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Dry January: A time to reassess your relationship with alcohol

Shirley McMarlin
| Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, 10:33 a.m.
People participating in Dry January take a month to abstain from and reassess their relationships with alcohol.
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People participating in Dry January take a month to abstain from and reassess their relationships with alcohol.

January is the time to put those resolutions into practice. New year, new you — right?

One practice that’s come along in recent years is Dry January, a month for people to abstain from and reassess their relationships with alcohol.

The idea is that even a brief time-out can benefit a person’s physical, emotional and social well-being, and can reveal if a person’s drinking actually is a problem.

“The interesting thing is that we imbibe quite a lot over the holidays,” says Dr. Jason Kirby, medical director for Gateway Rehabilitation, an Aliquippa-based drug and alcohol treatment center. “We drink more than at other times, so hangovers are pretty common at this time of year.

“A lot of Americans make a resolution to cut back, but do they actually carry out that resolution? Not so much,” he says.

•••

DRY JANUARY

The Dry January campaign started in 2013, an initiative of Alcohol Change UK, a London-based charity that works for a society “free from the harm caused by alcohol,” according to its website.

Alcohol Change UK is not a modern-day temperance movement, the website assures. Rather, its aim is “a future in which people drink as a conscious choice, not a default; where the issues which lead to alcohol problems — like poverty, mental health issues, homelessness — are addressed; where those of us who drink too much, and our loved ones, have access to high-quality support whenever we need it, without shame or stigma.”

The movement begins in 2011 when UK resident Emily Robinson decides to stop drinking in January to train for a half marathon taking place in February. She loses weight, sleeps better and has more energy. People want to know about her experience.

In January 2012, she goes to work for Alcohol Change UK and abstains again. The conversation about taking a January booze break goes organization-wide, and the idea for Dry January evolves. About 4,000 people participate.

By 2018, the number rises to 4 million in the UK.

•••

NICE INCENTIVE

“Dry January is a nice incentive to help people look at why they drink,” says Jodi Axe, clinical director at Allied Addiction Recovery, a Pittsburgh-based outpatient drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility. “It’s a way to explore other avenues to have fun, to relax and be social. It’s good for people who are looking to make some better choices.”

“Even cutting back a little has real health benefits,” Kirby says, noting that even moderate alcohol consumption affects the central nervous system, internal organs and the digestive tract.

“Even for those without substance use problems, alcohol can be a concern,” he says. “It’s full of empty calories that can cause weight gain. It can stimulate reflux and other digestive problems. Your exercise tolerance goes down with drinking, and obviously you’re going to be more sedentary when you’re drinking.”

•••

HIDDEN ISSUES

While alcohol use can manifest in physical symptoms, it can hide evidence of other issues, Axe says.

“(Abstention) can help people see what is actually going on in their bodies,” she says. “You can attend to things that alcohol use could be covering up, like mental health issues that need to be addressed.”

It’s common for people to drink to deal with social anxiety, Axe says. Alcohol use also can mask sleep disturbances, racing thoughts, depression and even sleep apnea.

“If you quit and notice dramatic changes in your thinking or your body, you should seek medical attention for a complete physical,” Axe says.

Another thing to consider, Kirby says, is the effect of drinking on the health of your wallet.

“Obviously, alcohol costs money — sometimes a lot of money, depending on what you’re drinking,” he says. “So you’re using money that could be put to other use, a lot of times probably better use.”

•••

USE CAUTION

And finally, Kirby and Axe offer a couple of cautions.

“If you try (Dry January) and find it difficult to cut back, you should talk with your doctor as soon as possible,” Kirby says.

“I think it’s more suitable possibly for someone who is a social drinker,” Axe says. “The problem for people who are addicted to alcohol is that to abruptly discontinue drinking is extremely dangerous,” she says. “The body gets used to functioning with alcohol in it, so to just quit can cause medical issues like seizures, DTs (delirium tremens) and even death.”

People with an alcohol addiction should plan their withdrawal under the care of a medical professional, she says.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

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