Did you indulge a bit too much over Christmas? Yep, me too. Are you trying to give up alcohol in January in an attempt to make up for this? Yep, me too. Or at least I was. I lasted 18 hours and was thwarted when my Mother offered me a glass of Prosecco. (I’m Scottish; I’m genetically predisposed to be unable to turn down free alcohol).
However there’s no getting away from the fact that alcohol is toxic. Even though it is consumed regularly by a large proportion of the population, it is universally acknowledged that alcohol is poisonous to the body. Fortunately, we are equipped with detoxification mechanisms which mitigate the extent of the damage caused by alcohol, primarily in the liver. However, these defences are limited, and repeated exposure to excessive alcohol levels will result in significant long-term damage.
One of the biggest problems is the liver damage which results from high levels of alcohol consumption. It can be argued that, for the most part, the issue is not ‘problem drinkers’ or alcoholism, but simply repeated alcohol exposure above and beyond that which the body can tolerate. Having said that, alcohol is by no means the only cause of liver disease, but it is the one that attracts the most media attention and factors strongly in the public consciousness.
Now a for a bit of the biochemistry: the main effect of alcohol on the liver is to cause damage via an array of oxidative stress mechanisms working simultaneously, such that it is unlikely that there is any individual process that can be singled out as the key damaging effect. One of the main damage pathways identified revolves around the alcohol‑related induction of CYP2E1, a member of the cytochrome p450 superfamily of enzymes. CYP2E1 catalyses a wide range of reactions, including the conversion of alcohol into acetaldehyde, acting as an alcohol dehydrogenase within hepatocyte microsomes. It also has the ability to act as an NADPH oxidase, generating hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) from molecular oxygen.
Does a short period of not drinking make a difference? Does a period of indulgence followed by a mirroring period of abstinence indeed serve to ‘balance things out’? Or, as I imagine is the case, should we just reign ourselves in at Christmas and drink sensibly all the time?
The New Scientist recently featured an article on Dry January which investigated whether there are any health benefits to be gained from giving up alcohol for a short period. The authors investigated the liver function of 10 apparently healthy staff members (journalists no less!) and compared the results of several key tests performed both before and after a 5-week period of abstinence.
Gratifyingly, they discovered that there were dramatic changes in the results from all of the temporary teetotalers. Liver fat fell on average by 15%; significant as fat accumulation on the liver is known to be a precursor to liver damage. Not only that but average blood glucose levels fell by 23% and total blood cholesterol dropped by almost 5%. There were also a range of non-physical benefits observed; ratings of sleep quality rose, concentration spans improved and the abstainers lost on average 1.5 kg in weight.
However, what the study didn’t record was what happened after the volunteers resumed their normal alcohol intake. Would their temporary self-restraint have paid off? I suspect not.
While Dry January may promote short-term health improvements and do wonders for your bank balance – not to mention your levels of smugness amongst your not-so-disciplined peers – it probably doesn’t result in long-term health benefits. So perhaps I don’t feel so guilty about that glass of Prosecco after all. Though I might cut back at the post-work Friday night pub trip tonight!