Dry January seems to be in fashion but might those giving up alcohol for a month find it even better to give it up all together?
The New Scientist seems to have turned some of its staff over to the UCL medical school as lab rats for an experiment in what difference giving up booze for a month made:
First off, he revealed that there had been no significant changes in any of the parameters measured for the four people who didn’t give up alcohol.
But the changes were dramatic and consistent across all 10 abstainers (see charts).
Liver fat fell on average by 15 per cent, and by almost 20 per cent in some individuals. Jalan says this is highly significant, because fat accumulation on the liver is a known prelude to liver damage. It can cause inflammation, resulting in liver disease. “This transition is the harbinger first for temporary scarring called fibrosis and ultimately a non-reversible type of scarring that destroys liver structure, called cirrhosis,” says Jalan. Although our livers were all judged to be generally healthy, the fat reductions would almost certainly help to retard liver deterioration, he says.
Then came another surprise. The blood glucose levels of the abstainers dropped by 23 per cent on average, from 5.1 to 4.3 millimoles per litre. The normal range for blood glucose is between 3.9 and 5.6 mmol/l. “I was staggered,” says Kevin Moore, consultant in liver health services at UCLMS. “I don’t think anyone has ever observed that before.”
Glucose was measured using a fasting blood glucose test taken after participants had refrained from eating or drinking anything but water for 8 hours. This stimulates production of the hormone glucagon, which releases glucose from body stores into the blood. In a healthy person, a rise in glucose triggers the production of insulin, which tells certain cells to take up glucose from the blood to maintain a safe blood sugar level.
Type 2 diabetes results when cells no longer respond to insulin, leading to high blood sugar. A drop in circulating glucose in our tests could mean that our bodies had become more sensitive to insulin, removing more glucose from the blood – a sign of improved blood sugar control. We also lost weight, by 1.5 kilograms on average.
Total blood cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, dropped by almost 5 per cent, from 4.6 to 4.4 mmol/l. A healthy amount is considered anything below 5.2 mmol/l. “Basically, you’re getting improved glucose and cholesterol management,” says Moore.
The benefits weren’t just physical. Ratings of sleep quality on a scale from 1 to 5 rose by just over 10 per cent, improving from 3.9 to 4.3. Ratings of how well we could concentrate soared 18 per cent from 3.8 to 4.5. “It represents a significant effect on quality of life and work performance,” says Jalan, although he acknowledges that self-reported experiences are open to bias.
The only negative was that people reported less social contact.
Now this is only one study and might be mistaken – I don’t have the training to judge. But I’ve already blogged here about other evidence suggesting that abstinence has many benefits. What makes this new study particularly interesting its subjects were not problem drinkers. However, they still benefited from avoiding alcohol.
I wonder whether rather than being a validation of not drinking this study actually queries why we drink at all. Why given the apparent benefits of giving up alcohol, are we so enamoured of the idea of being a moderate drinker? Why not treat it like smoking something that is inherently undesirable and should ideally be cut out altogether?
The answer I suspect lies in the final sentence of the extract above: we Britons seem to have developed an almost insoluble mental link between alcohol and socialising. There are responses to this at both an individual and a social level.
As an individual, you can still go to the pub, a restaurant or a bar. Just order a soft drink. That’s what I do. If your friends make that uncomfortable for you – get better friends!
As a society, we could perhaps start thinking of less booze sodden venues for socialising. This shouldn’t really be too hard. Many cultures focus on coffee rather than alcohol and of course most us spent the first decade and a bit of our lives managing to hang out with our friends without needing alcohol. We could even hang onto pubs and clubs but have them serve soft drinks instead.
Alcohol is a remarkably destructive social crutch that we can and should learn to do without.
Disclaimer: I am emphatically not advocating prohibition. The war on drugs is enough of a failure without adding a war on booze to it. However, saying something should be legal is quite different from saying it is a good thing.