After relentlessly drinking wine with friends over the festive period, millions are heading into a dry January as part of a healthy New Year’s kick.
Giving up alcohol for a month – which one in seven Britons and Americans are thought to do as we speak – is lauded for its benefits to sleep, weight and the liver.
But experts say people should not be shy about drinking alcohol only during the first month of the year.
Instead, they should cut back on expenses over the long term to reap the most health benefits.
Giving up alcohol for the whole month – which one in seven Britons and Americans are thought to do as we speak – is touted for its benefits on sleep, weight and the liver
How much alcohol is too much?
To keep health risks from alcohol at a low level, the NHS advises men and women to regularly drink no more than 14 units per week.
A unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol, which is:
- A pint of ale/lager/cider lower to normal strength (ABV 3.6%)
- 1 small shot (25 mL) of spirits (25 mL, ABV 40%)
A small glass (125ml, ABV 12%) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol.
But the NHS warns that the risks to your health are increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis.
Short-term risks include injury, violent behavior, and alcohol poisoning.
Long-term risks include heart and liver disease and strokes as well as liver and bowel cancer, moth and breast cancer.
People who drink up to 14 units per week are advised to spread it out evenly over three or more days, rather than binge drinking.
Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive are advised not to drink to reduce the risk to the baby.
While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it is not a miracle cure for insomnia. In fact, it actually damages your quality of sleep throughout the night.
Although it initially acts as a sedative, causing a feeling of sleepiness, it actually raises adrenaline levels in the body. This increases the heart rate and acts as a stimulant – which can cause drinkers to cough and turn at night.
While you sleep, your 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 muscle, bone, tissue, and immune system repair.
What’s more, alcohol encourages snoring by relaxing the muscles in the throat and nose – making them more likely to vibrate.
Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which means it encourages the body to excrete more fluid as urine. This can cause night drinkers to suffer more restlessness 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 participants avoided these side effects of alcohol for the month, in theory, so they should have benefited from better sleep.
Ian Hamilton, an addiction expert at the University of York and a nurse who has worked with people with alcohol problems for 20 years, told MailOnline that better sleep is one of the fastest health improvements noticed by abstainers.
He said: ‘It may be disruptive at first as the brain and body adjust to not being exposed to the sedative effects of alcohol before bed.
“It is the quality of sleep that improves over the course of the month as people enter a deeper sleep called REM (rapid eye movement) that is believed 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 would be more at ease if they stopped drinking at the start of the year.
“People may notice an improvement in their sleep – because alcohol reduces the quality of sleep,” she said.
In addition, their attention and focus may improve, Dr. Topiwala added.
The NHS recommends that adults drink no more than 14 units per week – that’s 14 single shots of spirits, six pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine
Over the course of the month, Dry January participants should notice that the scales begin to shift—both from cutting out calories and making healthier food choices.
Over the course of the month, January participants should note that the scales begin to shift—both from cutting out calories and making healthier food choices.
On a day of heavy drinking, people may consume their entire recommended caloric intake through alcohol.
That’s because alcohol contains about seven calories per gram – about the same as pure fat, according to the Drink Aware charity.
As a result, a pint of beer (240) has about the same calories as a small McDonald’s fries, while an average glass of wine is comparable to a can of Walker Ready’s Salted Chips (130) and a double measure of gin (95) has as many calories. Thermal like jaffa cakes.
This means that if participants in Dry January usually drank 1 pint a day, they should lose about 2 pounds (1 kg) this month.
That’s because people need to cut 3,500 calories to shed 1 lb. of fat – and those cutting down to a pint of beer per day would burn 7,400.
“Of course alcohol does contain calories, so assuming you don’t increase calories elsewhere, or cut back on exercise, you could lose weight,” Dr. Topiwala said.
“A lot of people don’t realize how calorie-packed alcohol is,” Hamilton said.
For example, a pint of beer will contain more calories than a Mars bar.
So people should notice some improvement in their weight over the course of the month.
However, this may be as much related to improving their diet as it is to eliminating 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 triggers feelings of hunger in the brain.
Studies have shown that this leads drinkers to crave unhealthy and salty foods, which explains why fast food and kebabs are so popular after a night out at the pub.
But it does mean that those taking part in Dry January may have cut back on calories from alcohol and any unhealthy food they would have had when drinking.
Another welcome effect of cutting back on alcohol is complexion enhancement.
The diuretic effect of beer, wine, and spirits dehydrates the body, causing it to lose fluids and nutrients essential for healthy skin.
As a result, skin can look dull, gray, puffy, and puffy within 24 hours of drinking, as well as wrinkled due to loss of elasticity. This is one reason why people may be able to tell if you are hungry.
Moreover, alcohol leads to inflammation of the tissues of the body which leads to flushing, blotchy, and red skin.
Alcoholic beverages—particularly wine, cocktails, and mixers used with spirits—tend to be high in sugar, which is also bad for the skin and can lead to breakouts.
Experts say those who avoid alcohol in dry January should benefit from more hydrated skin—that is, less red and blemish-prone.
Even if it’s a temporary break, skin should look better when sober from alcohol, Hamilton said.
People often don’t realize how dehydrating alcohol can be and that’s why skin is affected and eyes can look dull when drinking.
One of the main health benefits that Dry January participants won’t obviously notice is the improvement in liver health.
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. Then the blood passes through the liver – the organ responsible for breaking down alcohol.
Enzymes in the liver break down alcohol into other chemicals so that it can be removed from the body—about one unit processing per hour. But alcohol toxicity kills liver cells in the process.
This is why alcohol causes the most damage to the liver of all the organs in the body.
When not drinking, the liver replaces these lost cells.
But heavy drinking over time causes severe damage to the liver, which can lead to fatty liver, organ inflammation, and eventually liver failure.
Your liver function should improve quickly [among those doing Dry January] “The liver is one of the fastest repairing organs in the body,” said Mr. Hamilton.
What’s the downside?
But while those who shunned spirits each month may enjoy their newfound health, experts say those benefits won’t be permanent if they return to drinking.
“I can’t see a mechanism for these gains to be long-lasting if people resumed drinking again in February,” Dr. Topiwala said.
While the research is ongoing, she said, it indicates that the damage alcohol does to the brain “accumulates over long periods.”
“The best advice for improving brain health, in my opinion, is to cut down on alcohol in the long term, which I dread,” added Dr. Topiwala.
Do you drink a lot of alcohol? The ten questions that reveal your responsibility
One widely used screening tool by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). The 10-question test was developed in collaboration with the World Health Organization and is considered the gold standard for helping to determine if someone has alcohol use problems.
The test is reproduced here with permission from the World Health Organization.
To complete it, answer each question and note the corresponding result.
0-7: You are in the sensitive drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.
over 8: Indicate harmful or dangerous 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 back (see below for tips).
16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Minimizing your expenses can be challenging at this level, as you may be a dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or counselor.
20 and over: potential dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you can be very dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reducing your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain your level of dependence and the safest way to quit alcohol.
Severe dependence may require medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a specialized hospital or clinic. This is due to the potential for severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours that require professional treatment.
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