Is Dry January a Recipe for Binge February?

By: Stephanie Vermillion  | 
Dry January
Taking a dry January is a good way to analyze your alcohol intake and might even prompt you drink less alcohol throughout the year. Emma Gibbs/Getty Images

It's a new year. And that means millions are ditching alcohol in hopes that a "dry January" will be the post-holiday detox they need to start a new decade right.

The need for a detox is hardly surprising given the average American doubles their drinking during the holidays from four glasses a week to eight, according to a study by Morning Recovery, a company that sells supplements to help people recover post-drinking.


The COVID-19 pandemic might make those numbers even higher. An April 2021 study published in the journal Preventative Medicine found that alcohol use had increased 29 percent among the 5,850 respondents since the pandemic began. Further, Nielsen reported a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week ending March 21, 2020 compared with one year before; and an online liquor sales increase of 262 percent from 2019. However, sales for 2021 are down from the unprecedented 2020 levels and shifting back toward pre-pandemic numbers.

Still, Americans are drinking more, and this level of increased drinking may motivate even people to try a dry January. But what happens when the locks come off the liquor cabinet Feb. 1?


Does Dry January Work?

Many nutritionists recommend moderation over drastic diets, but with booze, cold turkey can actually work. Research from the University of Sussex found that a dry January rarely leads to a wet February. In fact, participants of the 2018 study ended up drinking less in February — and for the rest of the year.

The university research, led by Sussex psychologist Dr. Richard de Visser, studied more than 800 "dry" January participants to analyze their drinking patterns post-detox. The results could persuade dry January skeptics. On average, January detoxers went from drinking 4.3 to 3.3 times per week, they consumed less alcohol when drinking (8.6 units down to 7.1 units), and their frequency of being drunk went from 3.4 to 2.1 instances per month. Even those who slipped up during their dry January attempts still reported decreased drinking over time.


According to Alcohol Change UK, a nonprofit thinktank raising awareness about the dangers of alcohol, this shift occurs because dry January participants realize they don't actually need alcohol in their lives.

"That realization is a powerful thing," the UK charity wrote in a blog post. "It means that for the rest of the year, having a drink can be a choice — not a default." Dry January becomes almost like a training period; participants learn how to adapt to social situations without booze, and how to turn down a drink when saying "yes" is so much easier.


The Results Are Real

As someone who's always shrugged off dry January as just another fad, I was shocked by these results. Are the masses posting about their detox on Facebook actually on to something? Can 31 booze-free days really lead to lifelong habit changes? I spoke with at least a dozen dry January participants. The answer was a resounding yes.

Take Ohio-resident Megan Luchsinger, a former casual drinker who used to spend her Januarys booze-free. She says she felt so refreshed after her 2019 dry January that she ended up ditching alcohol entirely.


"After giving it up for good, I don't miss it at all," Luchsinger says via email. "I'd say [going alcohol-free for] a month is actually harder than giving it up for good, because once February came around I was like, 'oh now I can have a glass of wine at dinner again!' I didn't overindulge in February, but it was more of a countdown to get there."

For Ohio exercise enthusiast Chris Roderer, dry January is a chance to rebalance and get healthier after holiday revelry. With multiple dry Januarys under his belt, Roderer has not only realized that he doesn't need alcohol — he also feels drastically better without it.

"When you go dry for a period you realize even more how even two drinks can affect you the next day," he says via email. "I haven't had the desire to binge at any time. I think it serves as an eye-opener as to how much better you feel without alcohol."

Roderer's health improvements are not a dry January placebo effect. Drinking less alcohol over the course of the year can do wonders for the human body, starting with two of the most important changes: better sleep and sharper concentration.

A 2015 study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, seems to back that up. It found that alcohol "may exert an arousal influence which may compete with the sleep maintenance influence of increased delta activity ... this may have negative implications for the impact of presleep alcohol consumption on sleep and consequent daytime functioning."

Several other studies have shown that drinking too much alcohol leads to sugar cravings, overeating and dry-looking skin. The University of Sussex found that most dry January participants had more energy, lost weight, slept better and had better concentration.

So go ahead and ditch the drinks and go dry. It seems unlikely you'll binge in February. In fact, you might even end up drinking less for the rest of the year.