Give your liver a break: the benefits of Dry January

A month of abstaining from alcohol may result in decreased liver fat, cholesterol, and weight loss, but does ditching the drink for only one month have any actual impact upon our health, or for that matter, our wallet?

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Image: Pixabay

Sober October is an established tradition and for many, Dry January is a cleansing period after the festive season. No alcohol is to be consumed in an attempt to compensate for the excessive amount that many drink over Christmas and the New Year. However, Dry January could be more than just a rest for the body. There is evidence that refusing alcohol for a month does benefit your health, at least for the short term.

The liver is a vital abdominal organ used in many metabolic processes. It filters toxins from the blood, regulates blood sugar and cholesterol levels as well as helping to ward off disease. Being one of the most complex organs in human physiology, the liver is very sensitive to alcohol, as cells are killed every time alcohol-inflused blood is filtered through it. Until recently there has been no scientific evidence that giving up alcohol for short periods has dramatic health benefits. However, a recent study carried out by a team at New Scientist has gathered valuable information on the subject.

14 members of staff teamed with Rajiv Jalan at the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health in London. The volunteers, all of whom considered themselves to be “normal” drinkers, answered questions about their health and drinking habits. Their physiology was examined using ultrasound scans which can create 3D internal images.  Blood samples were taken to analyse levels of metabolic chemicals linked with the liver and general health. Ten members of the team gave up alcohol for the following five weeks, while four members continued to drink as normal. They then repeated the physiological tests after the study was over.

Firstly, it was found that there had been no significant changes in any of the parameters measured for the four people who didn’t give up alcohol. Of those who abstained, liver fat fell by 15 per cent on average, and by almost 20 per cent in some individuals. This is highly significant as fat accumulation on the liver is known to precede liver damage. The blood glucose levels of the abstainers dropped by 16 per cent on average, from 5.1 to 4.3 millimoles per litre, when the normal range for blood glucose is between 3.9 and 5.6 mmol/l. High blood sugar levels, or hyperglycaemia, can create problems with insulin regulation and diabetes. Self assessment of sleep quality rose by just over 10 per cent, improving from 3.9 to 4.3 out of 5 in those who did not drink. Ratings of how well they could concentrate soared 18 per cent from 3.8 to 4.5. Despite these health benefits, it is unknown how long the improvements are likely to last on a long term basis.

The downside to not enjoying a tipple was that those who ditched the drink confessed to feeling less social during the study. This is most likely because alcohol is considered as a means to socialise, removing this pleasure means that you may feel left out at certain events. This data also comes from a small sample size and other lifestyle factors are also relevant.

The premise of Dry January  is a good one. It gives people an excuse to not drink without feeling any social pressure. Some are even sponsored to take the plunge. This initial move to cut intake could then continue long after the month as some highly value the benefits and can feel comfortable with their new social milieu. So, let’s make a toast to Dry January!

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