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Was an alcohol free January worth it?

February 2019

man drinking alcohol
We don’t need to feel guilty if we didn’t do a dry January

Dry January is over, but no doubt there will be other ideas for giving up alcohol before the next big event, MacMillan’s Cancer’s “Go Sober for October”, kicks in.

But how worthwhile is all this abstinence?

Alcohol can, of course, cause very real health and social problems. But for the majority of people, who enjoy their tipple in moderation, will the sudden short period of abstinence advocated by these special events be beneficial?

The answer appears to be generally no!

“Giving my liver a rest” is one byword often mentioned by people joining in an alcohol free period. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of liver disease, in fact alcohol related liver disease accounts for over a third of liver disease deaths.

For anyone who drinks a lot, continually well above the government guidelines, then any period of abstinence may help the liver to recover. This is because when the liver tried to break down alcohol, the resulting chemical reaction can damage its cells, leading to inflammation and scarring as the liver tries to repair itself.

But a short time away from alcohol will only give the liver a minimal time slot to start a full recovery programme before it is yet again deluged with alcohol to deal with. There appears to be no long term gain from a brief interlude of alcoholic intake.

Other health benefits from giving up alcohol are said to include improved sleep and increased energy. Certain as we age, our sleep patterns appear to be affected more by alcohol. This is in part because older people may be carrying a little more fat, be a little dehydrated, be on medication, or have other physical changes that can affect the tolerance of alcohol and how it is dealt with by the body.  A temporary period away from alcohol may improve some of these aspects, but there won’t be any long term affect and once drinking is resumed the results will be very much as before.

Professor Rajiv Jalan, together with scientists from University College London and the Royal Free Hospital, recently looked at the health benefits of Dry January. In fact, they did the studies in summer to avoid the fact that often in January people make additional New Year resolutions such as eating more healthily. The group of volunteers was tested before they started a month of non drinking; and then tested again at the end. There was a variation in the group from very light drinkers to those who regularly drank more than the recommended limits of alcohol each week.

The group was also retested at a later date when people had returned to their normal routines for at least three weeks. The results showed that cutting drink in the short term can improve immediate health markers. However, it also indicated that for the lighter drinkers who had then gone back to normal drinking, there was very little long term benefit.

What was interesting was the result the alcohol free period had on heavier drinkers. It seemed that many of the group, having finally changed their habits, made the decision not to go back to their old drinking habits. This would clearly lead to longer term benefits with a reduced risk of liver related disease.

But even on this benefit there was also adverse comment, with some reports showing that for people who have developed a dependence on alcohol, a short period of abstinence can result in a rebound effect with the person drinking more heavily once they started again.

Cutting out alcohol for a short period can be useful, but there needs more research before any short term abstinence can be shown to definitely produce any long-term health benefit.

At the moment there is a recommendation from the government to have two alcohol free days a week. Again it will be interesting to see new research on this, but in the meantime it always makes sense to check your drinking levels every so often.

To keep health risks at a low level, the NHS reports that men and women should not drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, and this is best spread over three or more days. 14 units is equivalent to 6 pints of average strength beer or 10 small glasses of low strength wine.

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