After the party-filled nights (and days too, let’s be honest) of the holiday season, and particularly that New Year’s Eve bender, a lot of us are rethinking our drinking. After weight loss and exercise, cutting back on alcohol is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions. It makes sense, after all. You’re realizing that waking up with a pounding head, a spinning room, and a tongue plastered to the roof of your mouth is not the way to live. You might even be starting to think you have a slight and growing problem with your old friend the bottle.
If you feel this way, you’re far from alone. There is a growing trend to participate in Drynuary, a dry January, to reset the liver and the spirit. Could you go booze-free for a month? No glass of wine with dinner, no wind-down drink after a hard day at the office, and no cocktails on girls’ night out. It seems like a good, restorative choice, especially if you feel you imbibe too much, but are the positive effects of Drynuary worth the efforts?
In a scientific, if not clinical, trial, several staffers at the magazine New Scientist tried a month of alcohol-free living and measured their health outcomes to find out if it was worthwhile. The question is: can short-term abstinence have any positive health effects? What they found was encouraging. The staff members answered a health questionnaire, gave blood samples, and underwent ultrasounds to measure fat on the liver. This was all conducted under the supervision of health care workers at the Royal Free Hospital, London.
Repeating the tests after five weeks free of alcohol, the ten staffers found that they had achieved positive health gains. On average, they lost 15 percent of fatty liver deposits, a precursor to liver damage. They also saw an average reduction in blood sugar levels of 16 percent and blood cholesterol levels of five percent. They even lost a little weight. The participants also reported more subjective improvements. On the questionnaires they reported significant improvements in quality of sleep, work performance, and concentration.
No other study, academic or otherwise, has tested the impact of short-term alcohol abstinence. Plenty of research, however, has pinpointed all the ways in which drinking to excess can harm your health. Heavy drinking can lead to addiction, causes accidents, and has been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer in women. Cutting back on alcohol reduces these risks.
There is no question that abstaining from drink for a month could make you feel better, and the intrepid journalists who tried it certainly saw some benefits, but we have no idea if these benefits are lasting. We also don’t know if going totally alcohol-free for one month will cause people to drink less generally after the abstinence or if the participants go straight to the bar on February first and undo all their efforts.
If you want to try giving up alcohol for a month, it is a worthy and worthwhile effort, but don’t use Drynuary as an excuse to go on a bender in February. You would be better off cutting back on your drinking overall and avoiding binge drinking. Step away from the bar a couple nights a week and go out for a jog instead, or spend some time with friends at a coffee shop. Trade in your hangovers and next-morning regrets for better health and a better sense of self.