Dry January Leaves Behind Sobering Thoughts

For those of you who have successfully navigated Dry January without a slip up, your liver, heart and skin all thank you. Dry January is said to be an observance gaining in popularity during the last few years — sort of a “mini New Year’s resolution” to some.

According to Forbes, the pledge to avoid drinking alcohol during the month of January was first launched in the United Kingdom by the group Alcohol Change UK in 2013. Says Alcohol Change, about 4,000 people participated during that first year. By 2021, the number had climbed to 130,000. No one seems quite clear how Dry January became an international event.

Not to be lost in this conversation is the fact that alcoholism is a medical disorder afflicting millions of people the world over.

As reported by World Population Review, Americans consume an average of 8.7 liters of pure alcohol per capita annually. Though the U.S. ranks 7th on its list of countries with the highest rates of alcoholism, it is 38th on the list of countries with the highest alcohol consumption by population.

Says Forbes, last year, “a survey from food and beverage research firm CGA found that 35% of adults of drinking age in the United States avoided alcohol for the whole month in January 2022, up from only 21% the year before.” The hope is that people will benefit from the experience.

“Even if you only do a Dry January to take a break after the holidays or to reset in the new year, a month off of drinking can really shift your perspective and your understanding of your relationship with alcohol,” notes the Cleveland Clinic.

Wrapped within this seemingly positive trend is one greatly concerning fact. According to the results of a recent survey of those participating in Dry January by CivicScience, while more than a third (33%) said they were not using anything as a substitute for alcohol during the month, an estimated “60% said they were using either cannabis/CBD products,” or a nonalcoholic beverage as alternatives. “By age group, respondents aged 21 through 24 were the most likely to substitute cannabis for alcohol during Dry January, with 34% saying weed is their preferred option,” reports Forbes. The past year also saw several new iterations of cannabis-infused drinks as alternatives to alcohol. So much for the concept of significant boosts in energy and clarity of thinking one month of this sobriety experiment is said to provide.

As NBC News recently reported, alcohol-related liver disease is on the rise in the U.S. The nation is seeing “a disturbing trend of 25-to-34-year-old men and women experiencing severe, and sometimes fatal, liver damage related to their drinking,” they add. “A 2018 study reported that between 2009 and 2016, deaths attributed to alcohol-related cirrhosis — scarring of the organ that can lead to its failure over time — had been consistently rising, with the sharpest increase among those in that age group.” This includes a “sharp rise among young adults, 25 to 34 years old, especially among women. Death rates rose each year for both genders.”

Researchers believe that there are several potential causes for this rise, from economic uncertainty to isolation during the pandemic to underlying trauma. Another possibility is that drinks are now more potent and people are “drinking more per unit volume,” says Dr. Elliot Tapper, a liver disease expert and gastroenterology specialist at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“We’re definitely seeing younger and younger patients coming in with what we previously thought was advanced liver disease seen in patients only in their middle age, 50s and 60s,” adds Dr. Jessica Mellinger, a liver specialist also at the University of Michigan Medical School.

As recently reported by CBS News’ Nancy Chen: “Alcoholic liver disease kills about 22,000 Americans every year … Nearly a quarter of those deaths are people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.”

“Many of them don’t really have the insight into the fact that the alcohol is what brought them to the emergency room,” Dr. Thomas Schiano, medical director of the adult liver transplant program at Mount Sinai Medical Center, explains to Chen. Schiano reports seeing “a dramatic increase in alcohol-related liver disease in young adults, particularly women, in the last three years … I think it sneaks up on them and then it becomes too late.”

For “the past 20-plus years the evidence has been building and building that alcohol is not good for your health,” John Callaci, a researcher with Loyola University Chicago’s Alcohol Research Program, recently explained to Time magazine’s Jamie Ducharme.

“Callaci, for his part, thinks there’s enough evidence to suggest that zero drinking is the safest choice — but he doubts the U.S. would issue such a recommendation any time soon,” says Ducharme. “The U.S. isn’t as proactive as many other countries on public-health issues, and the alcohol industry has a huge amount of money and political power … Plus, drinking is deeply embedded in U.S. culture and that’s unlikely to change overnight.”

Nonetheless, there is a growing consensus among many public health officials as to what is the safe amount of alcohol one should drink: none. So says new guidance from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, guidelines that follow a similar statement and conclusion by the World Health Organization. “We cannot talk about a so-called safe level of alcohol use. It doesn’t matter how much you drink — the risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage,” says the WHO.

For Canada, this new policy marks a dramatic shift from its former national guidance on alcohol consumption, which advised women to have no more than 10 drinks per week and men no more than 15. “The new report says those who drink only one or two boozy beverages per week ‘will likely avoid’ alcohol-related health consequences including chronic diseases, liver injury, and accidents — but the safest choice, it says, is not to drink at all,” reports Ducharme.

When, decades ago, U.S. public health authorities began sounding the alarm about associated health risks of cigarette smoking, it still took many years for rates to fall to their current historically low levels. “Cultural perceptions of alcohol may evolve in a similar way,” Ducharme says.