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,” adds Moore, “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, which was presented to the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease this month, 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 per cent 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 per cent, and their insulin resistance (a measurement of diabetes risk) had come down by 28 per cent. “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, which affects 20 per cent of the adult population. Being obese can cause fat deposits in the liver, sparking inflammation which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Professor Moore, who also undertook a much smaller, informal, alcohol abstinence study a year ago on a group of journalists, 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.
“Some people who stop drinking haven’t even gone a week without drinking for years, and they’re quite scared about it.
“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.”
Another important question is whether people revert to their previous drinking behaviour after abstaining for a month. “If they don’t, and it reduces their overall alcohol consumption, then that has to be a good thing,” says Professor Moore.
While excessive alcohol intake is associated with a myriad of health problems, including increased risk of liver disease, heart problems, some cancers and mental health issues, and is a leading cause of preventable death in industrialised nations, many studies have suggested that alcohol - in particular red wine - can actually have health benefits, if drunk in moderation, of course.
A Harvard University study, for example, found moderate amounts raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or ‘good’ cholesterol, giving greater protection against heart disease. Separate Harvard research also reported that red wine has anti-ageing properties, thanks to its resveratrol content (a compound found in the skins of red grapes).
Some studies also suggest that wine, especially red, may help protect against certain cancers, improve mental health, decrease the risk of developing dementia, and boost heart health.
Professor Moore is sceptical about there being any health benefits to drinking alcohol, however, although he admits he’s not familiar with all the data. “There is no way alcohol is good for you. No drug is not going to cause harm at the level alcohol is taken,” he states.
Another crucial piece of the jigsaw is that interpretations of what amounts to ‘moderation’ can differ widely, which throws some of the positive health findings into grey areas.
The alcohol education charity Drinkaware points out that beyond the lower risk guidelines, any potential benefits from drinking alcohol are outweighed by the harm it can cause.
For example, according to the Department of Health, men who regularly consume more than eight units a day are four times more likely to develop high blood pressure, while women who regularly consume more than six units a day double their risk of high blood pressure.
Dr Sarah Jarvis, Drinkaware’s medical advisor, stresses: “In the long-term, the best evidence for avoiding alcohol-related harm comes from sticking within the recommended lower risk guidelines.”
She says light alcohol intake - up to one drink per day for women and one or two for men - may have an effect on reducing heart disease and stroke in middle-aged and older people. But there’s no evidence that drinking above government guidelines provides any benefit to the heart - men who drink heavily are over 60 per cent more likely to die from heart disease, and the risk to women is more than doubled.
She thinks Professor Moore’s study is promising because of the health benefits it identifies, and adds: “I support the idea of people having a month off from drinking alcohol, but only if it doesn’t mean that for the rest of the year they’re less concerned about cutting back.”
• To track alcohol consumption and calculate units, download Drinkaware’s free mobile app from the App Store or Google Play, or visit www.drinkaware.co.uk