Giving up alcohol in January is seen by many as an ideal way to begin a healthier new year. For those of us who have managed a ‘Dry January’, one that’s free from alcohol, we might be feeling a sense of achievement. However, Dr Mark Aldersley, consultant hepatologist at Spire Leeds Hospital warns that one month of abstinence may not be enough to revive the liver after previous prolonged spells of significant alcohol intake.
“Giving up for one month is not enough to undo the long term damage caused by regular drinking. It’s not a detox programme or a quick fix,” says Dr Mark Aldersley. “Year round action is what’s needed. This involves having at least two alcohol free days a week, and ensuring moderate consumption on other days.”
Alcohol related liver disease is the fifth biggest killer in the UK and is on the increase.* Figures show that in the Leeds area on average 23% of people are drinking at a harmful level.* “I’m particularly concerned about the increasing number of younger people that we are seeing. We are noticing big changes with more people in their twenties and thirties dying from alcohol-related causes. Twenty years ago this was rare. People are starting to drink at a younger age and are drinking larger quantities.”
Dr Aldersley continues, “During the course of a month’s abstinence your liver will regenerate to a great degree but will not recover fully. People who have not badly damaged their liver stand a good chance of the liver regenerating and returning to normal function with abstinence for several months. If it’s badly damaged you can still gain some benefit from permanent abstinence.”
He calls liver disease the ‘silent killer’. “Most people who have alcohol-related problems aren’t alcoholics. They probably would not be aware that their liver is damaged as there are no obvious outward signs in the early stages. People often think they are well even in the advanced stages.” He thinks the problem of over-indulgence is fuelled by the affordability of alcohol with people drinking larger quantities at home and quietly damaging their liver without knowing. Especially at risk are women and those who are obese as the liver is likely to already be damaged through them being overweight.
Another problem is caused by confusion over what a unit measures. “Often people don’t really understand the quantities or units in terms of government guidelines for drinking safely. Home poured glasses tend to be larger and are likely to be two or three units and pub measures of wine are larger than a few years ago,” he said.
“No one wants to make people’s lives a misery by telling them to stop drinking and many people can enjoy drinking moderately. But people who have liver damage should abstain and others should try to limit intake to stay within the recommended number of units,*” he said.
Dr Aldersley explained, “When the liver is damaged it starts to become inflamed, and then with further alcohol scarring develops. When it is severely scarred cirrhosis occurs.** Cirrhosis will not heal completely, however in the stages prior to cirrhosis, it’s often possible for the liver to heal completely,” he said.
Dr Aldersley recommends if people are concerned about the health of their liver they should ask their GP for a liver blood test.
“It’s not just liver function that improves with abstinence. The benefits of giving up or cutting down alcohol consumption can include improved sleep, weight loss and saving money,” he added.