, but you could end up way more impaired than you expected.”
Another reason to avoid limiting your sobriety to one month, according to White, is that this might not be enough time for everyone to thoroughly re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol. “If you struggle with alcohol, and you manage to make it a month, that’s great, but that may not be enough for you,” he says. “You can’t just spend the next ten years of your life drinking all of the time, and telling people about that one time you went a month without drinking.”
So while it’s important to drink responsibly, the lesson here is that it’s equally important to quit drinking responsibly.