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Wellness Wednesday

Dry January and the benefits of taking a break from booze

You don't need booze to keep you warm.
You don't need booze to keep you warm.Jay Gabler/MPR
  Play Now [9:39]

by Jill Riley

January 26, 2022

For this week's Wellness Wednesday, Jill Riley touched base with Dr. Kristen Schmidt, an addiction psychiatrist from Hazelden, Betty Ford, about Dry January and how to know when it's time to make a change in your life.

Jill Riley: Dry January: it seems like every year it becomes a more popular trend. Why do you think that is?

Kristen Schmidt: Well, I think everybody is feeling a need at this point to make a change in their lives, whether it's with their nutrition, whether it's with their finances, or their career. I'm always happy as a physician to hear that they're ready to make it about wellness.

The Dry January movement actually started in the UK in 2012 as a public health initiative, and it really caught on after an article was published in the British Medical Journal suggesting that people who quit using alcohol for a month actually had great health benefits. They found that people were sleeping better, they had weight loss, their blood pressure had improved. We can even see in my patients that their liver enzymes improve just after two weeks of not drinking. So I know this has caught on and I'm certainly glad it has.

When it comes to Dry January - people taking a break from alcohol consumption - I'm guessing that there are a lot of different experiences. Like, “I overindulged over the holidays, I want to start the new year with this wellness initiative.” I'm guessing that there are people out there that are like, “You know, I've been drinking too much lately. And I want to see how I do in a month.” And then I'm guessing that they're even more subgroups like, Wow, I had to white-knuckle that,” or, “Hey, this is great. I'm feeling really good. Why don't I continue this trend?” So how do people know when it's time to make a change in their life?

Yeah, one of one of the phrases we hear a lot is that when you start drinking, it's fun. And then it can become fun with problems. And then for a group of people, it becomes just problems. So anyone who is in that category of it now being fun with problems is a really simple way to know that it may be time to make a change.

Oftentimes, we are not the best [judges] of ourselves. So if you have loved ones, people in your life, who are saying, “Hey, you know, it seems like you were drinking a lot recently” or, “It seems like you're not sleeping so well”…or, you know, a lot of people don't know that mood and anxiety issues can result from constant alcohol use. Even if it's just a couple glasses of wine a night, people can have substance-induced anxiety and mood disorders as a result. So when it starts affecting your life, and it takes you away from engagement and life, and it becomes something that you're using to avoid life, that's often a good signal that it's time to take a look at it and make a change.

So what are some of those first steps if somebody wants to take a real examination of their relationship with substances, or alcohol?

I think getting a journal is is a good first step and really just taking an inventory of you know, “What are what are the benefits that I'm seeing when I drink alcohol, and what are some of the problems that I'm seeing?” Really examining, “Why am I using alcohol?”

For some people, if they are using it chronically, and they are using high amounts - so for women, more than four drinks at a sitting; men, five drinks at a sitting - or they have a family history of an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, we do want to make sure that people talk with their physician before engaging in stopping alcohol use, because there is a withdrawal syndrome that can be life-threatening.

So we do want to make sure that those people with more severe alcohol use - while it's an excellent idea, we want to make sure that they do have a medical support team that is in the loop with with their decision. But for those that do not engage in heavy or severe alcohol use, just taking a look at why they're drinking [and] starting with just one day at a time is a good way to begin that path towards wellness.

What about for people who are on the other side of that? What if you're one of those family members or friends, what's what's an approach that you can take to, you know, really having a concerned and loving conversation with someone?

Well, I think starting with “I love you” is always the best way to begin. So, making sure that this is not a judgmental place that you're coming from. And really just having the person that you love, who may be using the substances in a way that could be problematic, having an open discussion that's judgment-free and saying, you know, what do you think about your alcohol use? How do you feel like it's affecting you?

Frankly, the most important thing that any family member can do is join that effort in solidarity. So if if your loved one is taking the month out from alcohol, you do that as well, especially for my my patients who struggle with more severe alcohol use disorders. That's one of the best things that family members can do is say, hey, you know, for this New Year's Eve, for this Christmas, we're not going to have alcohol at the table. We're not going to have that be a part of the celebration this time, and see what positive changes can result.

I'm still thinking about just the short-term health benefits that can come from stopping drinking for just a couple weeks. For me, that's pretty huge, that people can have such big results. Any advice as we're rounding out the end of the first month of 2022?

I would say that if you are doing this, if you are trying this, number one, congratulations, because most people do not make a dedicated effort to try and stop their alcohol use until other people have gotten involved or consequences have been severe. So I really am inspired by people who elect to do this on their own and to try something different. If it becomes a struggle, what I would say is, that's a good sign that you may need to reach out for additional help, whether it's outpatient treatment, whether it's just going to an AA meeting as a first step and seeing what that's like…if it's very uncomfortable for folks doing that month of sobriety, that they allow themselves to get the help that they need. And for those that it's not a struggle, you know, there's still the opportunity to say, hey, “What have the positive gains been?” You know, “Maybe I have a reason to keep going with this.”

If anybody is looking for more information, what are some good resources that you would recommend? is going to be a wonderful resource for helping people. AA is a wonderful resource. We talked about family members who sometimes have a struggle discussing these things with with their loved ones, and we know Al-Anon is a wonderful resource to help to help with those conversations as well.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.