Stephen Jardine: Time to put corks back in bottle

This is the hardest column of the year to write. After a two-week binge of eating and drinking, it’s hard to summon up much enthusiasm for another hunk of cheese or glass of fizz.
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon SavageStephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage

In these secular times, eating and drinking is increasingly defining the Christmas and New Year celebrations. With the supermarkets recording record sales, we’re returning to the roots of the mid winter feast.

To compensate for that, the January diets and enhanced exercise regimes have become a firm feature in recent times, but they require extraordinary willpower. We may all be feeling the effects of seasonal excess, but the body still craves calories to get through the short days and long, dark nights. Given that, celery sticks and treadmills are a big ask as we stumble into January.

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If cutting off the calories risks severe body shock, a break from the booze is a different story. The old saying goes, alcohol is a good friend but a very bad master.

Government guidelines recommend at least two alcohol-free days each week, but I suspect many of us will be pushed to remember when we last observed that advice.

Dry January is an opportunity to get things back on track. Launched a couple of years ago by Alcohol Concern, the month-long campaign urges people to take a break from the booze and reassess their drinking habits.

In Scotland, we need that more than most. Despite a fall in alcohol-related deaths, latest figures released last month show alcohol is still killing 20 Scots a week with another 700 requiring hospital treatment.

But if prohibition didn’t work in the US in the 1920s, what evidence is there to show a month off the booze will make a difference here and now?

Quite a lot actually. New Scientist has just published the results of a study it carried out with University College London Medical School which produced remarkable results.

After a four-week break from alcohol, liver fat fell by 15 per cent, blood glucose levels dropped by 23 per cent and cholesterol levels were down. The group also reported weight loss and improved sleep. The only negative was that those taking part enjoyed less social contact as they avoided situations where alcohol would be present.

As the scientist in charge observed, if you could come up with a health product that produced such startling results, you’d be raking in the profits.

Instead, the solution lies with us just saying no.

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What the study didn’t show was how long the improvements continue. There are plenty of other studies to show that, over time, responsible use of alcohol has health benefits, particularly in terms of heart function. On that basis, a month seems enough of a break, even if it is just to prove at the start of the year who is really in charge.