Observing Dry January Might Help You Cut Back on Alcohol All Year

Posted on January 7th, 2016
Posted in Substance Abuse

Lose weight, enjoy more sleep and get loads of cash. Who isn’t up for that trifecta?

According to the folks behind Dry January, that’s the payoff for 31 days of abstinence from alcohol. And those who have given it a shot are better for it, they say, including staffers at New Scientist who showed startling reductions in liver fat (a precursor to liver disease) and blood glucose levels (a sign of improved blood sugar control). Kevin Moore, a consultant in liver health services at University College London Medical School who partnered with New Scientist, was astounded by the results.

“I don’t think anyone has ever observed that before,” Moore told the magazine. The participants also showed reductions in blood cholesterol and lost an average of 3.3 pounds over the four-plus weeks.

“The results were staggering. If you had a drug that did this it would be a multi-billion pound market,” Moore said.

Dry January is an increasingly popular annual ritual sponsored by Alcohol Concern, the national agency on alcohol abuse in the United Kingdom. Now in its fourth year, the campaign encourages social drinkers to take a break from alcohol after the excesses of the holidays. And that monthlong hiatus has also been found to lead to long-term changes in drinking patterns. Recent research by the University of Sussex found that 72% of people who completed Dry January in 2014 maintained lower levels of harmful drinking in the ensuing months and 4% were still not drinking after six months.

The participants also reported a number of other benefits:
• 79% saved money
• 62% had better sleep
• 62% had more energy
• 49% lost weight

And as millions of people in the U.K. and beyond take part in this year’s Dry January, British citizens are now being urged to take regular, short-term breaks from alcohol. In new guidelines to be published this year, Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies will advise the public to abstain from alcohol at least two to three days a week to give their livers a rest. Canada has a similar recommendation in its guidelines, while the United States does not.

The risk of liver damage is related to both the amount of alcohol consumed and the frequency of consumption. Although the liver has the remarkable ability to regenerate, it needs time to recover from even small amounts of alcohol, experts say. The Canadian Liver Foundation is blunt: “Limit your alcohol consumption to one or two drinks, but never on a daily basis,” it warns.

Of course it’s not only the liver that suffers as a result of alcohol abuse. A recent Wall Street Journal story reported that heavy drinking can cause insidious damage to the brain, even in people who don’t seem intoxicated or addicted. It also reported that long-term alcohol abuse changes “how the brain regulates emotion and anxiety and disrupts sleep systems, creating wide-ranging effects on the body.”

Do You Need Treatment?

If your commitment to Dry January goes bust after just a few days or you aren’t game to even try going a month without booze, it may be time to reach out for help. Among the many benefits of Dry January is that it forces people to think about their alcohol consumption. Someone who drinks every night to wind down from a long day at work may not realize that he or she is as alcohol-dependent as a person who binge drinks on the weekends.

In addition to the inability to stop drinking, here are other red flags from the Mayo Clinic that indicate you may have developed a dependence on alcohol that would be best addressed by treatment:

  • Wanting to cut down on how much you drink or making unsuccessful attempts to do so
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, getting alcohol or recovering from alcohol use
  • Feeling a strong craving or urge to drink alcohol
  • Failing to fulfill major obligations at work, school or home due to repeated alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink alcohol even though you know it’s causing physical, social or interpersonal problems
  • Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies
  • Using alcohol in situations where it’s not safe, such as when driving or swimming
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol so you need more to feel its effect or you have a reduced effect from the same amount
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don’t drink, or drinking to avoid these symptoms

Deaths in the U.S. linked to alcohol abuse are at a 35-year high, new figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Don’t become a number on the list. If you’re white-knuckling it through Dry January, it’s time to get help. There are a range of options for treatment, including medications that reduce alcohol cravings, behavioral treatments that change drinking behavior through counseling, and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups.  Talking to your primary care doctor is an important first step. Here is a simple, self-scoring test that helps determine if you have a drinking problem.

By Laura Nott

Sources:

Our Liver Vacation: Is a Dry January Really Worth It
http://newscientist.com/article/mg22129502-600-our-liver-vacation-is-a-dry-january-really-worth-it/

Voluntary Temporary Abstinence From Alcohol During “Dry January” and Subsequent Alcohol Use.
http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2015-57039-001/

The Effects of Chronic Heavy Drinking on Brain Function Are Underdiagnosed
http://wsj.com/articles/the-effects-of-chronic-heavy-drinking-on-brain-function-are-underdiagnosed-1450722803

Alcohol Use and Your Health
http://cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

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