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Dry January: How One Woman’s Break from Alcohol Sparked a Global Movement for Sobriety

Seven years ago, a British woman named Emily Robinson decided to give up drinking for the month of January as she trained for a half-marathon.

Much to her delight, her month of abstinence made a huge difference in how she felt. Not only did she have more energy to run, Robinson was also sleeping better and shedding pounds — and everyone she knew wanted to talk about her month-long break from alcohol.

A year later, Robinson decided to take a vacation from drinking once again. By this time, she was working for Alcohol Concern, a London-based charity organization that strives to reduce alcohol harm in Great Britain. The organization decided it was time to spread the word about her simple idea — and boy, did it spread.

In 2018, more than 5 million people in the U.K. are expected to take part in Dry January.

In 2013, approximately 4,300 people participated in Alcohol Concern’s inaugural Dry January campaign. More than 5 million people in the U.K. are expected to take part in the no-drinking challenge in 2018, and the health-conscious trend has made its way across the pond.

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with #DryJanuary and #Drynuary posts during early January, and the mainstream media has also discovered the phenomenon. The Washington Post, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News and NPR are among the many media outlets reporting on the trend.

For some, the impact has been life-changing.

Rumer Willis, actress and daughter of actors Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, was so pleased by the results of going dry in January of 2017 that the actress decided not to go back to drinking at all.

“My decision to become sober wasn’t out of a need necessarily, it was more just that I did ‘sober January,’ and I just decided to keep it going,’” she told People magazine.

Health Benefits of a One-Month Alcohol Hiatus

You may be wondering whether the benefits of quitting alcohol for the month of January will live up to the hype. After all, how much could a 31-day sober stretch really change a person?

Quite a bit, it turns out.

Dr. Rajiv Jalan, a professor of hepatology and the head of the liver failure group at UCL Medical School in London, told NPR that he found significant health impacts in a study of 80 hospital volunteers who decided to give up drinking for a month. In the end, about half of the volunteers were successful in maintaining their sobriety, and those who did experienced better liver function and improvements in their skin and overall appearance.

Nearly everyone in the study lost weight. Blood sugar levels declined, as did levels of blood markers associated with cancer.

Many people, in fact, are unaware that drinking alcohol is associated with at least seven types of cancer, but science is beginning to shed light on the connection.

In a study with mice in a laboratory, British scientists have discovered that a chemical called acetaldehyde that’s produced when the body breaks down alcohol snaps the DNA in blood stem cells, resulting in the rearrangement of chromosomes.

“Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells,” Ketan Patel, a professor at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage.”

Other Benefits of Sobriety

Cancer risk reduction aside, the participants in Jalan’s study also slept better and had better sexual function.

Ditching a drinking habit is also easier on the wallet, and not just because you’re saving on your bar tab.

Kate Beavis, a mother of two from Bedfordshire, England, told the Daily Mail that she never went back to drinking after committing to Dry January in 2015. Quitting her habit of drinking three glasses of wine per night, she says, cured her allergies, got rid of her back pain and gave her a “clearer head to focus on her business.”

Beavis says her income has increased fivefold as a result.

She’s not the only one drinking less in the long-term after completing her Dry January challenge.

Jalan says the 80 individuals from his study reported “significantly lower drinking” episodes in the six months following the Dry January challenge. While the sample size was small in Jalan’s study, a subsequent study of 857 British adults yielded similar findings, with 72 percent of participants drinking less six months after completing Dry January.

More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that even those who didn’t complete the challenge had tempered their drinking habits over the next six months.

Not for Everyone

A word of caution: the Dry January ritual isn’t intended for heavy drinkers.

Dr. Ramon Bataller, associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center told the Los Angeles Times that heavy chronic drinkers can “go into a coma, have a stroke or experience withdrawal symptoms” if they stop drinking suddenly.

If you are a heavy drinker and want to stop, don’t attempt to go cold turkey at home. Instead, consult with a physician or alcohol treatment center to see if you need medically monitored detox.

Alcohol withdrawal can began as soon as two hours after people who are dependent on alcohol have had their last drink. Symptoms may range from sweating, shaking, nausea and vomiting to high fever, seizures, hallucinations and even death. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually peak within one to three days, and they may last for weeks.