- Many people do Dry January for well-known benefits like improved sleep, skin, bloat, and mood.
- Cutting out alcohol, even temporarily, has invisible benefits too, like to your liver and heart.
- But I’ve discovered some surprising changes, too, like hunger and vivid dreams.
It didn’t come until 2 or 3 in the morning, after I’d tossed, turned, gotten up to pee countless times, and relocated to the couch for a fresh start.
If you’re a near-daily drinker trying Dry January for the first time like me, you may have to pass through sleep trouble before arriving at baby-like slumber.
That’s because alcohol is a depressant that the body is used to relying on to get to sleep, Katie Witkiewitz, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcohol, Substance Use, and Addictions, told me. Take it away, and your body and mind need to relearn how to drift off on their own.
The good news in those early days: “Even if you’re having a hard time falling asleep, you are probably sleeping better,” Witkiewitz said.
Just how restorative sleep can be tends to surprise people most, Witkiewitz said. “We don’t realize how much alcohol impacts sleep and energy in long run,” she said.
Indeed, while a normal sleep cycle can include up to six or seven REM cycles — the restorative phase of sleep — after drinking, you may only get one or two, according to William Porter, the author of “Alcohol Explained.”
Those dreams can be especially vivid, in part because you’re operating in a new sort of environment — one that’s alcohol free — and your brain is trying to make sense of it. Many people, myself included, reported a similar phenomenon when the pandemic struck.
And if the sandman bestows nightmares, particularly those involving alcohol, know too that can be part of the process, Witkiewitz said. Your brain is just chewing on your new pattern — it’s not a sign you should, or will, give up.
Remove the cocktails and raise inhibitions, and suddenly you may find yourself in a calorie deficit. While for some that can contribute to longer-term weight loss, short term, it can make you ravishing. (My hand is raised here!)
If you’ve been a long-time heavy drinker, your body also needs that extra energy to help heal all the organs booze has been damaging, the coaches at the Live Alcohol Experiment, the 30-day program I’m following, emphasize.
They recommend drinking lots of water and filling up on protein to support the process.
Reaching for the cookies and ice cream may also feel comforting in the absence of your old crutch, Witkiewitz said.
“Anytime people change a behavior, our natural gut reaction — literally — is to experience more hunger,” she said. “There’s the boredom factor and the reward factor … and food is a very accessible, natural reward.”
Fortunately, she said, the intensity of the cravings shouldn’t last. “The body is really miraculous in coming into a homeostatic state,” she said. “Eventually, people feel more cravings for healthier foods, and have more energy.”
Meantime, you can curb your cravings by brushing your teeth, drinking a non-alcoholic beverage like peppermint tea, or grabbing some fruit, AlcoholChange.org, the UK organization credited with launching the Dry January movement in 2013, recommends.
“Alcohol touches many systems in the body and touches almost every neurotransmitter,” or the molecules that foster communicate between brain cells, according to the medical group Vala Health.
“Your brain almost goes into hyperdrive for a while after you remove the alcohol and are no longer numbing it.”
But like the sugar cravings, your body should eventually reach homeostasis, though you’ll still likely feel more highs and lows than if you remained in a booze-induced haze. That’s a good thing: Humans are meant to feel their feelings.
Some people may benefit from working with a therapist to work through them — and understand why they were using alcohol to cover them up.
In the case of Dry January, living a hangover-free existance supports other healthy habits: Waking up feeling good makes a gym visit more likely, which can spark a craving for a healthy meal, which can support good sleep, etc.
You may also find you’re swapping your usual happy hour time for a dog walk, or drinking a healthy kombucha in place of a not-so-healthy wine.
Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin’s habit-change strategy of “identity” could be at play too. You may think: “I’m a non-drinker right now, and non-drinkers make healthy choices.”
How effortless other health goals become often surprises people, Nick Allen, co-founder and CEO of Sunnyside, an app and organization that helps people drink more mindfully, told me.
“It’s amazing to see, especially for folks where alcohol is a little out of balance in their life, how drinking less, all of sudden, they’re unlocking these other health goals that they’d been pursuing for a long time without much success,” he said.
“I have always found that there isn’t a return to the level of drinking prior because your body isn’t use to it,” Witkiewitz said.
Plus, the study suggests, the month gives people a chance to experience the benefits of sobriety and learn they don’t need to drink to enjoy themselves.
It also gives the brain a chance to recalibrate its reward system toward natural dopamine-boosters like exercise and music, the Alcohol Experiment teaches.
For some people, the experience can inspire them to continue to abstain. For others, it means drinking with intention, not out of (bad) habit. As Allen told me, when it comes to mindful drinking, “we want to minimize the frequency, and maximize the enjoyment.”