Dry January: What you might gain and lose by staying sober for a month

Cutting back on booze to begin the new year can help you feel better and brighter, and you might even lose some weight, according to a D.C.-area psychiatrist. But she also warns about a common side-effect.

“The first couple nights when you stop drinking, you may have difficulty sleeping,” said Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, chair of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “That’s a common problem that people have when they stop drinking … they get insomnia.”

Common countermeasures include increasing exercise, drinking herbal tea or milk before bedtime, or using over-the-counter sleep aids such as melatonin.

“If you’ve been drinking very heavily, then it’s probably not a good idea to stop suddenly,” Ritchie said.

“If you’ve been drinking very heavily, then it’s probably not a good idea to stop suddenly,” Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie said. (Courtesy Medstar Washington Hospital Center)

Withdrawal symptoms can include shaking, tremors, nausea or anxiety.

Those who are dependent on alcohol, however, may face more serious symptoms, such as seizures, or what’s called delirium tremens, which is also known as “seeing pink elephants.” That’s something Ritchie said is a medical emergency for which you should seek help.

Medical professionals can give heavy drinkers advice or even medicines that can help safely wean them off alcohol.

For many, however, social drinking has been part of a way to celebrate the last few weeks, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

“If drinking alcohol is a social activity for you, and it is for many, then you might want to think about other social activities to replace it,” Ritchie said. “Getting exercise is a wonderful thing, but you might want to think of something else — something you really enjoy — such as taking up dance or taking a walk.”

Replacing drinking with those activities may be beneficial, Ritchie said, for those who arrive in the new year thinking they’ve gained some weight or suffered through too many hangovers lately.

“There’s lots and lots of reasons that people want to cut back or stop their alcohol use.”

The idea of “Dry January” seems to have caught on as a 2014 public health campaign in the U.K., and is new enough for there not to be good data on potential long-term effects or behavior changes related to giving up drinking “cold turkey.”

“What we do know is, in general, if people cut back on drinking and they feel better, they’re much more likely to stay moderate in their drinking, and we certainly know that moderate drinking is better than heavy drinking,” she said.

Though Ritchie observes that cutting back on alcohol in the short or longer term is “probably a good thing,” she also offers a bit of advice to a broader audience.

“We’re starting out by talking about alcohol and that’s a really good thing, but there are a lot of other substances of abuse that would be really wise to quit entirely,” Ritchie said, referencing opioids and synthetic drugs, including K-2 and spice.

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