After boozing relentlessly with friends over the festive period, millions turn to Dry January as part of a New Year health kick.
Cutting out alcohol for the entire month — which one in seven Brits and Americans are thought to be doing as we speak — is hailed for its benefits on sleep, weight and the liver.
But experts say people should not just shy away from alcohol during the first month of the year.
Instead, they should cut back for the longer term to reap the most health benefits.
Cutting out alcohol for the entire month — which one in seven Brits and Americans are thought to be doing as we speak — is hailed for its benefits on sleep, weight and the liver
How much alcohol is too much?
To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, the NHS advises men and women not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.
A unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about:
- half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%)
- a single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)
A small glass (125ml, ABV 12%) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol.
But the NHS warns the risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis.
Short-term risks include injury, violent behaviour and alcohol poisoning.
Long-term risks include heart and liver disease, strokes, as well as liver, bowel, moth and breast cancer.
People who drink as much as 14 units a week are advised to spread it evenly over three or more days, rather than binge drinking.
Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant are advised not to drink to reduce risks for the baby.
While alcohol may help you nod off quicker, it is not a miracle cure of insomnia. In fact, it actually wreaks havoc on sleep quality throughout the night.
Although it initially acts as a sedative, causing feelings of sleepiness, it actually raises levels of adrenaline in the body. This increases heart rate and acts as a stimulant — which can cause drinkers to toss and turn in the night.
While sleeping, the liver works hard to break down alcohol. This process is thought to reduce rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — one of the four stages of sleep — which is vital for repairing muscle, bone, tissue and the immune system.
On top of this, alcohol encourages snoring by relaxing the throat and nose muscles — making it more likely that they will vibrate.
Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which means it encourages the body to pass more fluid as urine. This can see drinkers suffer a more restless night due to extra trips to the bathroom.
As a result, people tend to wake up feeling less rested — even if they’ve only had a couple of alcoholic drinks.
But Dry January partakers will have avoided these alcohol knock-on effects for the month, in theory, so should have benefitted from better sleep.
Ian Hamilton, an addiction expert at the University of York and nurse who has worked with people with alcohol problems for 20 years, told MailOnline that better sleep is one of the quickest health improvements noticed by alcohol abstainers.
He said: ‘It might be disrupted to begin with as the brain and body adjust to not experiencing the sedative effects of alcohol before bedtime.
‘It is the quality of sleep that improves over the month as people go into a deeper sleep called REM (rapid eye movement) which is thought to be important in resting the brain and body.’
Dr Anya Topiwala, a psychiatrist at the University of Oxford and an expert on how alcohol affects the brain, told MailOnline that people will be more rested if they gave up alcohol for the start of the year.
‘People may notice improvements in their sleep — as alcohol reduces sleep quality,’ she said.
By extension, their alertness and concentration may improve, Dr Topiwala added.
The NHS recommends that adults drink no more than 14 units each week — that’s 14 single shots of spirit or six pints of beer or a bottle and a half of wine
Over the course of the month, Dry January partakers should notice that the scales start to shift — both from cutting out calories and making healthier food choices
Over the course of the month, Dry January partakers should notice that the scales start to shift — both from cutting out calories and making healthier food choices.
In a day of heavy drinking, people may consume their entire recommended calorie intake through alcohol.
This is because alcohol contains around seven calories per gram — almost as much as pure fat, according to charity Drink Aware.
As a result, a pint of beer (240) is as calorific as a small McDonald’s fries, while a medium glass of wine is comparable to a packet of Walker’s Ready Salted Crisps (130) and a double measure of gin (95) has as many calories as two Jaffa Cakes.
It means if Dry January partakers usually have one pint a day, they should lose around 2lbs (1kg) this month.
This is because people need to cut 3,500 calories to shed 1lb of fat — and those cutting a pint of beer per day will burn 7,400.
‘Alcohol of course contains calories, so assuming you don’t increase calories elsewhere, or reduce your exercise, then you may lose weight,’ Dr Topiwala said.
Mr Hamilton said: ‘Many people don’t realise how loaded with calories alcohol is.
‘One pint of lager will have more calories than a Mars bar, for example.
‘So people should notice some improvement in their weight over the month.
‘However this may be linked to improving their diet as much as cutting out alcohol. It is known that when people abstain from alcohol they tend to improve their eating habits at the same time.’
Drinking alcohol causes blood sugar levels to rise and fall, which stimulates feelings of hunger in the brain.
This prompts drinkers to crave unhealthy and salty foods, explaining why fast food and kebabs are popular after a night at the pub, studies show.
But it means those partaking in Dry January may have cut calories both from alcohol and any junk food they would have had when drinking.
Another welcome knock-on effect of cutting back on alcohol is a complexion boost.
The diuretic effect of beer, wine and spirits dehydrate the body, leading to the loss of fluid and nutrients that are vital for healthy-looking skin.
As a result, skin can look dull, grey, bloated and puffy within 24 hours of drinking, as well as wrinkled due to a loss of elasticity. This is one reason that people may be able to tell if you’re hungover.
On top of this, alcohol inflames the body’s tissue which leads to red, blotchy and flushed skin.
Alcoholic drinks — especially wine, cocktails and the mixers used with spirits — tend to be high in sugar, which is also bad for skin and can trigger breakouts.
Those avoiding alcohol for Dry January should therefore benefit from more hydrated skin, that is less flushed and prone to spots, experts say.
‘Skin should look better when sober from alcohol,’ even if it is a temporary break, Mr Hamilton said.
‘People often don’t realise how dehydrating alcohol is and this is why skin is affected and eyes can look dull when drinking.’
One major health benefit that Dry January partakers won’t visibly notice is the improvement in their liver health.
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. Blood then passes through the liver — the organ responsible for breaking down alcohol.
Enzymes in the liver break down alcohol into other chemicals so it can be removed from the body — processing roughly one unit per hour. But the toxicity of alcohol kills off liver cells in the process.
This is why alcohol causes the most damage to the liver out of all the body’s organs.
When not drinking, the liver replaces these lost cells.
But heavy drinking over time causes serious damage to the liver, which can lead to fatty liver, inflammation of the organ and, eventually, liver failure.
‘Liver function should improve quickly [among those doing Dry January] as the liver is one of the fastest repairing organs in the body,’ Mr Hamilton said.
But while those who have shunned spirits all month may be basking in their new-found health, experts say these benefits won’t be permanent if they return to drinking.
Dr Topiwala said: ‘I cannot see a mechanism for these gains to be long-lasting if people resumed their drinking again in February.’
While research is ongoing, it suggests that the harm alcohol has on the brain ‘accumulates over long periods’, she said.
‘The best advice for better brain health, in my opinion, would be to reduce alcohol for the longer term I’m afraid,’ Dr Topiwala added.
DO YOU DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL? THE 10 QUESTIONS THAT REVEAL YOUR RISK
One screening tool used widely by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). Developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the 10-question test is considered to be the gold standard in helping to determine if someone has alcohol abuse problems.
The test has been reproduced here with permission from the WHO.
To complete it, answer each question and note down the corresponding score.
0-7: You are within the sensible drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.
Over 8: Indicate harmful or hazardous drinking.
8-15: Medium level of risk. Drinking at your current level puts you at risk of developing problems with your health and life in general, such as work and relationships. Consider cutting down (see below for tips).
16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Cutting back on your own may be difficult at this level, as you may be dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or a counsellor.
20 and over: Possible dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you could very well be dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reduce your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain the level of your dependence and the safest way to withdraw from alcohol.
Severe dependence may need medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a hospital or a specialist clinic. This is due to the likelihood of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours needing specialist treatment.
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