This is what giving up alcohol for Dry January does to your body

After the Christmas and New Year excesses, you'd be forgiven for taking it easy over the coming weeks as you head back to work.

January marks a month in the calendar when, typically, expenditure is at a 12-month low.


You'll be trying to keep track of all your pennies, with Coventrians opting to stay in rather than revel.

If you want to curb your calorie intake and save the cash, Dry January may be a good idea.

Alcohol Concern - who back Dry January - say millions of people now take part in it.

The aim, they say, is to "enable you to take control of your relationship with alcohol" and "drive a conversation" about the demon drink (they don't really call it that though).

There have long been debates about whether or not alcohol is good for you or whether giving it up has any benefits, reports WalesOnline.

However, it is generally accepted that drinking to excess raises the risk of serious illnesses like heart disease, stroke, liver disease, depression, dementia and cancer. And it’s full of calories and can impact sleep quality.

So, does laying off alcohol for a month have any tangible health benefits?
As it's still a relatively recent phenomenon, there's not a huge amount of research to draw on. But in 2013, an experiment conducted by New Scientist staff with the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London Medical School (UCLMS) showed marked differences in the condition of those who abstained from alcohol for five weeks.

All the participants considered themselves to be “normal” drinkers. Before the test, the women had been drinking an average of 29 units a week, or four units a day, and the men typically drank 31 units.

Both are above government guidelines, but not dramatically so (the guidelines suggest men shouldn’t regularly exceed four units a day (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and women shouldn’t drink more than three units a day (equivalent to a 175ml glass of wine)).

In the test , 10 people drank no alcohol while four continued as normal. There were no significant changes in any of the parameters measured for the four people who didn’t give up alcohol. But the changes were "dramatic and consistent" across all 10 abstainers.

They included:

Liver fat fell on average by 15 per cent, and by almost 20 per cent in some individuals. Fat accumulation on the liver is a known prelude to liver damage
Blood glucose levels dropped by 16 per cent on average
Total blood cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, dropped by almost 5 per cent
Ratings of sleep quality rose by just over 10 per cent
However, UCLMS's Rajiv Jalan, who conducted the study, said the experiment "gives no indication of how long the improvements persist", saying: "Whether it’s 15 days or six months, we don’t know."

Speaking about the experiment, Kevin Moore, consultant in liver health services at UCLMS, said: "What you have is a pretty average group of British people who would not consider themselves heavy drinkers, yet stopping drinking for a month alters liver fat, cholesterol and blood sugar, and helps them lose weight. If someone had a health product that did all that in one month, they would be raking it in.”

And Nick Sheron at the University of Southampton said: "These results show that even a relatively short period of abstinence impacts on the liver."

But he also said liver disease can develop over 30 years so a short period of abstinence needed to translate into long-term behaviour change.

The big question now, said Professor Moore, is what the long-term effects of alcohol abstinence are. More research needs to be done to find out.

“Dry January makes you healthier, so it tells you that alcohol’s bad for you - but if you do stop drinking, are there any long-term benefits? We don’t know,” he said.

“Although you can probably infer that it does have an impact. If this occurs after one month, what happens after three months? Are these effects sustained?”

Taking a month off drinking doesn't mean you can drink heavily for the rest of the year
You'd think that was fairly obvious. Professor Charles Bamforth, of the University of California, Davis, says: “You are seriously mistaken if you think having a month without drinking will protect you from the effects of excessive drinking for the rest of the year. The best advice is to drink moderately throughout the year.”

In an article published in 2016 in the British Medical Journal, Ian Hamilton, lecturer in the department of health sciences at York University, said abstinence over the entire year would be better than one-month abstinence programmes like Dry January.

"It would be better to have two alcohol free days each week all year rather than a one-month abstinence," Hamilton said.

But Ian Gilmore, honorary professor at University of Liverpool and president of Alcohol Concern, said a small follow-up survey of some 60 participants in Dry January showed about eight per cent decided to stop drinking altogether once February rolled around, while about two-thirds of the group had cut down on their drinking.

Again referring to the experiment, Prof Moore said: “This is an illustration of just how bad alcohol can be. It’s not saying that if you take a month off you can binge for the rest of the year, it’s saying this is how much healthier you are if you stop drinking.

“Some people who stop drinking haven’t even gone a week without drinking for years, and they’re quite scared about it.

“But when you do stop, the world doesn’t fall out from underneath you - you can get through the day without going into rampant alcohol withdrawal. People suddenly realise they can do it, and when they feel better - and many of them do - they then ask themselves whether a month off alcohol leads to a healthier 12 months.”

Another important question is whether people revert to their previous drinking behaviour after abstaining for a month.

“If they don’t, and it reduces their overall alcohol consumption, then that has to be a good thing,” says Professor Moore.

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