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Dry January offers a gateway to better health

More energy, better sleep, weight loss among benefits of a month of sobriety
(Adobe Stock)

Every year, January feels like a fresh start. New Year’s resolutions kick in often with healthier habits that re-energize those seeking to change their behavior.

“Dry January” has been billed as a way for people to cut down on alcohol consumption and reverse indulgent holiday drinking.

With its growth in recent years, Dry January may seem like a flashy trend, but the health benefits of taking a month off are very real.

“Any time of year is a great time to take a break and let your body center without alcohol,” said Rick Jacobsen, a licensed clinical social worker and addiction counselor, in an email to The Durango Herald.

Jacobsen, who runs Axis Health System’s substance use programs, said there are many benefits to reducing alcohol consumption, including better sleep, greater focus and lower risk of acute health emergencies and emergency room visits.

It can also reduce chronic inflammation, boost the immune system and lead to possible weight loss, he said.

Research has shown that alcohol has a myriad of harmful health effects.

Alcohol compromises the lungs and increases the risk of pulmonary infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. It can cause heart arrhythmias and cardiomyopathies, which involve the stretching and drooping of the heart muscle, leading to high blood pressure and strokes.

Heavy drinking can alter neurons, reducing their size and altering the brain’s communication, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

It can also damage the liver and the pancreas, causing chronic inflammation, and alcohol has been linked to several types of cancer.

Women who consume one drink per day have a 5% to 9% higher risk of breast cancer than those who do not drink, according to the NIAAA.

Dry January aims to reduce the physical harm of alcohol, while also tackling the psychological effects of alcohol.

“The idea of a ‘Dry January’ is a great way for someone to assess the reasons they may use alcohol and find other healthier strategies to replace alcohol,” Jacobsen said.

“Life without substances gives you an opportunity to learn a lot more about yourself,” said Candice Seay, national chapter coordinator based in Durango for Young People in Recovery, a support organization for those recovering from substance use and addiction.

Alcohol Change UK started the first Dry January campaign in 2013 to advocate for a month of no alcohol use to start the New Year.

“It’s basically a public health campaign to encourage people to abstain from alcohol,” Seay said.

“(Dry January) is a gentler way for people to explore a different kind of lifestyle,” she said.

Benefits of a break

A 2016 study in the journal Health Psychology found that 62% of Dry January participants reported more energy, 62% reported better sleep and about half lost weight.

Another study in BMJ Open found that abstaining from alcohol for one month reduced body weight and blood pressure, increased insulin sensitivity and improved liver function and cholesterol levels.

“We think that anyone who drinks could benefit from a break from alcohol if it is done wisely,” said Aaron White, chief of the NIAAA’s Epidemiology and Biometry Branch, in an email to the Herald. “For people who participate in Dry January and similar abstinence challenges, taking a break from alcohol provides an opportunity to consider the role that alcohol plays in their lives and decide whether they want to continue consuming alcohol when the period of abstinence is over.”

White said the benefits of simply decreasing rather than forgoing alcohol consumption is less clear.

“It is hard to know for certain how much one would benefit from cutting back compared to taking a break for a month. We believe that less is better when it comes to alcohol,” he said. “... The impact of alcohol on organ systems, as well as cancer risk, is related to the dose. So reducing the dose could reduce certain health risks.”

Top 10 for excessive drinking

While Colorado usually falls in the top 10 healthiest states in the U.S., it does not for alcohol.

Colorado ranks in the top 10 nationwide for excessive drinking, according to United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings.

“Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in our region,” said Chandler Griffin, a spokesman for San Juan Basin Public Health.

According to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data, one in five adults in Colorado drink excessively and one in five binge drink (defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men within two to three hours).

Almost a third of those between the ages of 25 and 34 report binge drinking. Excessive drinking accounts for five deaths per day and binge drinking 882 deaths annually statewide.

A study by Well Being Trust, a research and policy foundation tackling mental illness and substance misuse, released earlier this year found alcohol consumption-related deaths increased by 13% in Colorado from 2018 to 2019.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic, which experts say has further increased alcohol use.

A study published in December 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that more than half of participants increased alcohol use during the pandemic.

“As we consider New Year’s resolutions, it’s smart to check in with your lifestyle habits. For people who drink alcohol, moderation is best,” Griffin said. “If you’ve noticed excess over the holidays, Dry January can give you a chance to replace those unhealthy habits with healthier ones like exercise, which will lead to noticeably better mental and physical health.”

Dry January often attracts heavier drinkers and those who are concerned about their alcohol habits, according to a 2020 study in the Journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.

But Seay said Dry January is not just for those who struggle with alcohol use disorder.

“Your life doesn’t have to be unmanageable for you to question your relationship with alcohol,” she said. “Alcohol is a toxin that we’re putting into our body, so it only makes sense that people might notice they feel better.”

Support, new activities

For those partaking in Dry January, having a friend for support, finding alternative beverages when going out and exploring new activities such as arts and crafts can help make the month successful and easier, she said.

“One of the key steps to change is making a plan. Set yourself up for success by strategizing for tough moments and build your village – friends, family, whole person health care providers,” Molly Rodriguez, a licensed professional counselor who coordinates the crisis team and policing programs at Axis Health System, said in an email. “Crisis services may be a part of that – as a safety net, adviser, confidant or cheerleader.”

Seay and Young People in Recovery organize sober events in Durango for those they serve, including potlucks, hikes and game nights.

They also organize events for the broader sober Durango community. During Snowdown, Seay will host a “mocktail crawl” with 11th Street Station, El Moro and Durango Coffee Co.

The group will taste mocktails, non-alcoholic cocktails, and finish at The Hive on Main Avenue with food, music and dancing. The event is open for anyone seeking sober fun.

“I think it’s really important that we hold events with Snowdown for adults to enjoy and be a part of the community without sort of the influence and encouragement of alcohol,” Seay said.

Dry January may seem like a great opportunity to rid an alcohol habit, but those who participate can experience alcohol withdrawal if they abruptly stop or change their drinking, Jacobsen said.

The transition can be especially difficult for those who drink moderately or heavily.

“If you are having problems going without alcohol, you may want to consider remaining sober longer than January to develop strategies to help you manage the reasons why you drink,” he said.

Axis Health System offers support services that can help those who hope to abstain from alcohol or who seek assistance for substance use disorders, including peer recovery coaches; free virtual SMART Recovery groups, which use behavioral therapy and motivational methods; and counseling and treatment.

Though Dry January is not without challenges, the benefits outweigh any obstacles and can lead to permanent change, Seay said. She has watched people try Dry January and permanently embrace a sober lifestyle.

“You don’t have to have a problem with alcohol to enjoy life without it,” she said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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