IF a tablet was developed that reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of several life-threatening diseases, while at the same time helping people to lose weight, sleep and concentrate, it would be hailed as a new wonder drug.
While no such drug has yet been developed, it seems exactly the same effects can be achieved by stopping drinking alcohol for a month. Tests on men and women who took part in the Dry January month-long alcohol abstinence campaign found their liver function, blood pressure and cholesterol levels were better, and they were at lower risk of developing diabetes and liver disease.
The research, from University College London (UCL), also found some participants lost as much as 6lbs, and reported improvements in concentration and sleeping.
“If you took a drug that reduced blood pressure and improved cholesterol and insulin resistance, it would be a blockbuster drug that would be worth billions,” says Professor Kevin Moore, the study’s principal investigator. “It would be an amazing drug and they’d be campaigning for it to be put in the drinking water.”
The big question now, says Professor Moore, is what the long-term effects of alcohol abstinence are. More research needs to be done to find out.
“Dry January makes you healthier, so it tells you that alcohol’s bad for you — but if you do stop drinking, are there any long-term benefits? We don’t know,” he adds, “although you can probably infer that it does have an impact. If this occurs after one month, what happens after three months? Are these effects sustained?”
Before their alcohol-free month, the female participants in the research had been drinking an average of 29 units a week, or four units a day, and the men typically drank 31 units — both above government guidelines, which suggest men shouldn’t regularly exceed four units a day (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer), and women shouldn’t drink more than three units a day (equivalent to a 175ml glass of wine). After four weeks, their liver stiffness (an indication of damage and scarring) had been reduced by 12.5%, and their insulin resistance (a measurement of diabetes risk) had come down by 28%. “When you give up drinking for a month, a number of measurements improve, which suggest your cardiovascular risk of having a stroke is reduced,” says Professor Moore. “Insulin resistance improves substantially, which can also have an impact on cardiovascular risk.”
The abstinence also reduced the development of fatty liver disease. Being obese can cause fat deposits in the liver, sparking inflammation which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Professor Moore says he’s been “gobsmacked” by the results. “This is an illustration of just how bad alcohol can be. It’s not saying that if you take a month off you can binge for the rest of the year, it’s saying this is how much healthier you are if you stop drinking.
“But when you do stop, the world doesn’t fall out from underneath you – you can get through the day without going into rampant alcohol withdrawal. People suddenly realise they can do it, and when they feel better —and many of them do — they then ask themselves whether a month off alcohol leads to a healthier 12 months.”