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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Amber Raiken

I took a one-month break from drinking, here’s how Dry January will benefit you

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After years of drinking during a majority of social occasions, which included delving into the nightlife scene of New York City, I figured it was time for a rest.

I didn’t try a sober challenge in January, like many others do, but instead decided to give up alcohol completely for November. Although there are various reasons why one may attempt a sober month, one of the biggest factors in my decision was my face. When I drink even one or two drinks, my face becomes bright red as a result of alcohol flush reaction, or the “Asian glow”. As noted by the National Institutes of Health, the main symptom of alcohol flush reaction “is a red face or flush,” which can “also be accompanied by hives, nausea, low blood pressure, the worsening of asthma, or an episode of migraine”.

The reaction doesn’t mean that I have an “alcohol allergy,” as the condition is rather a “type of alcohol intolerance”. The alcohol flush reaction is also primarily “due to inherited variations in genes of certain enzymes” – found among people of East Asian ancestry –  that cause them “to metabolise alcohol less efficiently”. When I drink, whether it’s a glass of red wine or two alcoholic seltzers, I typically get red in the cheeks, nose, or forehead. The redness usually fades within an hour, even if I continue drinking throughout the evening.

With hard liquor, the reaction is usually the same, except for one instance during my junior year of college when I broke out in hives while drinking rum. My friends had insisted that I needed to go to the emergency room, with the assumption that I was allergic to the alcohol. Fortunately, the hives went away within 20 minutes, but I was left spooked by the incident.

In addition to the facial side effects of drinking, which is admittedly annoying, another factor that led me to my sober month was living in New York City, where drinking an aperol spritz or an espresso martini isn’t cheap. Typically, when bouncing between bars in Manhattan or Brooklyn, each drink ranges from $15 to $20. Towards the middle of October, I found myself going out for drinks at least four times a week, simply because I was finding himself in social environments where others were drinking. When I looked at the hefty bills on my credit card statement at the end of the month, for all the drinks I’d barely wanted in the first place, I knew I needed to make a change.

It didn’t take much to convince me, and I offically began my month of sobriety on 1 November. After the first week, I didn’t feel much of a difference, beyond the small temptation to sip my mother’s wine at dinner, which quickly faded away.

But by the second week of the month, I let the fact that wasn’t drinking affect my time with my friends.

I was invited to a bar with my best friend and her pals, most of who I hadn’t met before. During the outing, I stood in the big circle with a glass of coke in my hand, while all of those around me were drinking beer and glasses of wine. In the past, I’d found these social interactions easy, as alcohol can help make the small talk come out easier. But when everyone else was drinking except me, I felt the urge to leave nights out earlier than I usually would, which is exactly what I did.

Towards the middle and end of November, I became adamant that my drinking habits wouldn’t affect my social skills, so I went to a few nightclubs with my friends in Brooklyn. However, the drawbacks I experienced at the beginning of the month were still there: I felt out of place in a sea of people who were drinking. I also got annoyed by the louder voice my friend was using - which worsened when we entered the bar - simply because she was drunk and I was not. I will say that one plus about the evening was that I felt more awake and was better at holding conversation with strangers than usual. I may be more comfortable talking to others when I’m drinking, but I sounded smarter without the booze.

There are also health benefits that come from not drinking, as a 2019 survey from the University of Sussex found that 67 per cent of the 800 participants who took part in Dry January in 2018 felt more energised after the month. Meanwhile, 58 per cent of participants reported losing weight, and 71 per cent said they slept better. In addition, 82 per cent of people who took part in the challenge said they “think more deeply about their relationship with drinking”.

When I stepped onto the scale after a month of no drinking, I didn’t notice any change in my weight. However, I did recognise other changes to my physical well being, such as improved sleep.

Kate Spicer giving up alcohol
— (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In addition to sleeping better, I was also going to sleep earlier than ever before. For the first time in about four years, I spent an entire month going to sleep at 11pm or 12am – which was quite a big shift from my usual bedtime of 1am or 2am, regardless of whatever plans I had the next day. With my new, earlier bedtime, I found myself waking up at 8.30 or 9am at the latest, even on the weekends.

Amid my routine of sleeping better in November, I felt more refreshed throughout the day, which was a feeling that continued when I went out with friends at night. Two weeks into December, I’ve been able to maintain the once unfamiliar nighttime routine, and I’m extremely grateful for that.

When November ended, I reminded myself why I took the break from alcohol in the first place: I felt financially and socially drained from my drinking habits in October. I also realised that these were drinking habits that I engaged in throughout most of 2023, which is why I’m even happier I took the break. While I know that no one needs to have alcohol to have fun, and my drinking habits weren’t out of control, I had reached a point where I was drinking alcohol just for the sake of doing so, and because everyone else was.

When November ended, I started analysing my relationship with alcohol and decided that, while I am happy to drink in a social setting, I don’t need to to the extent I was before. I also reminded myself about my lingering annoyance with my alcohol flush reaction when drinking. Although I’m aware that I’m not allergic to alcohol, and that the redness isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, it’s a reaction from my body that I shouldn’t ignore.

With Dry January fast approaching, there’s a range of health benefits and drawbacks to consider if you’re planning on committing to a month of sobriety.

As part of the annual initiative, Dry January encourages individuals to give up alcohol for all 31 days of the month. Following a month without alcohol, some of the documented health benefits have ranged from an improved sleep schedule to improved skin and liver health. The challenge also rose in popularity in 2022, with a 35 per cent increase in US adults taking a break from drinking in January, according to CGA, a company that specialises in food and drink data research. Out of those who attempted the challenge, CGA reports 74 per cent succeeded.

I shamelessly chose November instead of January because I knew I wouldn’t want to avoid drinking on my birthday – which happens to be in the first month of the year. But I’d happily consider a Damp January.

If you do end up trying Dry January, you could end up changing your drinking habits in small ways that you never expected, and both your wallet and physical health will thank you for it.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a good reset, and an opportunity to change your mindset about alcohol, I’d recommend a month off from drinking.

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