Time for a dry January?
January is upon us again, the festive eating is over and for many, a period of abstinence from alcohol after the holiday excess to give their body a ‘break from the booze’ is sorely welcomed.
The 2018 version of this article first appeared at Huffington Post UK. To read the article there click here
The festive period brings a level of alcohol consumption unlike any other time; people who would never have considered themselves frequent alcohol consumers are suddenly cracking open a bottle of sparkling wine with breakfast as easily as putting on the kettle on for a cup of tea.
But the Christmas tree is finally coming down and some of you reading this may be considering a ‘Dry January’ start to the year, but very often the question arises – are there actually any benefits of giving your body an ‘alcohol-free vacation’?
Alcohol affects your liver’s health
Many people are aware of the role our liver plays in health. Hundreds of processes vital for life, with functions as diverse as digesting food, detoxification and hormone balance. Due to its remarkable regenerative capabilities, some even suggest the liver is perfectly capable of managing regular amounts of alcohol. Yet this ability can only stretch so far and when liver health hits rock bottom, it is in fact one of the few organs that cannot be artificially support whilst waiting for a transplant.
As a consequence, the health statistics are more than sobering. According to the British Liver Trust, liver disease is the only major cause of death still increasing year on year killing more people per year than diabetes and road deaths combined.
Alcohol affects your gut health
Alcohol affects your gastrointestinal system in a number of ways and as such, it often gets labelled as a universal ‘irritant’ of the gut.
Firstly, it affects the motility of the gut. Recent research has shown that alcohol directly affects the nervous system surrounding the gut which helps coordinate the movement of the muscles that push gut contents along. This is bad news if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or any sort of gut motility problem such as constipation or diarrhoea – alcohol will very often make it worse. Causing either a rush to the loo or a very long waiting time for things to move along.
Secondly, alcohol causes local inflammation to the gut lining. This inflammation has been linked to increased gut-permeability (leaky gut) shown in the diagram below. An increased permeability of the intestinal barrier allows bacteria (and the toxins they create, such as lipopolysaccharide (LPS)) to leave the gut and infiltrate other organs through the bloodstream – affecting their health too.
Although the majority of alcohol metabolism occurs in liver cells (hepatocytes), the enzymes involved in the metabolism of alcohol also are present in the intestinal lining and managed by the bacteria that occupy it.
Whilst the study of the effects of alcohol on the gut bacteria is very much in the early stages, rodent studies investigating the effects of daily alcohol consumption on gut bacteria show a reduction in the abundance of various beneficial species after only a few days. In a reverse fashion, probiotics given to people with alcohol induced liver damage appear to improve a number of liver enzymes and the gut flora vs standard therapy.
The Benefits to Binning the Booze for just a month
So without trying to sound too authoritarian there are benefits from binning the booze for a month.
In the short term, cutting alcohol out has benefits to sleep patterns, daily stress, gastrointestinal health, reducing the waistline. However, financially it could save at least £520 a year just in what we purchase and consume at home.
Yet much like all lifestyle changes, Dry January doesn’t and shouldn’t be the stopping point of cutting back on alcohol. Keeping alcohol intake to the UK Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for both men and women of 14 units per week may reduce the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, stomach ulcers, support brain health and help curb the £3.5 billion cost to the NHS per year in alcohol-related injury.
How Nutrition and Supplementation can Help
So other than ditching the booze, what else can we do to protect our bodies?
Do the multitudes of ‘detox supplements’ or any diet changes do anything?
Principally, there is evidence that certain food-derived compounds and botanical agents do help to protect liver, the gut and the brain cells and they seem to do this in a variety of ways.
My tips to maximise the benefits from Dry January
1. Start getting ‘Gut-Centric’ on your Eating and Supplementation. Prevention is much better than cure when it comes to gut health. If you have a gut problem, such as IBS – seek help. I offer personalised diet advice and specialise in this area. Your gut bacteria thrive on prebiotic fibres so always have a ‘plant-slant’ on your meals. Throw vegetables into your breakfast, lunch and dinner – no meal is off limits.
2. Eat for your liver health. Start piling your plate high with cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage. They all contain large amounts of diindolylmethane a compound that helps to protect liver cells and support the enzyme pathways that deal with alcohol (CYP1A).
3. Up-regulate glutathione. Glutathione is a unique protective antioxidant that highly concentrates in liver and brain cells. Cysteine, an amino acids crucial in creating glutathione is found in whey protein, one of the proteins found naturally in cows’ milk. Cysteine can also be supplemented as N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) and unlike many antioxidant supplements that have poor bioavailability, NAC is actually very effective at boosting glutathione and may have some additional beneficial psychoactive effects, such as reducing the effects of addiction. It’s one of the few supplements that my colleagues over at Examine.com recommend.
If you want to read more about the role of food in supporting mood and mental health, I’d recommend you check out my blog entry on
So what about all the ‘other stuff’…
However, unlike NAC, a large number of heavily marketed detoxing supplements, juices and teas may not offer the benefits they promise.
So yes, your body is all your need for detoxification; but a healthy body does it better.