As the new year begins, many people have chosen to abstain from alcohol and participate in "Dry January." Writing in Harvard Public Health, Christine Mehta interviews Aaron Carroll, a pediatrician, researcher, and chief health officer at Indiana University, about the potential benefits and risks of alcohol and whether a "Damp January" may be more appropriate for some people.
How the pandemic has impacted drinking habits
During the pandemic, many people increased their alcohol consumption. Alcohol sales remained elevated into 2022 compared to what they were in 2019, according to data from Nielsen.
According to Carroll, he is not necessarily worried that more people are drinking, but "it's people who are drinking in a way that's incompatible with good health" that he's concerned about. Even if people's baseline drinking habits have increased, "it's those at the high end of the spectrum who are most worrisome, not necessarily all of them," he said.
"What is most harmful is long-term, consistent high consumption" of alcohol, Carroll said. Although there is no exact definition of what constitutes long-term high consumption, Carroll recommended people start with CDC's dietary guidelines about alcohol use to gauge their consumption.
According to CDC's guidelines, it is recommended that women have no more than one alcoholic drink a day and men have no more than two drinks a day. These guidelines will not be accurate for everyone, but Carroll said, "they're a good place to start."
In addition, people may want to speak with their doctors about how drinking alcohol may affect their health. "By talking about it with a doctor, you can get a sense of whether you might be approaching the danger zone," Carroll said.
He also recommended that doctors approach discussions about alcohol drinking with a harm reduction mindset rather than total abstinence.
"When we take a hardline stance to drinking, people are less likely to talk honestly about their habits," Carroll said. "… That approach works better with almost everything that we talk about in terms of health, and especially diet and nutrition."
Aim for a 'drier' January this year rather than total abstinence
In 2018, a Lancet study found that no amount of alcohol was safe to consume. Similarly, the World Health Federation in 2022 said no amount of alcohol is safe for heart health.
According to Carroll, while the health risks of alcohol consumption should not be dismissed, "they are smaller than we're often led to believe." For example, the Lancet study did find some health impacts between people who didn't drink and those who had one drink a day, but only 4 in 100,000 people may develop a problem that could have been caused by drinking.
"When we only focus on risk, we ignore the fact that some people derive benefit," Carroll said.
Although some people may want to cut out alcohol entirely to avoid the potential health risks, Carroll said "[v]ery few people can stick to zero" and that complete abstinence "rarely works."
Instead of doing "Dry January," Carroll said he was engaging in a "Drier" January by reducing his alcohol consumption and drinking more moderately. "My son's 21st birthday is Thursday. I'd like to have a drink with him. But maybe that'll be it for this month. Maybe not. I don't want to feel like I'm punishing myself," he said. "I know those few drinks are not going to matter much to my health."
In general, Carroll said that people who want to drink more healthily can consider their relationship with alcohol and try to figure out if adjusting how much they drink may work better for them.
"It's trying to find the right balance and recognizing that the balance is different for different people," Carroll said. "And if you punish yourself, it often backfires because your habits and behaviors are a complex web that involve your mental health and happiness." (Mehta, Harvard Public Health, 1/6)