Week-by-week guide to the physical and mental health benefits
- By day seven, you will notice improved sleep and productivity
- Even your vision can improve, as blood pressure lessens
- By 31 January, your liver is the big winner, with more than 500 associated health benefits
“31 days alcohol-free” is the challenge – with an estimated nine million UK adults (that’s one in seven) planning on taking part in Dry January® in 2023.
And an addiction expert at the Priory says the health and mental health benefits are wide-ranging and manifold – from improved vision to losing weight to clearer and younger-looking skin.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr David McLaughlan, whose clinical training began at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London before he attended the world-class Maudsley Training Programme at The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), says that during a full alcohol-free January, every week brings fresh health benefits, including some lesser-known positives.
The insights are shared in a new “milestones” calendar, based on the physiology of alcohol withdrawal, designed by Priory, the UK’s leading independent provider of addiction and mental health services.
Alcohol consumption in the UK reaches its peak at Christmas, leaving many Brits feeling the need to park their drinking consumption in January. Yet, across the UK, the problems caused by excess drinking go far deeper than just the mild symptoms of a hangover. New data shows a dramatic rise in people seeking help for alcohol addiction, with a 55% increase in treatment inquiries recorded at Priory, the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health and addiction services.
And almost 10,000 people a year die from diseases known to be a direct consequence of alcohol, according to the Office for National Statistics. This is an increasing trend. The figure grew by 27% in 2021 compared to 2020.
Dr McLaughlan, visiting consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital Roehampton who has also co-founded an app that helps guide people through an alcohol-free January, said: “For those taking on the alcohol-free challenge in January, every day is a new milestone.
“The month will begin with an initial ‘hangover’ stage as our bodies suffer from alcohol withdrawal. However, once we’re over those first few days, we’ll begin to notice dramatic improvements in our physical health, not to mention our mental health.
“It’s important to stress that if you’re suffering from alcohol addiction, it is dangerous to stop drinking suddenly without medical support, so contact your GP or specialist services like Priory for help. Now is the time, but you don’t need to do this alone.”
Saturday 7 January: Better sleep, hydration and brain function
“For those who are able to do Dry January, you’ll reach your first major physiological milestone by 7 January,” says Dr McLaughlan: “You will notice improved sleep and productivity, with better decision-making and probably healthier eating patterns too.
“When you drink alcohol, you typically fall straight into a deep sleep, missing the important rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. While you are supposed to have between six and seven cycles of REM sleep a night, you typically only have one or two.
“There are many benefits of better sleep. You will be more productive, where you can learn and problem solve better. Your ability to control your emotions and behaviour will also improve.
“Sleep also helps to balance the hormones that make you feel hungry or full. After drinking alcohol, your ghrelin levels (the hormone that makes you feel hungry) go up and leptin (the hormones that make you feel full) go down.”
Dr McLaughlan said: “When you drink alcohol, you lose around four times as much liquid as you actually drank. Dehydration can cause headaches, as your organs take water from the brain. Salt and potassium levels also reduce, which can impact nerve and proper muscle function while also causing headaches, fatigue and nausea. Without alcohol, your mood and concentration will be more stable, and the frequency of headaches is likely to decrease. You also won’t suffer from the effects of dehydration – such as lack of motivation and increased fatigue, so will have more energy throughout the day.”
Saturday 14 January: healthier gut
No more acid reflux:
Dr McLaughlan says: “The second major health milestone comes on about 14 January, when your stomach acid production stabilizes, leaving you feeling better inside. As alcohol is an irritant to the stomach lining, you will also see a reduction in symptoms such as reflux where the stomach acid burns your throat.
“You are also likely to start losing weight as a result of giving up alcohol’s empty calories. If you were to stop drinking six 175ml glasses of wine per week, you would have avoided 1,920 calories at this point, and 2,160 if you’d stopped drinking around six pints of lager.”
“If you’re not used to going this long without alcohol, you’ll really notice the difference at this point.”
Saturday 21 January: Lower blood pressure and improved vision
Reduced blood pressure:
Dr McLaughlan said: “By around 21 January, you might be amazed to experience improved vision, which stems from lower blood pressure.
“Drinking too much alcohol can cause your blood pressure to rise over time. After three weeks of not drinking, your blood pressure will start to reduce, which lowers your chances of a heart problem or a stroke.
“As the calories in alcohol cause you to gain weight, giving up alcohol can also help you to reduce your blood pressure as a result of the weight you can potentially lose. By this point, if you’d previously been drinking six 175ml glasses of wine a week, you would have avoided 2,880 calories over three weeks. And if you’d been drinking six pints of lager a week, you would have swerved 3,240 calories.”
Tuesday 31 January: 500 benefits of improved liver function
Younger looking skin:
Dr McLaughlan said: “Finally, for those who make it right through to 31 January, congratulations. On the outside, you’ll have visibly better looking skin, as more water is absorbed into our skin cells, we have increased cell turnover and premature aging of the skin is prevented.
Liver function recovered:
“Meanwhile, on the inside, the benefits are enormous, including fully-recovered liver function, which enables the organ to play its vital role in more than 500 physiological processes, from converting food nutrients to helping fight infection.
“You’ll notice increased energy levels and, if you‘d usually have been drinking the recommended maximum weekly intake of alcohol, you will have avoided more than 4,000 calories
“Now see if you can you keep up the good work in February”
Drinkers worried about unhealthy alcohol consumption habits can receive a free confidential addiction assessment with an experienced therapist at a Priory Hospital by calling 0800 144 8969.
For more information about the physical benefits of giving up alcohol in January, visit: https://www.priorygroup.com/blog/benefits-of-giving-up-alcohol-for-a-month
To learn more about the JITAI app, co-founded by Dr David McLaughlan, visit: http://try.jitaihealth.com/dryjan/