This Is What Dry January Does To Your Brain, According To Science

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Millions of people across the U.S. and elsewhere are ringing in the New Year by doing "Dry January": completely abstaining from all forms of alcohol for the first month of the year. As a New Year's health reset, it makes sense: after the parties of the festive period, many of us come into January feeling the need for a reassessment of our habits. At its core, Dry January isn't about feeling smug with your mocktail; it can prompt a new understanding of what role alcohol plays in your life, and also change your body and your brain.

Every January I've ever celebrated has been dry; I don't drink because of health issues and haven't all my life. However, Dry January is part of a growing trend of people who are, as mindful drinking organization Club Soda calls it, "sober curious." Trend watchers indicate that mocktails and non-alcoholic alternatives are now far more common on cocktail menus and in bars than they once were. Whether people just want to live without hangovers or are keen to see how they fare without alcohol, going alcohol-free is more popular than ever. Here's how doing Dry January, or giving up alcohol for a lengthy period at any point in the year, affects your brain.


Your Mood May Stabilize

Alcohol, even in mild amounts, is a depressive, but it can also prompt a cycle of low mood. "Regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of our brain by decreasing the levels of serotonin — a key chemical in depression," notes the European Medical Students' Association. "As a result of this depletion, a cyclical process begins where one drinks to relieve depression, which causes serotonin levels in the brain to be depleted, leading to one feeling even more depressed, and thus necessitating even more alcohol consumption to medicate this depression." This is why 'drinking to forget' is a thing.

Even if you're not already prone to mood disorders, alcohol can exacerbate mood instability. "The mood swings associated with alcohol can cause us to experience painful memories and unresolved feelings while intoxicated," says Quit Alcohol. Without drinks in your system, your feelings of low and high might stabilize over the course of January.


Your REM Sleep Will Improve — And So Will Your Memory

Normal sleep involves several episodes of rapid eye movement or REM sleep, the first one starting around 90 minutes after you fall asleep. That's when you dream, and when the brain does a lot of crucial work on memory retention and emotional processing. Alcohol, even in mild amounts, can cause serious disruption to REM sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker tells Vogue, and that can have knock-on effects on your memory.

“Essentially what REM sleep is doing is updating your mind-wide web of informational associations, and that leads to wonderful insights and problem-solving," Walker said. Without REM sleep, our cognitive functions and memory are impaired. Several studies back that up, including one in 2003 that found that alcohol causes mental disruption for many hours after consumption.

A study on Dry January participants in 2018 found that 71 percent slept better and 57 percent reported better concentration. While those results were self-reported, it's still a significant result. Going without alcohol for a month will quite possibly shift your REM sleep levels and boost your cognition.


Your Neurotransmitter Levels Will Change

Having a drink or several causes alterations in the brain's levels of neurotransmitters, the substances neurons use to communicate and activate different neural pathways. "Alcohol can affect the levels of both dopamine — a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, and GABA — a neurotransmitter that causes relaxation and a sense of calm. A hangover is the opposite of these, inducing a low mood and anxiety," Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, wrote. These seesawing neurotransmitter levels have effects on your mood and thinking.

So what happens when you stop drinking? "Alcohol suppresses the production of certain neurotransmitters," Dr Adam Taylor of the Anatomical Society wrote for The Conversation. "After a while, the body adjusts to the continual presence of high amounts of alcohol by producing more of these neurotransmitters and their receptors — the proteins on the surface of nerve cells that neurotransmitters latch on to." When people with substance used disorder quit drinking, he says, "there is a surge in neurotransmitters, way above what the body needs."

No matter your previous relationship to alcohol, your neurotransmitter levels have still likely been affected over time by your drinking, and Dry January may cause a surge, though not enough to cause debilitating side effects.


You Might Experience A Rise In Stress Neurotransmitters

If you're a serious social drinker, you may find Dry January a stressful experience. Part of the reason for that is neurological. Professor Jamie Smolen writes for The Conversation, "During abstinence from alcohol, stress neurotransmitters such as corticotropin-releasing factor (FRC) and dynorphin are released. These powerful neurochemicals cause negative emotional states associated with alcohol withdrawal."

Corticotropin-releasing factor is a big part of our body's stress response, particularly in social situations; it's why feeling isolated hurts so much, for instance. Smolen notes that this may be a factor in why people with substance use disorder have a hard time quitting: being sober can be stressful.


It Reshapes Your Cravings For Alcohol

The 2018 study, which looked at 800 participants in Dry January specifically, found that for the great majority of them, a month without alcohol reshaped their relationship with drinking entirely. Over 75 percent said they'd learned about their motivations for drinking, and 80 percent said they felt more in control of it. When they were re-interviewed in August 2018, average drinking days had fallen from 4.3 to 3.3 per week, and the frequency of being drunk had dropped from 3.4 days per month to 2.1 days.

The participants also drank less overall six months afterwards, drinking 7.1 units on average on their drinking days, down from 8.6 units. Dr. Richard de Visser, who ran the study, said in a press release, “The simple act of taking a month off alcohol helps people drink less in the long term: by August people are reporting one extra dry day per week."

Neurologically, this implies that the brain's reward center — which spikes when given pleasurable things, and drives us to crave them — had been reconfigured by Dry January, or was better understood by the people abstaining. Long-term alcohol use can actually change the structure of the reward center, according to a study in 2017, which is another reason why substance use disorder is so hard to treat. If you come out of Dry January simply not wanting alcohol as much as you did, it's because the reward circuitry of your brain has shifted.


Overall, the health benefits of Dry January are what tends to grab the headlines: better skin, better sleep, lowering risk of various alcohol-related diseases. However, the neurological benefits seem to be pretty worthwhile too.