Christmas in my family is always a boozey affair. The lazy days between Christmas and New Year, catching up with family and friends means I drink daily, even though I know it's bad for me. To try and make up for the excesses of December, I have decided to have a shot at Dry January, but is there any evidence that it actually works?
On the face of it, it seems very simple. More than 14 units a week raises the risk of liver damage, multiple cancers, heart disease, as well as negatively affecting our sleep and concentration. Surely a month off can only be a good thing! The fact is that there is very little evidence that a single month off alcohol can really change things. There is however, one small but very interesting piece of the puzzle that gives me hope that my efforts are not in vain.
New Scientist employees decided to put Dry January to the test themselves. Fourteen employees, none of whom considered themselves to be heavy drinkers, went to University College Hospital Medical School (UCLMS) and underwent a series of tests to check the state of their liver, as well as various other parameters. Ten of the employees then didn't drink for the full 31 days of January, and all fourteen went back to UCLMS to complete the tests again. The results surprised everyone!
The liver is vital for over 500 processes such as heat generation, digestion and metabolism, detoxification and storage of useful substances such as sugar. In 2009, a third of all deaths from liver disease were attributed to drinking alcohol, and since 2009 there has been a 44% increase in hospital admissions due to alcohol. Despite this, very little is known about the physiological effects of drinking in apparently well people, because most studies are carried out on people who are already suffering from liver disease.
The four New Scientist employees that carried on drinking at their normal level experienced no change over the month, but in all ten employees that gave up there were noticeable differences. The amount of fat in the liver fell by 15% on average, and up to 20% in some individuals. Fat accumulation in the liver is known to be a precursor to liver damage, due to inflammation and scarring. Prof Rajiv Jalan at UCLMS said "All the participants were judged to have healthy livers, but the reduction in fat would almost certainly help to retard liver deterioration".
It wasn't just the liver fat that improved. Blood glucose levels in the abstainers fell by an average 16%, something even the experts weren't expecting! Kenim Moore, a consultant in liver health services at UCLMS admitted to being "staggered". High glucose levels in the blood occur when cells stop responding to insulin, as seen in type 2 diabetics. This drop in blood glucose indicates improved control of blood sugar and improved insulin sensitivity.
Cholesterol in the blood, a risk factor for heart and vascular disease, dropped by almost 5%, and the benefits weren't just on the inside. The people that gave up alcohol lost an average 1.5kg, reported better sleep, and almost 20% better concentration.
We don't know how long these benefits last. It could just be while you're not drinking, it could be longer, but these results definitely need investigating further.
Will I stick it out for the month? I hope so. I must confess that while choosing an image for this blog I abandoned photos of red wine in the sunset, for something I find less appealing after my more unwise University years, so as not to tempt myself or others! Does Dr January help in the long term? I think that really depends. One thing all the evidence does say is that it won't help you at all if you use it as an excuse to drink to excess for the rest of the year. Staying off the booze for a month has however been shown to make people think a little more about reaching for the vino. Indeed, research done by Sussex University showed that 72% of people that successfully completed Dry January drank less in the 6 months afterwards. Fingers crossed!