Cutting out alcohol is one thing. But giving it up during a global pandemic? Another ballgame altogether...
Ah, Dry January. An entire month of no booze, normally shrouded in a hint of smugness by those who make it through all 31 days of no beer, wine, or alcohol of any kind.
According to alcoholchange.uk, embarking on Dry Jan, as above, quite literally translates to going alcohol-free for the month of January. Wondering why you'd do it? Well, there are a whole load of reasons. Perhaps you over-indulged over the Christmas period, or are a sucker for a challenge. Maybe one of your New Year's resolutions was to focus on your health more, or to embrace self-care.
Whatever your reasoning, there's no denying that giving up booze can be great for your body - but is now, mid-pandemic and with a yet another lockdown looming, really the best time to be putting even more pressure on yourself and your mind?
We've chatted to three experts to discuss the benefits of giving up the booze for the month and explain what happens to your body when you cut it out altogether. Plus, they've included their advice on whether this year, of all years, is the best to start sans alcohol. Keep reading.
What are the benefits of giving up alcohol?
There are plenty, spanning both physical and mental. As per the Alcohol Change site, 70% who ditch the booze sleep better, 86% save money, and 65% notice generally improved health. Not to mention research by the Royal Free Hospital published in the BMJ Journal which found a month off the sauce can reduce diabetes risk, and lower cholesterol.
According to doctor Alka Patel, founder of the Lifestyle First method, drinking less has even more health benefits than that. "A BMJ study found that those who stopped drinking alcohol for one month had less insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, and lower cancer-related growth factors," she explains. "Liver function also improves and fat in the liver is reduced."
Bupa UK Medical Director doctor Arun Thiyagarajan agrees. "An alcohol-free month has many benefits, both physically and mentally. It is likely that you'll feel well-rested as you'll sleep better, and you may lose weight," he expands.
Why might Dry January 2022 not be the best idea?
It's undoubtedly a positive - so how could doctors possibly think it's not a good idea?
2020 saw life as you know it change, thanks to COVID-19, and 2021 wasn't mkuch better. With cases rapidly rising and the UK potentially facing more restrictions, prioritising the small things that bring you joy, whether that's chocolate, wine, or movie marathons on the sofa is important, according to doctor Patel.
We are in a period of immense stress
So, it may be worth taking check of your mental health and assessing whether further pushing yourself is right for you right now.
"Denial can feel like deprivation," doctor Patel shares. "Deprivation stimulates our stress response which, in itself, then creates additional unwanted effects, such as high blood pressure and low mood," the doctor expands.
You might not need the extra emotional weight
She goes on to explain that feelings of deprivation can stimulate your reward system to seek out even more of what gives us pleasure, making cutting things out even more difficult physiologically, she explains. "This then further adds the emotional weight of frustration and guilt, which is why cutting out can sometimes be counter-productive, especially if done abruptly during times like Dry January."
Coping with the pandemic is a task in and of itself
Or so says Fatmata Kamara, specialist mental health adviser at Bupa UK. "This January will be different to the start of the year that we know," she explains. "As we’re faced with potential new restrictions, it’s important to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. It’s important to avoid putting too much pressure on yourself and to practise self-compassion," she continues.
You may have found your energy levels have depleted, you might feel anxious, or find it difficult to concentrate on any new year goals set. This will all be your body physically coping with your current stress levels. "Coping with the effects of the pandemic is a huge task in itself, too," she goes on.
You may not need a huge challenge right now
Keep in mind that certain expectations we put on ourselves to achieve goals are based on life before lockdown, Fatima explains. "So, it’s completely understandable if you don’t feel up for starting any new goal this year", she adds.
If – for example – you drink in moderation (and have a few alcohol-free days in-between) and you have a healthy relationship with alcohol, there’s no need to set yourself a huge challenge. "Your main priority goal is to focus on looking after yourself, both physically and mentally." Hear, hear.
Slowly may be better than all at once
Doctor Patel's advice? "Cut back slowly. For most, cutting back will be a more effective strategy than cutting out. It's more sustainable and focuses on the long term, which is more important than the short term," she concludes.
Remember, every person is different
Of course, what you choose to do is totally up to you, and dependent on the individual. Many may see the month spent largely at home as the perfect opportunity to say bye, bye, to booze, and reap the benefits that come with giving it up altogether for 31 days, too. But for others, the mental pressure that this will pose may be too much right now, and it's important to be mindful of that, says doctor Patel.
So, how much should I be drinking a week?
UK governmental guidelines from the chief medical officer state that you should drink no more than 14 units per week, spread evenly over three days or more.
That's the equivalent of:
- 1o glasses of wine a week (low strength)
- 6 pints of beer a week (average strength)
Doctor Patel also points out here that the World Health Organisation has recently listed alcohol as a carcinogen, suggesting that there are no safe levels of consumption. "Make sure you're aware of the facts so that you can make an informed choice," she advises.
Most importantly, try and make sure you drink in moderation, have alcohol-free days, and maintain a relationship with alcohol that doesn't affect your mental or physical health in any way, says doctor Thiyagarajan.
"If you are struggling with alcohol, there is always support out there," he shares. Do reach out to your doctor: they’ll be able to support you.
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Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.
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