Dry January in a pandemic

Dry January in a pandemic: why it is still the best thing you can do in the first month of 2021:

Priory expert explains the week-by-week benefits:

  • Were your hangovers getting worse anyway? It’s not a myth, he says
  • Join the estimated 6.5 million people taking part in Dry January
  • Ditching alcohol will benefit the body in copious ways – helping you lose weight, reduce blood pressure, sleep better and restore energy
  • Many people go on to develop better drinking habits after Dry January, according to research

An estimated 6.5 million nationally will be going alcohol-free this January, compared to around 3.9 million last year.

While Dry January will feel different this year, it is just as important – if not more so; recent figures show that one in 20 people is drinking more than 50 units a week, which amounts to more than five bottles of wine – a figure that is 50% higher than in March.

The figures are alarming given the rise in the number of people with liver disease – and the fact that the NHS says men and women should be drinking no more than 14 units weekly. The Office for National Statistics reported that in 2018 in England, cirrhosis and other diseases of the liver were among the top 5 leading causes of death for those aged 20-34, and the leading cause of death for those aged 35-49, accounting for more than 10% of deaths in that age group.

And if you were already thinking you can’t drink the way you used to anyway, you’re definitely not alone. The older we get, the more sensitive to alcohol the body becomes.

Dr Niall Campbell, consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital and one of the UK’s leading alcohol addiction experts, says the idea that hangovers get worse with age is no myth – and has a lot to do with the body’s changing metabolism, as well as, for some, prescription medications they are taking.

As you get older, you are more likely to experience hangovers because “you are more likely to be on some kind of medication, and these medicines can alter the way your body breaks down alcohol, leaving you with a worse hangover,” he says..

“And it is true to say that your body takes longer to recover from everything after your mid-twenties partly due to inflammation and chronic diseases which your immune system and liver are fighting.

“If you add the toxic effects of alcohol and its breakdown products, acetaldehyde and ethanoic acid, all three of which are toxic to all tissues of the human body, you will experience stronger hangover symptoms such as fatigue and nausea, and put yourself at risk of damaging your organs.

“There’s a misnomer that if you are overweight, which tends to happen as you get older, you can handle alcohol more effectively. Not true. And the calories in alcoholic drinks cause weight gain. Beer bellies are not a myth.

“There is also the build-up of acetaldehyde – which happens at the mid-point when your body is metabolising alcohol. As you age, your ability to metabolise alcohol drops. That’s what you can smell on a heavy drinker’s breath the morning-after-the-night-before.  Acetaldehyde is the first by-product of ethanol, and between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself; it can remain at an elevated plateau for many hours after initial ethanol consumption.  High acetaldehyde levels in heavy, steady drinkers are increasingly implicated in causing cancer.”

The Priory offers treatment and support for alcohol addiction. Dr Campbell says: “If you or someone that you know is struggling with an addiction, it is important to know that you are not alone; expert addiction treatment, therapy and support are available.”

Dr Campbell adds: “Dry January makes many people pause and think about their drinking habits, and where they do most of their drinking. As a concept, it’s partly based on the premise of social contagion. You’ll find more people not drinking in January than at other times. That herd mentality can be supportive.

“At the Priory, we say that if you want to be a controlled drinker, you really need to be off alcohol for three months. Your body and mind will thank you for it.”

Here’s the good you’re doing by committing to Dry January, week by week:

Week one: Improved sleep, better hydration, and more energy. Dr Campbell explains that within a week of avoiding alcohol, your sleep will improve. This is because drinking excessively means you will probably wake up in the night (alcohol is a diuretic, which means it encourages the body to lose extra fluid though sweat, making you dehydrated which means you will also wake up wanting water), and skip the important rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. In the first week of Dry January you might find it harder to drift off – but while you might get fewer hours of rest, they’ll likely be of a higher quality. Plus, withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and restless legs may keep you up at night.

It’s vital to try to get through the first week without depending on alcohol or other medication for slumber so you can tackle the issue of insomnia rather than masking it, then go on to enjoy the benefits of improved sleep that comes with sobriety.

Along with better sleep, your first week sober will see your body become more hydrated. Dr Campbell says: ‘Watch the quality of your sleep improve. The energy you will recoup will be an incentive in itself. Find other ways to relax – sex, taking a bath, exercise. The good news is that if you give up alcohol, your sleep patterns are likely to improve within a week. When drinking alcohol, you lose around four times as much liquid as you actually consumed. Giving up alcohol can help you stay hydrated, which is beneficial for your brain. Your mood and concentration will be more stable, and headaches are likely to decrease.’

Week two: Better digestion and less irritation. Within a fortnight of Dry January, along with better sleep and more hydration you may also notice a reduction in tummy pain, nausea, and digestive issues. Alcohol is an irritant to the stomach lining, so ditching it will give your body time to heal. Dr Campbell also says that by week two you’ll start losing weight thanks to giving up alcohol’s empty calories. (Alcohol also contributes to weight gain by reducing your metabolism so the body breaks down alcohol first so fats and sugars are burnt off slower.) He says: ‘If you were to stop drinking six 175ml glasses of wine per week, you would have saved 1,920 calories at this point, and 2,160 if you’d stopped drinking around six pints of lager.’

Week three: Reduced blood pressure After three alcohol-free weeks, your blood pressure will start to reduce. High blood pressure – also known as hypertension – is a key cause of stroke and heart attack. Heavy drinking is linked to hypertension in men and women, so reducing your intake or quitting entirely can do a world of good.

Week four: Better skin, improved liver function, and weight loss. Making it to the end of Dry January (although this doesn’t have to be the end of your sobriety) will mean you actually notice some differences in the way you look and feel.

Dr Campbell explains: ‘Your boosted hydration levels will have a positive effect on your skin. As more water will have been absorbed rather than wasted, you are likely to have more hydrated-looking skin, as well as reduced dandruff and eczema. Removing alcohol from your diet for four weeks can also help to improve your liver function, as your liver will start to shed excess fat. If your liver function is not too badly affected by alcohol, it can recover within four to eight weeks. By the end of Dry January, you are likely to have reduced your calorie intake by 3,840 for the month if you used to drink six glasses of 175ml wine a week, or 4,320 calories over the month if you used to drink six pints of lager a week.

You’ll also have saved quite a bit of money and your sex life will have improved.

If you keep avoiding alcohol you’ll continue to see more benefits. Basically, if you’re enjoying Dry January, there’s no reason to stop!

Dr Campbell concludes; ‘Dry January makes many people pause and think about their drinking habits. As a concept, it’s partly based on the premise of social contagion. You’ll find more people not drinking in January than at other times and that herd mentality can be very supportive.’

Dr Niall Campbell
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