It’s a harsh question a lot of us face at the beginning of the year: should we ditch alcohol for the entire month? Our guilt from drinking a little too much schnapps with Uncle Roger lingers into the new year. But does quitting alcohol pose any health benefits?
According to new guidelines for alcohol consumption published January 8 by the UK Chief Medical Officers, drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of cancer.
They suggest that if you do choose to drink, consuming less than 14 UK units a week for both men and women keeps the risk of cancer low.
As for the health benefits of quitting drinking for a month, consider a 2013 study among 14 members of New Scientist staff. The study—albeit a very small sample size— reported an improvement in liver health occurring during their January detox.
In this study, 10 members ditched their drinking habits for five weeks, while the remaining four continued their ritualistic drinking behaviors. In the four people who drank, their livers stayed the same. In those who abstained from drinking, however, it was reported that liver fat fell on average by 15 percent, blood glucose levels dropped by 16 percent, and total blood cholesterol dropped by almost five percent.
That’s impressive, but the evidence presented, though noteworthy, should be taken with caution. Here’s why.
It was reported from the non-drinking group that a reduction in social contact occurred.
If we know anything about health and how to deal with the “winter blues,” social contact is pivotal. The Norwegians are exemplary of this. They use the season of winter as a time to come together and celebrate their social-ties.
Plus, the liver is so powerful an organ that it is known to repair itself in less than 24 hours, barring any existing issues or extreme damage (such as cirrhosis). Does a normal drinker really need five weeks?
The New Scientist study didn’t explain how soon after the study concluded that the health benefits disappeared. Whether the participants returned to their drinking habits was not addressed. And if they did return to drinking, did their livers maintain the level of health achieved during the detox?
In fact, experts go on to suggest that attempting a January detox can cause even more damage. The break from drinking gives the idea that you can abuse your liver as much as you like the rest of the year. It’s as if the detox gives you a free “get out of jail” card for drinking more aggressively the rest of the year.
“You're better off making a resolution to take a few days off from alcohol a week throughout the entire year, than remaining abstinent for January only," said Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust.
Sounds like a call for moderation or quitting alcohol for good.
And remember, January is quite possibly the best time of year to enjoy a brewski, a couple glasses of wine, or a glass of bourbon. Alcohol gives you a false sense of warmth, and baby it’s cold outside.