Is Dry January worth it? © Nick Ballon, with special thanks to the Hereford Arms Kensington, London

Is Dry January worth it?

After an alcohol-infused festive season, many people stay off the booze in January. But while your wallet might thank you, do we really see any health benefits from just one month of sobriety?

Choosing to do a ‘Dry January’ has become increasingly popular over the last few years and I’ve known quite a few people who have done it. Dry January is an idea being driven, among others, by a charity called Alcohol Concern. Alcohol Concern’s website states that the reasons for doing a Dry January include: “enabling you to take control of your relationship with alcohol” and “driving a conversation about alcohol: why do we drink it, what does it do, and how can we reduce the harm it can cause?”


It says that the potential benefits include better sleep, improved skin, weight loss, having “an amazing sense of achievement at the end”, and saving money (according to Alcohol Concern the average person spends £50,000 on booze in their lifetime).

This all sounds terrific. So when BBC Focus asked me if I fancied getting ahead of the game and giving ‘Dry November’ a go, I thought, “why not?”. I enjoy a bit of self-experimenting and one of the advantages of doing it in November is that there are only 30 days in that particular month, so it would require one less day of total abstinence.

I am not and have never been a heavy drinker. Even at medical school, where there was a culture of heavy drinking among certain groups (mainly the rugby players), I hardly ever drank more than two or three pints in a single session. Once alcohol hits my brain I have about an hour of uninhibited fun before I go into a slump. Drinking does not make me good company. Nonetheless I have got into the habit of drinking most evenings, mainly red wine, so I thought it would be an interesting challenge.

I started off by logging everything I drank for a couple of weeks in the lead up to November, and it worked out at around 20 units a week. While this isn’t a huge amount of booze, it is well over the current UK government guidelines of 14 units a week for men and women. The guidelines used to be 21 units a week for men, 14 for women, but they were changed in December 2016, when the Department of Health announced that, “there is no justification for drinking for health reasons”.

I was surprised and somewhat sceptical about the definitive nature of this statement for reasons that I will come to in a moment, but it did give me further reasons to attempt an alcohol-free November. I went off and got some bloods taken, in order to measure my fasting glucose, liver enzymes and cholesterol levels, and I also weighed myself and measured my blood pressure. I put the bottles of wine out of sight and I was good to go.

Sober start

The first couple of weeks were challenging, because I had got into the habit of having a drink with my evening meal and I did miss it. I thought the best way to get through the month was to tell people…

This is an extract from issue 317 of BBC Focus magazine.
Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more


Follow Science Focus on TwitterFacebook, Instagram and Flipboard