Why I'm doing Dry January... and why you should as well
Too much alcohol leaves Julia Molony on edge. So she's joining the one-tenth of the Northern Ireland population who are going alcohol-free for the next month to see if it helps her make the best of 2019
I left my hard drinking days behind me, quite unintentionally, in 2015. The first time in my adult life I endured January without touching a drop of alcohol was in 2016. I was in the ninth month of pregnancy with my son at the time, so abstinence was more or less enforced, rather than being a virtuous lifestyle choice. Then he was born and my close friendship with wine has never really recovered. I can count on one hand the number of times since then I've staggered home around dawn after a night out on the tiles.
Until then, my drinking style had been enthusiastic binger - a few days of midweek sobriety, interspersed by two or three nights a week of excess. Like most of my friends, my 20s were measured out in mojitos and fishbowl-sized glasses of Malbec.
My love for a night (or two) of excessive alcohol consumption per week was a habit I shared with about 21.1% of the population. I was one of the hordes of social drinkers, enjoying a good time on a Friday and Saturday night. All good harmless fun. And the only real price, I believed, was a sizeable dent in my bank balance and a Sunday morning sore head.
There were no obvious red flags. No indication that my drinking was problematic. Or so I initially thought. Sure, I often felt anxious and emotionally jangled after a heavy night and it could take half a week to get my equilibrium back.
And yeah, according to Alcohol Action Ireland, the safe upper limit of alcohol consumption for women is 11 units a week and most nights out I'd have topped that as fast as you could say digestif. On especially fun nights out, I'd easily double it. All in one sitting. But I was young and the liver has a remarkable capacity to regenerate, right?
These days, I'm more inclined to cut loose with a bottle of wine in front of the television on a Friday night.
It's nowhere near the consumption levels of my 20s but still a binge, by official standards. (The WHO defines binge drinking as consuming more than six units of alcohol in one sitting).
And yet the negative effects of alcohol still feature prominently in my life.
I just pay the price in different ways. After a few drinks, I'm more likely to have a row with my partner.
The day after, when the hangover puts me on edge, I'm less patient with my son, more likely to snap or respond badly to a meltdown. So the toxic effects seep into family life.
Then there's the steady, creeping awareness of middle age around the corner and the gnawing concern about the cumulative effect of years of drinking on my health.
Alcohol is directly linked to significantly increased risks of stroke, heart disease and liver disease as well as seven different types of cancer. It is thought to cause one in every 13 cases of breast cancer in the UK.
Finally, there's the effect on my mental health.
Even just a couple of drinks, I've noticed, leave me feeling more worried, low and on edge for days afterward.
When I'm hungover, I can easily get caught in negative thinking loops and struggle to get out of them.
Dry January, an initiative launched by the British Alcohol Awareness charity, has become an institution in recent years.
In Britain, more than three million people have vowed to stay off the sauce for the whole first month of 2019.
In Northern Ireland, a reported 10% of the population is doing it. And this year, I'll be joining them.
The organisers, Alcohol Concern, promise that by hopping on the bandwagon, I can expect to reap the benefits of better sleep, improved skin, improved health and even weight-loss.
"If we could come up with a new health supplement or discovered a super food that had all those benefits, we'd be millionaires," they say. "But instead we aim to offer the help, advice and encouragement to let you get these benefits yourself, all for free."
But while health experts unanimously agree that too much alcohol is bad for health, the benefits of giving up for one month per year are less clear, with some experts claiming it could do more harm than good.
In an article published in the British Medical Journal, lecturer on public health Ian Hamilton wrote that: "Dry January risks sending out a binary all or nothing message about alcohol - that is, either participate by abstaining or carry on as you are. It's a subject that has been little studied."
Other experts disagree.
New research from the University of Sussex was published this week which claimed taking a month off booze has lasting benefits.
"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. There are also considerable immediate benefits: nine in 10 people save money, seven in 10 sleep better and three in five lose weight," explained the studies' author, psychologist Dr Richard de Visser, who interviewed 800 participants who went dry for January 2017.
"Interestingly, these changes in alcohol consumption have also been seen in the participants who didn't manage to stay alcohol-free for the whole month - although they are a bit smaller. This shows that there are real benefits to just trying to complete Dry January."
The evidence is still too slight to be conclusive.
But this year I'll be conducting my own little study of one, to see if re-inventing myself as a teetotaller for January can help me make the best of 2019.