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Consultants Corner: Why Dry January is a good thing

Doctors from BMI Healthcare share their expertise.

11 January 2019

Tis the season for celebrations, but with all the time spent socialising with friends, family and colleagues, it’s easy to let the drinks flow and overlook the effects this will have on your body. Without wanting to put a dampener on your celebrations, we spoke to some of our consultant gastroenterologists to find out the negative impact of overdoing it on your liver, and the damage this can cause in the future?

What is the impact of increased drinking on your liver?
It is well known that the liver is hit the hardest by alcohol. Your liver is responsible for breaking down food into energy and helping to rid the body of waste products, such as alcohol. Excessive drinking damages the organ and can lead to liver disease, which for many in the UK is deadly.

What are the signs and symptoms of liver disease?
The early symptoms of the disease include nausea, abdominal pains, diarrhoea, fatigue and vomiting. The later symptoms, which are even more concerning include: Jaundice (yellow skin), bleeding in the gut, swollen legs, ankles and abdomen, vomiting blood and loss of appetite 

What treatments are there for liver disease?
When a problem of excess alcohol use is acknowledged, a thorough assessment of any established liver disease is crucial to determine long term prognosis, treatment and monitoring needs. The on-going management requires multi-disciplinary specialist input including hepatology, psychiatry/psychology, and dietetics support.

There are now very good services which can help with reduction in alcohol intake so liver disease should be viewed in some cases as treatable and preventable with lifestyle change.

Does alcohol cause permanent damage to the liver?
It can cause permanent damage to the liver with continued excessive drinking. A condition called cirrhosis can occur where the liver becomes scarred and does not function as it should. Stopping alcohol at this point may not always lead to a full recovery of the liver, though there are usually some improvements.

Aside from the negative impact on our liver what are the other effects of alcohol on the body?
The first signs that alcohol is affecting your body occur as it reaches your brain and other parts of the central nervous system. The short-term effects are slurred speech and poor coordination, two typical signs that someone is becoming drunk. Alcohol can also impact mental health, altering the chemistry of the brain which can lead to depression, anxiety, confusion and anger. The heart also suffers drastically from alcohol abuse as excessive drinking raises the blood pressure and this is a leading cause of stroke.

What is a ‘healthy’ amount of alcohol to consume?
The NHS recommends that both men and women should consume no more than 14 units a week, equivalent to a small glass of wine or a pint of beer per day. It is also recommended that you don't drink for at least two consecutive days a week to allow your liver to recover.

So for those considering taking part in ‘Dry January’, what benefits can they expect to see and experience?
There are a lot of positive results that you should notice during your month of going alcohol free. These include:

Enjoying a better and more restorative night’s sleep which in turn leads to more energy in the day time, and without the morning-after-booze headache you’re likely to feel much better in yourself.

- Alcohol is also famously high in calories – a glass of wine contains around 160 calories while beer has approximately 208- and so there is an obvious benefit for your waistline in giving up drinking.

- You can also get a great sense of having achieved something you found difficult and this can help boost your confidence; giving you a feeling of success.

- Arguably one of the most important health benefits is a general change in attitude towards alcohol. Simply not having it for a month can make people reconsider their relationship with drink.

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