Could just taking one month off alcohol really transform your health?
Will you be taking part in Dry January come 2016? New research suggests it could do you a lot of good
If a tablet was developed that reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of several life-threatening diseases, while at the same time helping people to lose weight, sleep and concentrate, it would be hailed as a new wonder drug.
While no such drug has yet been developed, it seems exactly the same effects can be achieved by not drinking alcohol for a month.
Tests on men and women who took part in the Dry January month-long alcohol abstinence campaign found their liver function, blood pressure and cholesterol levels were better, and they were at lower risk of developing diabetes and liver disease.
The research, from University College London (UCL), also found some participants lost as much as 6lbs, and reported improvements in concentration and sleeping.
"If you took a drug that reduced blood pressure and improved cholesterol and insulin resistance, it would be a blockbuster drug that would be worth billions," says Professor Kevin Moore, the study's principal investigator. "It would be an amazing drug and they'd be campaigning for it to be put in the drinking water."
The big question now, says 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," adds Moore, "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?"
Before their alcohol-free month, the female participants in the research, which was presented to the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease this month, had been drinking an average of 29 units a week, or four units a day, and the men typically drank 31 units - both above government guidelines, which 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).
After four weeks, their liver stiffness (an indication of damage and scarring) had been reduced by 12.5%, and their insulin resistance (a measurement of diabetes risk) had come down by 28%.
"When you give up drinking for a month, a number of measurements improve, which suggest your cardiovascular risk of having a stroke is reduced," says Professor Moore. "Insulin resistance improves substantially, which can also have an impact on cardiovascular risk."
The abstinence also reduced the development of fatty liver disease, which affects 20% of the adult population. Being obese can cause fat deposits in the liver, sparking inflammation which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Professor Moore, who also undertook a much smaller, informal, alcohol abstinence study a year ago on a group of journalists, says he's been "gobsmacked" by the results.
"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.
While excessive alcohol intake is associated with a myriad of health problems, including increased risk of liver disease, heart problems, some cancers and mental health issues, and is a leading cause of preventable death in industrialised nations, many studies have suggested that alcohol - in particular, red wine - can actually have health benefits, if drunk in moderation, of course.
A Harvard University study, for example, found moderate amounts raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, giving greater protection against heart disease. Separate Harvard research also reported that red wine has anti-ageing properties, thanks to its resveratrol content (a compound found in the skins of red grapes).
Some studies also suggest that wine, especially red, may help protect against certain cancers, improve mental health, decrease the risk of developing dementia, and boost heart health.
Professor Moore is sceptical about there being any health benefits to drinking alcohol, however, although he admits he's not familiar with all the data. "There is no way alcohol is good for you. No drug is not going to cause harm at the level alcohol is taken," he states.
Another crucial piece of the jigsaw is that interpretations of what amounts to "moderation" can differ widely, which throws some of the positive health findings into grey areas.
The alcohol education charity Drinkaware points out that beyond the lower risk guidelines, any potential benefits from drinking alcohol are outweighed by the harm it can cause.
For example, according to the Department of Health, men who regularly consume more than eight units a day are four times more likely to develop high blood pressure, while women who regularly consume more than six units a day double their risk of high blood pressure.
Dr Sarah Jarvis (left), Drinkaware's medical advisor, stresses: "In the long-term, the best evidence for avoiding alcohol-related harm comes from sticking within the recommended lower risk guidelines."
She says light alcohol intake - up to one drink per day for women and one or two for men - may have an effect on reducing heart disease and stroke in middle-aged and older people. But there's no evidence that drinking above government guidelines provides any benefit to the heart - men who drink heavily are over 60% more likely to die from heart disease, and the risk to women is more than doubled.
She thinks Professor Moore's study is promising because of the health benefits it identifies, and adds: "I support the idea of people having a month off from drinking alcohol, but only if it doesn't mean that for the rest of the year they're less concerned about cutting back."
To track alcohol consumption and calculate units, download Drinkaware's free mobile app from the App Store or Google Play, or visit www.drinkaware.co.uk
'I would find it impossible to abstain for a month'
Lynda Bryans (53) from Belfast is a lecturer at Belfast Metropolitan College and runs her own media company. She is married to Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and they have two sons PJ and Christopher. She says:
I love the occasional glass of red wine and a gin and tonic at the weekends. I don't drink that much now, I've found as I get older my tolerance levels are not the same and I can't drink the way I used to.
I wouldn't drink any more than about five units a week.
I would find it impossible to stay dry for a month, though.
I don't have the greatest will power in the world and would have to be shocked into doing it.
I actually don't see why I should either.
It is great for anybody who does it but I don't drink that much and I don't have any other vices.
If I have a stressful day at work I really look forward to a glass of red wine in the evenings and Friday nights in are our big night out now.
I also enjoy a couple of glasses of wine with my meal and then one gin and tonic.
It would be a big sacrifice for me to stop that."
‘Swapping the booze for water helps my voice’
Local singer, actor and producer Peter Corry (49) is currently rehearsing for his hit Christmas show The Music Box which is now in its Seventh year, and is being staged at the Waterfront Hall from December 17-19. He says:
Normally I don't drink that much, just the occasional glass of wine or gin and tonic. When I am on a tour though, I usually have a glass of wine every night after the show.
I would go dry for two or three weeks every few months, probably about three times a year. I would usually do it to give my voice a rest and, yes I definitely do feel the benefits.
When I'm not drinking, I tend to sleep better and vocally it helps a lot as well. I also would drink more water when I'm off alcohol and I think that in itself makes me feel better.
I think physically it does you no harm to take a rest from it every now and again."
'The charitable aspect would be an incentive'
Chef and food writer Paula McIntyre (48) lives in Portstewart. She says:
Often I get invited to a lot of wine dinners so passing on alcohol would mean I would miss out. I sometimes go for a week or 10 days, though, without having something to drink but work has a lot to do with it.
I do a lot of cookery demos and I just cannot function properly with a hangover.
Also, I won't drive the next day having had a drink the night before.
Alcohol is something that I'm wary of, having read Clarissa Dickson Wright of the Two Fat Ladies' book where she talked about becoming an alcoholic in her 40s and about how easy it is for alcohol to take over. There is a lot of temptation too, as Portstewart can be a real party town - here people don't go out for tea or coffee, they go out for a glass of Prosecco.
I certainly wouldn't rule out giving up alcohol, though, especially if it was to raise money for a charity.
The charitable aspect of a dry January would be an added incentive."
Our writer on her Dryathalon
Writer Kerry McKittrick will be limbering up for a New Year Dryathalon. She says:
A few years ago I became a Dryathlete. It wasn't something I set out to do but one year I had a particularly heavy Christmas. Fun-filled gatherings with family and friends where we toasted the festive season had all started to take their toll.
I had heard of people giving up drink for the month of January - probably for the same reason that I did. Then I discovered Cancer Research's Dryathlon campaign and decided to kill two birds with one stone. I gave up alcohol for the month of January and aimed to raise £100 for a good cause while I did it.
On evenings out, I tried to organise entertainment that didn't revolve around pubs - cinema trips, 10-pin bowling, nights out in coffee shops - and enjoyed doing something a little bit different for a change.
It wasn't much of a challenge at the beginning of the month but it did grow harder as time went on.
There was no Friday night glass of wine to welcome in the weekend and by week four I was giving my drinking friends' envious glances as they clutched a beer or enjoyed a gin and tonic. The plus sides were that my bank balance had the happiest January in a long while and my skin was sparkling, I also raised £130 for a very good cause."