Reflection on My Dry January: Did It Make a Difference?

Tiina Hoffman

Tiina HoffmanExercise Physiologist & Master Trainer, Firstbeat@Tiinafbt

Stress & Recovery

In Finland, 20-30% of adults take part in alcohol-free January to break off a pattern of heavier alcohol use associated with the Holidays, and similar campaigns have surfaced internationally, at least in the UK (‘dry January’) and USA. Just last week, I came across a couple of LinkedIn posts and a book on this topic (The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge: Sleep Better, Lose Weight, Boost Energy, Beat Anxiety – by Andy Ramage).

People can feel empowered when they take a break from regular drinking, if only to prove that their drinking is not addictive, but without a follow-up study (with bloods and other tests), it’s hard to say exactly what the physiological benefits of this kind of a break are. It would depend on many factors, for example overall health and obviously, the amount of alcohol normally consumed. Without getting too clinical here, it’s probably safe to say that if you use too much alcohol year-around, one alcohol-free month is not going to ‘save’ you, whereas if your alcohol usage is very moderate, you might not notice much of a difference when you drop it altogether. That said, if you splurged in a lot of heavy holiday drinks, cutting them off can give your liver a break, improve your sleep quality, help you get rid of the extra holiday pounds, and launch into the New Year with more energy. The negative effects of alcohol on sleep are undeniable and backed by a lot of research. The graph below is from a study that utilized the Firstbeat database, showing the obvious dose-response relationship between alcohol and minutes of good-quality recovery during sleep.

Figure 1. Firstbeat database shows that the more you drink, at any age, the less recovery you get during sleep. (Calculated for 80kg of body weight.)

I decided to test this myself, collect some data and see how an alcohol-free month affects me. Would I notice some benefits, such as increased energy, better sleep, or even improved heart rate variability (HRV) during sleep? For background, my ‘typical drinking week’ might include 1-2 glasses of wine a couple of times per week, and an occasional beer after sauna. In December, it was a bit more than this, and when added to travel, end-of-the-year hurry, a cold and hosting overseas holiday guests – a booze-free January seemed like a great idea! Based on past measurements, I know that having two drinks affects my sleep a bit and the effect quickly potentiates if I drink more. This is seen both in a Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment report (Fig 2) and in the sleep data that my wearable band provides – and backed up my subjective feelings. Countless people who have undergone the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment, or who self-monitor their sleep have found the same: a surprisingly small amount of alcohol deteriorates their sleep. At least if the device measures heart rate and HRV … if it only measures movement, the result can look deceptively good: alcohol-aided sleep might be motionless, but that does unfortunately not translate to good quality.

I conducted several 1-3-day assessments with the Firstbeat Bodyguard in Nov-Dec-Jan and kept an eye on the data that my wearable provides, to see if any trends would emerge. Otherwise, I kept living like I usually do. When I compared nights with 2-3 drinks to nights with no drinks, with no other obvious factors interfering, the physiological (and subjective) result was obviously better on the non-drinking nights: lower resting heart rate and more recovery minutes (green color in the Firstbeat report). No surprise there. When I included nights with 1 drink, it got a lot fuzzier and more inconsistent. I’m a bit of a challenged sleeper: sometimes I do all the right things (a stimulating work day, light exercise, peaceful evening, no alcohol, good eating pattern), but the sleep can be fragmented and of poor quality. Other times, a long, busy day, maybe travelling and even having a drink with dinner can be followed by good sleep, both subjectively and shown by data. This was seen in my Dec/Jan comparisons too. At times, I swear the difference seems to be guided by the moon and the stars…! However, looking at facts and based on my personal and professional experience, I do believe that our lifestyle and behaviors play a big role. There really is a lot we can do to improve the odds of sleeping better, but with real-life events, emotions and hormones added to the mix, the conclusions are not that straight-forward, nor should measurement results be interpreted too literally. Excessive reliance on data can even cause undue stress; “I thought I slept well, but apparently not: the data doesn’t think so…

Figure 2. Friday in December: 2.5 units of alcohol after a normal workday and light afternoon exercise. Resting HR 57.

Figure 3. Friday in late January. Normal workday with easy exercise in the early evening. Resting HR 52.

Figs 2 and 3 show a typical contrast between my not-so-good vs. good night: the only obvious difference being the consumption of alcohol. There is significantly more red stress state (sympathetic nervous system activation) and the restorative effect of sleep (combination of sleep duration, amount of recovery and heart rate variability) is a lot worse the night when I had drinks. I had more nights like Fig 2 in Dec than I did in Jan, and overall, my sleeps in January were better than in December. But it was also a less hectic month, and when I tracked specific hard values (resting HR, HRV during sleep, recovery %) from all the nights that I measured during the 2 months, a clear upward (improving) trend did not emerge. Although resting HR (lowest HR on a given night) was slightly lower on average in Jan than in Dec, and HRV (RMSSD in ms) was a tad higher, the differences were slight, with a lot of fluctuation back and forth.

One obvious conclusion is that the difference between my drinking and non-drinking month was not big enough to really demonstrate change; for that, I should have drunk more in Dec… ? It was interesting to experiment though, and I recommend a booze-free month as a valuable check, prompting you to take an honest look at your drinking and making sure the habit is not running your life. Excessive drinking is of course a serious health problem that needs to be addressed accordingly, but that is beyond the scope of this blog. For a challenged sleeper like myself, seeing the hard evidence that heartbeat data provides, and knowing how crucial good-quality sleep is to health and well-being, it’s a no-brainer to be very mindful with my drinking. That said, there is more to life than data and strict guidelines, and everyone has to figure out how to get the balance right – stay resilient, ensure sufficient recovery and enjoy life. Personally, I don’t feel that my wellness is compromised by occasionally having a drink or two. My half-serious / half-tongue-in-cheek conclusion? Don’t have drinks just because it’s Friday night, but sometimes it’s ok to have drinks just because it’s Friday night … 😊 I did, after my strike was over: I didn’t monitor my sleep with any gadgets that night, but subjectively speaking, I slept very well. Sometimes it’s ok to just trust that!

Tiina Hoffman

Tiina Hoffman Exercise Physiologist & Master Trainer, Firstbeat @Tiinafbt

Tiina is an Exercise Physiologist who works at Firstbeat as a Wellness Specialist. Growing up as a skier, Tiina spent 4 years cross-country ski racing and later 4 year coaching at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. After moving back to Finland, she found her way to Firstbeat after several years in overtraining and heart rate variability field studies at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports and the University of Jyväskylä. To maintain a good balance in her own life, she enjoys the outdoors – kayaking, hiking, xc-skiing and escaping to her cabin in the woods.

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