What are the benefits of taking two days a week off alcohol?
11 SEPTEMBER 2018
If you’ve ever gone to a pub or restaurant with the intention of limiting yourself to a single small wine, but found that small glass became a large glass, or two (or a bottle, on a Monday evening), you’re not alone.
Far too often, one drink leads to another. And often, those couple of drinks each day, plus a little more at the weekend, can add up to a lot of units – far more than the recommended 14 per week (which is roughly seven 175ml glasses of 12% wine per week, or seven pints of average strength lager).
Which is why Public Health England and Drinkaware has launched a campaign to convince people to have a couple of booze-free days per week, as a simple way to reduce alcohol intake.
Limiting consumption is a particular issue for the middle-aged. NHS research shows that people aged 45-65 are more likely than other age brackets to exceed 14 units per alcohol per week, the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guideline figure.
So what are the benefits of taking at least two days a week off alcohol?
Dr Jarvis says an immediate benefit from spending a couple of days a week without alcohol will be to your sleep. “A lot of people think that they will sleep better if they are drinking alcohol. But in fact it’s a depressant.
“It will put you to sleep but it will reduce the quality of your sleep, so you won’t get the same level of REM sleep and it will be less restful. Because alcohol is a diuretic, you’re more likely to wake up early and then find that you can’t get back to sleep.”
Without booze, your body won’t have had to process a lot of toxins, so you’ll feel more energetic the next day, she adds. “You may find you’re able to concentrate better and won’t have a headache. If you give up alcohol for just a few days you’ll also probably find your skin improves, because you’re better hydrated.”
For every extra unit per day that you drink, you increase your risk of breast cancer by 7-11 per cent
Reduced risk of cancers
“In the medium term it will also reduce your risk of cancer, particularly of breast cancer,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP and spokeswoman for Drinkaware, citing research from the charity Alcohol Concern.
“For every extra unit per day that you drink, you increase your risk of breast cancer by 7-11 per cent.” Among other benefits, it will also reduce a build up of fatty deposits on the liver.
Perhaps the most obvious danger of long-term heavy drinking is developing a dependency.
“The less you are affected by the short-term effects of alcohol, then the more you can tolerate,” says Dr Jarvis. “And a lot of people believe that means they have become inured to the longer-term harms. They haven’t. If anything, it’s worse.”
In essence, you need to keep upping the dose of alcohol in order to enjoy it, but the toxins mount up dangerously.
The psychological aspects of two days’ abstinence, are substantial, says consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul McLaren, an alcohol addiction specialist at the Priory Hospital in Hayes Grove, Kent: “This is very good advice. Most people who get into problems in their relationship with alcohol don’t do so overnight. Daily drinking is an important warning sign.
“If you are drinking every day and are unsure whether you have a problem with alcohol, then try having two days without. If you can’t do it, then talk to someone you trust about it or get professional help.
“The main psychological advantage of two days without alcohol is that it shows that you are still in control. It allows us to try other, healthier stress-reducing strategies at the end of a busy day such as exercise or active relaxation.”
Dr Jarvis warned that those who follow the advice of spending two days per week without drinking shouldn’t then up their intake on the remaining five to “make up” for it.
The dangers of binge drinking are especially worrying: increased risk of stroke, alcohol poisoning or seizures and a very significantly increased danger of accidental or deliberate self-harm.
“The last thing we want is for people to go out and binge drink on an empty stomach,” she says.
Dr Kailash Chand, honorary vice president of the British Medical Association, also adds a note of caution. He feels a day or two here and there is unlikely to have a substantial effect and could encourage bingeing on the remaining days.
“We used to see this sort of campaign at Christmas, when people would drink a lot at Christmas and then have January alcohol-free.
“That’s done a lot of harm. What we saw was that people who had a month of abstention from alcohol then made it up. If you tell people to not drink for two days, they will try to ‘compensate for’ those two days.”
He says that even if you avoid “catching up” on your alcohol intake, the physiological benefit of two days without drink can be overstated.
“[Drinking] kills liver cells and does harm to the gut and brain cells. In younger people especially, the regeneration of cells is fairly good and I’m not an expert in this but if you leave it for a week I would think there would be some helpful regeneration. But not over two days.”