Can giving up alcohol for a month turn your health around?
It’s a question millions of Britons will no doubt be considering when they Go Sober For October – quitting booze to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support – or take part in the annual Dry January campaign next year.
But does going cold turkey for such a relatively short time make a difference?
Or would we benefit just as much by simply sticking to the new Government guidelines: 14 units – the equivalent of about six pints or glasses of wine – spread evenly over a week, with several non-drinking days?
The Mail on Sunday set out to answer these questions, by recruiting 12 men and women to take part in a unique experiment.
Can giving up alcohol for a month turn your health around? The Mail on Sunday recruited 12 men and women to take part in a unique experiment. Angela, 49, Sarra, 45, Borlina, 32, Sophia, 55, and Clare, 34, (pictured left to right) gave up alcohol and reported positive health results
Our volunteers were chosen because they, like one in ten British adults, admitted to enjoying a tipple at least five days a week.
None, it must be pointed out, drank to what they considered excess – a glass of wine with dinner, perhaps a gin and tonic afterwards, and maybe a bit more on an evening out at the weekend.
Five of them agreed not to touch a drop for a month, and five were instructed to adhere strictly to the Government’s 14-units-a-week guidelines.
Two were allowed to carry on as they normally did, drinking as much, and as often, as they liked.
At the beginning and end of the month, all 12 had their blood pressure, cholesterol and vital statistics measured – and underwent a raft of blood tests designed to measure liver function.
One of the tests was a new kind of ultrasound scan that measures inflammation and fat in the liver.
It is the liver that is primarily responsible for processing alcohol in the body, and regular drinking can cause fat to accumulate within the organ.
Drinking too much or too often can also ‘overload’ it, resulting in damage to the liver cells and affecting the organ’s ability to repair itself. Eventually, this can lead to inflammation, scarring and potentially life-threatening liver failure.
The results of our trial gave a fascinating insight into the relative benefits of abstinence, versus a little self-control (or none at all).
Perhaps most surprisingly, both those who abstained from drinking entirely and those who drank within the recommended 14 units per week saw similar benefits in terms of liver health.
In just four weeks, two participants in both the cold-turkey group and the Government-guidelines group saw a drop in the amount of the fat that had built up in their liver. One of those still drinking 14 units a week went from a high-risk liver fat category to normal.
‘These results show that the problem can be reversed in a short amount of time by cutting back on alcohol,’ says Professor Stephen Ryder, medical adviser to the British Liver Trust. ‘Both groups saw improvements because most were consuming far too much alcohol, and cut back.’
NO ONE WANTED TO ADMIT TO BOOZING
Recruiting for our experiment proved difficult. We initially put out feelers via social media, and through personal and professional contacts.
We were contacted by scores of people who fitted our criteria of drinking most days, but never to excess, and were interested to know exactly how their habits were affecting their health.
But when it came to the crunch, many didn’t want their employers or families to know they drank so often. Others changed their minds – sheepish, when it was totted up, about how much they knocked back.
Once we had our 12 willing drinkers, we allowed them to choose which group they wanted to be in – where possible.
They had a consultation with Dr Tim Cross, a consultant liver expert at the Spire Hospital in Liverpool, where the tests were conducted.
Tom, 54, Jonathan, 48, Hayley, 51, Maurice, 54 (pictured left to right) stuck to drinking 14 units of alcohol a week. The new Government guidelines: 14 units – the equivalent of about six pints or glasses of wine – spread evenly over a week
Before the tests, Dr Cross said: ‘I don’t expect to see any huge changes in their liver in a month. Damage takes place over decades, rather than days or weeks. Sensible drinking needs to be long-term to have any effect on liver health. But there may be improvements in cholesterol, weight and blood pressure, all of which affect our general health – and the liver.’
All the appointments for the first round of tests took place on the same day. And as our participants gathered in the hospital’s reception area, their conversation centred on booze.
Sophia Kupse, 55, an author and health therapist from Bradford, told us a glass of red wine with her evening meal was her reward at the end of a busy working day. But her seemingly harmless habit racked up a staggering 23 units a week – nine more than the recommended limit.
Marie Stonham, 66, a retired nurse from South Bretton, Cambridgeshire, enjoys a glass of red while she cooks dinner, as well as occasional ‘binge’ sessions at the weekend. The odd beer at her local took her total up to more than twice the Government recommendation.
MANY DRANK FAR MORE THAN THEY THOUGHT
Dr Cross made a note of how much alcohol the patients said they drank each week.
For some, like Lowri Davies-Warwick, a 19-year-old customer care representative from Swansea, who drinks most nights, it was a lot – she drank wine, cider, rum, vodka and cocktails, amounting to almost three times the recommended amount.
Not surprised at her units, she didn’t see any harm in her drinking. Others, like Tom Nash, a 54-year-old writer from North London, drank about ten units per week – mostly red and white wine.
The lightest drinker, he initially underestimated his intake – like many Britons, he wasn’t sure how much constitutes a unit.
Lowri, 19, and Marie, 66, continued normal drinking during the experiment. Lowri (left) said she drank most nights, amounting to almost three times the recommended amount. Marie (right) who enjoys a glass of red while cooking dinner, occasional ‘binge’ and the odd beer – taking her total up to more than twice the government recommendation
Maurice Garbutt, 54, a plant operator, and his wife Hayley, 51, a care assistant, from Hunmanby, North Yorkshire, enjoyed a gin and tonic in the hot tub or several drinks with friends on a night out.
They both admitted to having ‘no idea’ how much they drank, so were shocked when Dr Cross revealed their total: 20 units for her, and 34 for him.
Dr Cross explains: ‘Some people confused a glass with a unit, so many were drinking far more than they had estimated.’
