The end of Dry January is here and that’s something that many people will choose to celebrate by discarding their short-lived sobriety in alarmingly drunken fashion.
Dry January is undoubtedly a good thing. There are many health benefits to quitting alcohol (http://www.coachmag.co.uk/health/5841/8-health-benefits-to-enjoy-from-a-dry-january) for even a brief period like 31 days. Your energy levels increase, you sleep better and you could lose weight (assuming you don’t cope with the absence of booze by scoffing huge junk food dinners).
However, if you go straight back to boozing as normal in February those benefits are likely to disappear. The best way to get the most from Dry January is not simply to tick off what you’ve gained from one month’s sobriety, but instead to use the break as an opportunity to reevaluate your relationship with alcohol entirely, as Bupa UK’s clinical director Dr Luke James explains.
IT’S NOT THAT WE’RE ADDICTED TO ALCOHOL – IT’S JUST A HABIT
“It’s about habits. It’s not that we’re addicted to alcohol – it’s just a habit. Dry January gives you the opportunity to break that hard-wiring. If every Friday night you come in from work and have a bottle of wine, by doing Dry January you’ve broken that link.
“The problem with Dry January is that we know that it takes a long time to form a new habit. So it’s easy to go back after four weeks to what you were doing before. You just revert back.” The end of Dry January, then, can be seen as a starting point rather than an end, because the benefits of reducing your drinking are clear, for both your mental and physical health.
“The big thing that we underplay, because we always talk about the liver,” says James, “is the psychological benefits that a lot of people see – being sharper, having better concentration, sleeping better and then being more on your game at work.”
When it comes to your fitness, reducing your alcohol intake is likely to result in huge improvements.
“There’s no doubt of the impact on your ability to perform,” says James. “Whether that’s as a weekend warrior, a five-a-side footballer or a triathlete, it is affected by alcohol even if [you stick to the recommended limit of] 14 units a week . You should notice an improvement in your performance levels, in your speed and exercise resilience. I’ve certainly noticed I'm a yard quicker at football in the past month – at my age that’s really important!”
Also remember that the 14 units a week recommended limit is just that – a recommendation. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything in your power to get to 14 (which is about seven pints of standard 4% ABV beer or six medium glasses of wine) – instead, try to restrict yourself to half that, even if only in some weeks. “If you’re constantly drinking 14 units that’s fine, it’s within the recommended limits – but you will still gain benefits from reducing that down to seven,” says James. Dry January is one of the few times of year where the social pressure to drink is reduced, and everyone knows it’s trickier to maintain sobriety in the face of that pressure once February arrives. The key, James says, is to form different habits.
“One of the tips we always say is try to do something else. We say that with smoking or any other unhealthy habit. So if you were drinking every Friday before you had January off and you don’t want to go back to that, it’s about finding something else to replace that. Whether it’s playing sport or going out for a meal, it’s about giving yourself the opportunity to embed that habit.”
Here are more of James’s tips for making a lasting change to your relationship with alcohol after Dry January.
Phasing: This means you don’t immediately go back to drinking the same amount – ease yourself back in. After a month’s break, don’t underestimate how much your tolerance will have decreased – you will feel the effects more quickly than usual.
Weekly intake: Be aware of alcohol content. The official advice from the UK health authorities is that it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, but how many drinks this actually equates to depends on the strength – beer can vary from 3.5% ABV to 6% or more, wine from 12-15%. The good news is that after a month off, you should find you have much more awareness of what you’re drinking and be able to self-regulate more easily.
Monitor: Track how much you spend when drinking, both in money and time wasted on feeling terrible the next morning. You’ll be surprised how much you save by cutting down.
Support: Get your partner or group of friends involved and aim to collectively reduce your alcohol intake. It is much easier to stick to something when it’s a team effort.
Alternatives: Try alternative drinks like low-alcohol or alcohol-free beer (http://www.coachmag.co.uk/health/6204/the-best-alcohol-free-beer-for-dry-january) or mocktails. You’ll still feel involved with social events – you just won’t get the hangover.
New habits: Introduce something new each month to give yourself challenges to focus on; this could be a cooking course or a fitness challenge. Thanks to drinking less, you will have sharper focus and more money to spend on doing the things you enjoy.
Find out more about Bupa’s health assessments and arrange a liver function test at bupa.co.uk (http://www.bupa.co.uk/health/health-assessments)