Many people have stopped drinking alcohol as part of the “Dry January” challenge. But experts say, as this month nears the end, it’s a good time to think beyond January and consider scaling back more broadly.
Many people who started “Dry January” found they couldn’t make it to the end, and experts say that’s a red flag.
Around 1 in 10, U.S. adults have an alcohol use disorder, and deaths from alcohol-related liver disease have risen dramatically, and adults under 45 have been hit the hardest.
“There are some general life-prolonging effects of avoiding alcohol, like avoiding or lowering our cancer risk. But there are also unfavorable long-term effects on our sleep and our mood and anxiety,” said G. Scott Winder of the University of Michigan’s department of psychiatry. “So, if people choose to cut down or abstain, they might count on feeling clear-headed, improved mood, less anxious, better sleep, along with some improvement in some of their lab values, and how they feel physically.”
Winder said many people who stop drinking will not experience alcohol withdrawal, but those physical symptoms can be dangerous. The psychiatrist says the main goal of “Dry January” is to understand your drinking better and form healthier habits.
“Most people who drink alcohol don’t have an alcohol use disorder or an alcohol problem,” said Winder. “So just like we might learn more about how we eat our calories, and where they come from, and the different types of food that, we can also observe how we drink, where we drink, and the reasons that we drink. And sometimes doing that reveals a lot of opportunities for change that we can make.”
In 2018, UofM Health started a unique clinic that combines medical treatment for alcohol-related liver disease with mental health and substance use care. Additional resources exist for people experiencing alcohol use disorder, from recovery meetings like alcoholics anonymous, to professional counseling and residential rehab.
“Rates of alcohol-related liver problems increased markedly during COVID-19. Most of the doctors in the hospital could tell easily that there were younger and younger people with more and more severe alcohol problems on their service,” said Winder. “And that has taken place in the clinic too. It’s been tragic and sad to watch so many people struggle like this, and it’s really motivated us to find new ways to reach people. And to help and treat them.
“We have to remember that the brain is a part of the body. The idea that the mind is somehow separate from the body is kind of an old and outdated idea. Certainly, alcohol affects the brain,” said Winder. “It’s primarily the reason that human beings use it, but it can affect our blood pressure or how we manage our blood sugar and our diabetes. And it can certainly affect the function of important organs like our heart and our liver. So, while we drink for psychological reasons, we can’t forget the systemic and wide-ranging effects of drinking throughout the rest of our body.”
“One of the most important things that people can do when they stopped drinking is select a day that works for them that’s timed well that they’re ready for. And then to observe what happened,” said Winder. “Many of us drink related to social cues or in response to feelings or circumstances. Observing that and noticing that is important and builds our insight and understanding about our drinking. Then, once we’ve made some changes, we might seek alternative activities, or expand our ability to manage how we feel that has nothing to do with drinking. It helps a lot of times to do this with somebody that could be a friend or an associate in the community or a coworker. It could also be a professional, like a doctor or a therapist.”
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