One unit equals 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. So a pint of four per cent beer, lager or cider or a 175ml (large) glass of 13 per cent wine is just over two units. A 25ml shot of 40 per cent spirit is one unit.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SUPPORT CAN HELP
To make sure there were no mistakes, those drinking to Government guidelines were each given measurement cups provided by alcohol education charity Drinkaware, along with information sheets about units.
The participants were also offered psychological support with clinical hypnotherapist Georgia Foster, an expert in alcohol reduction, who could answer their queries by email or telephone.
They were given access to her online programme, 7 Days To Drink Less, which contains a series of 25-minute hypnotherapy sessions to help with stress management, positive thinking and self-esteem.
‘There are two types of drinker, in my experience,’ says Foster.
‘Some have a glass of wine while they make dinner. For them, cutting back is easier because it’s just a habit that needs to be broken.
‘But then there are emotional drinkers who use alcohol to cope with stress, anxiety, loneliness or boredom.
‘Drinking might make them happy, relaxed and more confident – so their brain will always be looking for that fix.’
Dr Tim Cross, a consultant liver expert at the Spire Hospital in Liverpool, said: ‘The message from this experiment is not to stop drinking completely, but to drink sensibly, according to the recommended guidelines. Giving up alcohol for a month is beneficial – but only if it leads to sensible drinking the rest of the year’
Only Sarra Smith, 45, a performance coach, from Manchester, and Angela Furlong, 49, an administrator from Liverpool, both in the cold-turkey group, used the programme.
At the halfway stage, everyone was doing well. Couple Hayley and Maurice, sticking to Government guidelines, had bought a tandem and were riding round the North Yorkshire countryside.
Clare Clark, 34, an administration assistant from Peterborough, another in the cold-turkey group, was taking her children for regular visits to the park.
No one admitted to falling off the wagon. Only one of our participants, who was also in the Government-guidelines group, pulled out – for personal reasons.
THE RESULTS… WITH A SURPRISE IN STORE
After four weeks, 11 volunteers returned to the hospital to collect their results.
At the beginning of the experiment, most of the volunteers had moderate-to-high liver-fat levels with two volunteers showing worryingly high levels.
In just one month, two in the cold-turkey group saw their liver-fat measurements fall significantly. Their drastic reduction in alcohol had paid off.
The other three in that group saw no change in liver fat – which Dr Cross said was a sign they may have to change their diet as well as their drinking for a longer period to see a difference.
TESTS THAT REVEAL THE DAMAGE TO YOUR LIVER
Participants underwent a series of detailed tests at the beginning and end of the experiment to measure aspects of health known to be affected by alcohol intake.
WEIGHT AND BMI
Alcohol is high in calories and drinking large quantities is known to pile on the pounds, increasing the risk of a host of obesity-related diseases.
The researchers computed participants’ body mass index – or BMI – before and after the experiment.
Those with a BMI over 24.9 are considered overweight, and at increased risk of heart disease.
BLOOD PRESSURE AND CHOLESTEROL
Blood pressure and cholesterol are known to be high in big drinkers.
Alcohol increases the rate at which blood is pumped around the body and, once digested, the toxins break down into cholesterol and fatty acids, leading to a build-up of cholesterol in the blood.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol are the most common causes of heart attack, heart failure and stroke.
LIVER BLOOD TESTS
All participants were subjected to the same series of blood tests, designed to detect liver problems.
Some tested for an increase in proteins released during liver-tissue repair, indicating good organ function.
Others looked for enzymes released when the liver tissue is damaged. Another test measured blood-clotting time, as liver damage affects the body’s blood-clotting ability.
A special type of ultrasound, called a Fibroscan, measured the amount of scarring and fat content of the liver – both indicators of disease.
Doctors use a hand-held device, connected to a computer, to deliver high-frequency sound waves to the liver.
The speed at which the waves ‘bounce off’ the liver indicates the level of scarring. Another pattern of sound waves tells doctors how much fat is contained within the organ.
Two of them lost weight, each shedding 2 lb to 3 lb.
But two of those who’d gone a month without drinking a drop actually gained a little weight, one putting on 1 lb, the other just under a pound.
‘This could be down to compensatory behaviour,’ suggests Dr Cross. ‘They may have eaten more instead of drinking.’
There were no changes in blood pressure and cholesterol.
Prof Ryder comments: ‘They may need to keep their regime going for longer to see an improvement in blood pressure and cholesterol.’
So what of those who drank to the Government guidelines of 14 units a week?
Surprisingly, two volunteers in this group also saw significant falls in liver fat levels.
One of these volunteers saw the biggest drop of all participants – from dangerously high to within healthy levels.
The other two had no significant change. All four lost a small amount of weight – an average of just over 1 lb – and one saw his cholesterol levels fall slightly.
The control group – the two who carried on drinking as much as they liked – saw no improvement in liver fat, weight, blood pressure or cholesterol.
In all groups, the special liver scan – the Fibroscan – showed no serious liver damage.
But Dr Cross pointed out that if they carried on drinking as much as they had been, it could cause problems in the future.
Last year there were almost 15,000 liver-related deaths in the UK and it is now the biggest cause of death among 35-to-49-year-olds.
Dr Cross said: ‘It can take decades to see any significant damage to the liver.’
But he added: ‘It’s reassuring that we have seen some health improvements, even within a month. Losing weight, lowering cholesterol and reducing fat in the liver can only be a good thing.
‘The message from this experiment is not to stop drinking completely, but to drink sensibly, according to the recommended guidelines. Giving up alcohol for a month is beneficial – but only if it leads to sensible drinking the rest of the year.’
Additional reporting: Samantha Brick
- spireliverpool.com; drinkaware.co.uk. For more information on the 7 Days To Drink Less programme, visit georgiafoster.com.