January is upon us again, the festive eating is over and for many, a period of abstinence from alcohol after the holiday excess is sorely welcomed.
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.
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 liver an ‘alcohol-free vacation’?
Our liver plays a role in hundreds of processes vital for life, with functions as diverse as digesting food, detoxification and hormone balance. Due to its remarkable regenerative capabilities, some suggest the liver is perfectly capable of managing regular amounts of alcohol. Yet this ability can only be stretched so far and when liver health hits rock bottom, it is in fact one of the few organs that cannot be artificially supported 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.
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 and 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.
So other than ditching the booze, what else can we do to protect our liver?
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 cells. They seem to do this in a variety of ways:
1. Directly protecting liver cells, an example being the Ayer Vedic medicine herb milk thistle
2. Managing liver-centric metabolic pathways in the case of diindolylmethane (found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts and cabbage)
3. Up-regulating glutathione, a unique protective antioxidant that is highly concentrated in liver cells. Cysteine, an amino acids crucial in creating glutathione is found in whey protein, one of the proteins found naturally in cows’ milk.
However, the vast majority of heavily marketed detoxing supplements, juices and teas may not offer the benefits they promise. In some cases, large doses of supplements may have the opposite effect, damaging the liver further.
So yes, your liver is all you need for detoxification; but a healthy liver does it better. Help it by going dry for January, eating well and supplementing smartly.
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