By Dr. David Woo - January 8, 2024
As the new year begins, many people consider making resolutions to enhance their well-being. One growing trend gaining popularity is “Dry January,” a movement encouraging people to abstain from alcohol for the entire month. This isn’t just a way to cut calories or avoid hangovers—cutting down on drinking, or cutting it out entirely, can also be good for your mental health. To find out why, let’s explore the relationship between alcohol consumption and mental health.
Dry January Meaning
Dry January involves voluntarily refraining from alcohol consumption for the entire month of January—31 days in all, although many intend it as a springboard into a more extended period of sobriety. This movement gained traction as people recognized the potential health benefits of giving their bodies a break from alcohol after the festive season. From a mental health perspective, it provides an opportunity for individuals to reassess their relationship with alcohol and its impact on their overall well-being.
The Impact Of Alcohol On Mental Health
Alcohol affects the central nervous system and can have profound consequences on mental health. Because alcohol acts as a sedative, many people with mental health disorders use it to ‘self-medicate’ and numb uncomfortable emotions (1). However, alcohol is also a depressant; despite the short-lived relief it might provide, in the long term, it contributes to the chemical imbalances in the brain that cause depression. It also slows down the brain’s decision-making ability, making it harder to make positive changes in one’s life.
Excessive and dangerous alcohol consumption is clinically labeled alcohol use disorder (AUD) and is linked to various mental health disorders, especially depressive disorders, which are the most common mood disorders in individuals with AUD (2).
Types of Depression And Alcohol Use Disorder
There are various types of depression, each with its unique characteristics. For individuals with conditions such as persistent depressive disorder (PDD), anxiety, or manic depression (bipolar disorder), understanding the interaction between alcohol and their mental state becomes crucial. Dry January serves as an opportunity for those with different types of depression to assess how alcohol contributes to their condition and whether abstaining brings about positive changes.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the most common depression diagnosis, affecting around 10-15% of the population (3). The co-morbidity (having both conditions) of AUD and MDD is linked to more severe symptoms and a more difficult recovery (4).
Persistent Depressive Disorder is also known as dysthymia and typically involves milder symptoms than MDD but which persist for at least two years or more. As a depressant, the consumption of alcohol can intensify the symptoms of PDD, and people with AUD are more likely to develop PDD (4).
Manic depression, or bipolar disorder, is characterized by extreme mood swings, from manic highs to depressive lows. Alcohol can have complex effects on these mood fluctuations. While some individuals may turn to alcohol during manic episodes to alleviate restlessness, it can exacerbate depressive episodes. Participating in Dry January allows individuals with manic depression to observe how alcohol-free periods influence their mood stability.
Depression Treatment And Alcohol
Depression is usually treated with talk therapy or antidepressant medications. However, doctors do not recommend mixing alcohol and antidepressants, as both substances interact with the central nervous symptom. Combined, they can cause unpleasant side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, or memory loss (5). If you are on medication for depression, check the classification of antidepressants that you are taking for interactions with alcohol and consult your doctor if you are in any doubt.
For patients who have unsuccessfully tried to relieve their depression symptoms via pharmaceutical antidepressants, there is an alternative: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an FDA-approved depression treatment that has also been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of depression in the long term. TMS may also be able to help recovery from addiction. To learn how to get TMS therapy in the New York area, please contact us at Madison Avenue TMS & Psychiatry.
Benefits Of Dry January For Mental Health
- Improved Sleep Patterns: Alcohol disrupts sleep patterns, which can be particularly challenging for individuals with mental health conditions, especially during winter or summer months, where changing daylight patterns can contribute to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Dry January allows for better sleep quality and the potential alleviation of symptoms associated with sleep disturbances.
- Enhanced Mood Stability: For those with conditions like manic depression, a break from alcohol may contribute to more stable moods. Observing these changes can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption in the long run.
- Clarity of Thought and Emotions: Alcohol can cloud cognitive function and emotional clarity. Dry January provides a period of sobriety, allowing individuals to experience heightened mental clarity and better emotional regulation.
The Importance Of Seeking Help
The decision to participate in Dry January should be approached with careful consideration, especially for individuals dealing with mental health conditions. The insights gained during Dry January can empower individuals to make informed choices that positively impact their mental health throughout the year. Lifestyle changes can be an essential part of recovery, but no one has to go at it alone.
Remember, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, it is essential to seek professional guidance. Participating in Dry January can be a valuable self-assessment tool, but ongoing support from mental health professionals remains crucial for comprehensive care.
Madison Avenue TMS & Psychiatry offers talk therapy and TMS for treating depression, anxiety, and other conditions. Contact us online or call (212) 731-2033 to schedule a consultation or treatment.
- Crum RM, Mojtabai R, Lazareck S, et al. A Prospective Assessment of Reports of Drinking to Self-medicate Mood Symptoms With the Incidence and Persistence of Alcohol Dependence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(7):718–726. Link. Accessed December 8, 2023.
- McHugh, R. K., & Weiss, R. D. Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews. 2019;40(1). Link. Accessed December 8, 2023.
- Hasin DS, Goodwin RD, Stinson FS, et al. Epidemiology of major depressive disorder: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcoholism and Related Conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(10):1097–1106. Link. Accessed December 8, 2023.
- Grant BF, Stinson FS, Dawson DA, et al. Prevalence and co-occurrence of substance use disorders and independent mood and anxiety disorders: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(8):807–816. Link. Accessed December 8, 2023.
- Herxheimer, A. and Menkes, DB. Drinking alcohol during antidepressant treatment — a cause for concern? The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 2011 (Updated 2021). Link. Accessed December 8, 2023.