Is there anyone left to have a drink with in January? Two charities, Alcohol Concern and Cancer Research UK are encouraging people to have a sponsored dry January (money raised will not go towards binge drinking in February, but to alcohol research). The benefits of a dry January are sold as losing weight, saving money, sleeping better and seeing if you can cope without alcohol for 31 days.
Alcohol Concern cites similar campaigns in Australia and New Zealand, after which more than a third of participants said they drank less frequently for the rest of the year. But the organisers concede that a month off the booze won’t give you a shiny new liver. So is there any point in avoiding alcohol in January?
The risk of liver damage is related to both how often and how much alcohol you drink. The charity most devoted to the liver, the British Liver Trust, is not a fan of dry Januarys. It prefers people to drink sensibly throughout the year, by sticking to the recommended alcohol intake (as a maximum amount) and having two or three dry days every week. A dry January, they claim, can be used to excuse excessive drinking in the months before and afterwards.
The liver is fabulous at regenerating itself, but up to a point. It metabolises alcohol efficiently (a unit an hour) but really appreciates some regular days off. Livers aren’t usually fatty organs, but regular overdrinking means fat collects and reduces how well the liver works. At this point, the damage is reversible. But throw in more alcohol over short periods of heavy binge-drinking and you can develop an inflamed liver – a condition called alcohol hepatitis, which can be lethal. Keep drinking and you could develop cirrhosis. A cirrhotic liver is a common specimen in medical school anatomy rooms. The liver is shrunken and nodular through scarring. You cannot recover from this. If you stop drinking you may prevent further damage, but the condition can cause liver failure.
There is some evidence that the increase in liver deaths in the UK is due to daily drinking rather than bingeing. A study of 106 people in the south of England with alcoholic liver disease found that 71% drank on a daily basis. For many this pattern had started in their early 20s.
In 2011 the Royal College of Physicians gave evidence to the government’s science and technology committee, stating that having two or three alcohol-free days a week is safer than drinking every day. They warned that the recommended three to four units a day for men and two to three for women should be seen as high-risk drinking if consumed every day.
So in January you should drink alcohol as you mean to throughout the year: only four times a week and within the daily limits. Which may be infinitely harder to do, and to find sponsors for.
You are at risk for liver damage or disease if:
You are exposed to blood or bodily fluids on the job.
You are regularly exposed to toxins or chemicals such as aerosol cleaners, bug spray, paint fumes and tobacco smoke.
You have injected drugs, especially if you shared a needle.
You have had frequent, unprotected sex with multiple partners.
You have had a tattoo or piercing with an unsterile needle.
You consume alcohol. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can have toxic effects, especially when taken with over-the-counter drugs containing acetaminophen.
You use certain herbs or herbal remedies. Mega doses of vitamins can also cause liver damage.
You have certain conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, or high triglycerides.
You received a blood transfusion before 1992. You may be at risk for hepatitis C.
You are a military veteran, especially a Vietnam-era veteran who was exposed to someone else’s blood.
You have ever had an abnormal liver function test.
If you can answer yes to any of the statements above, you should see your doctor and ask for a liver enzyme test. It’s painless, and most importantly it’s dangerous to wait.
A study of patients with liver disease at Southampton General Hospital found 71 per cent drank on a daily basis.
Half of them drank the equivalent of half a bottle of wine to one bottle of wine a night, or 35 units to 70 units a week.
None of the study subjects with liver disease were binge drinkers, lead author of the study Dr Nick Sheron said.
He added: “These are people who do not think they are at risk of liver disease. They are at a lower risk of liver disease than people who drink more but because many more people drink at this level there are significant numbers at risk.”
An estimated one in four adults drink at levels considered to be hazardous or harmful to health.
The study is published in the journal Addiction this week (19 Mar 2009) and sought to answer the question if binge drinking or daily drinking was a bigger risk for liver disease.
The team studied the drinking patterns of 106 people with alcohol-related liver disease out of 234 people in total with liver diease.
Other studies have shown that people who drink half a bottle of wine a day are at three to four fold the risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease than those who do not drink at all.