On the 2nd of January 2017, a sudden-onset episode of intense fear inspired me to finally embark on my inaugural dry January. For the uninitiated, the proverbial fear is a term for the angst and remorse associated with a thumping hangover. For instance, one might (hazily) recall accidentally setting off the fire alarm at a kebab shop, such might have been one’s haste to score a lamb shish meal at 5am. One might have been honoured with the fairy godmother role at a very special baby girl’s christening a mere sixteen hours earlier. (Or godfather/baby boy, as the case may be.) I digress, but that’s the essence of the fear. And on that particular day, I was particularly riddled.
I found myself fully subscribed to Drynuary. As a rule, I don’t completely exclude anything, but I was prepared to make an exception after reflecting on an alcohol-soaked 2016. I received a ginormous slagging from friends recently when I explained that I never intentionally drank to get drunk but that I accidentally got ‘quite drunk, quite often’! I was catching up with friends most evenings after work and naturally a few gins or glasses of wine ensued. I know a dry January makes no scientific sense as a healthy liver can process small, steady quantities of alcohol without difficulty but I was habitually drinking far too much. A change was needed and I felt a dry January was as good a place to start as any. Today marks the start of week three, with two hangover-free weekends under my belt and counting…
In broad strokes, your liver begins to clear alcohol from your system one hour after you stop drinking. After 12-24 hours, blood sugars normalise. After 48 hours, the worst is over and after 72 hours cravings subside and energy and hydration levels are restored. After a week, sleeping patterns revert to baseline. After a month, liver fat is significantly reduced and its detoxifying capacity increases. After a year, people tend to lose a significant amount of belly fat and the risk of alcohol-related illness is considerably reduced. As we’re all aware, alcohol is exceedingly calorific and imparts next to no nutritional value. It contains 7 calories per gram which is almost twice that contained by protein and carbohydrates. For instance, a 150ml glass of red wine contains approximately 120 calories. To burn an equivalent amount of calories you would have to walk for over 30 minutes. I must have had a youthful metabolism on my side when I spent my Erasmus year blithely ensconced in the Loire Valley!
The Irish are renowned for having one of the highest consumptions of alcohol per capita in the world. Whenever an unexpectedly positive pregnancy test finagles its way into a consultation during my work as a GP, the woman invariably exclaims: ‘I’ve never drank so much in my life!’. We are bombarded with statistics on the devastating implications of excessive drinking but our habits remain impervious to the flashing updates. The numbers suffering from the many conditions that are either entirely or partially attributable to alcohol are ever-increasing. Psychiatric illness, nervous system disorders, elevated blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, stomach and bowel problems, liver disease, diabetes, foetal alcohol syndrome and several cancers (of the mouth, throat, voice box, gullet, liver, breast and bowel) weigh heavily on the laundry list which is posing an ever-expanding burden to our healthcare system and society in general.
The World Health Organisation has left countries to their own devices with regard to guidance on maximum safe alcohol consumption. In Ireland, the ‘low-risk’ drinking guidelines recommend up to 11 standard drinks per week for women and up to 17 for men. A standard drink, 10g of pure alcohol, is a pub measure of spirits (35.5ml), a small glass of wine or a half pint of beer. A standard drink contains 8g of pure alcohol in the UK, where the advice is not to drink more than 14 units per week (for both genders) and to keep more than one day per week alcohol-free, although it is emphasised that there is no safe level per se. In the US, where a standard drink contains 14g of alcohol, up to one drink per day for women and two for men is the recommendation. Ireland’s guidelines are broadly in line or stricter than most European countries but these guidelines would be unnecessary if we were all to drink sensibly and eschew binge drinking (which is defined by the WHO as six or more standard drinks in one session) and we can’t forget that the metabolism of alcohol is more complex than precise guidelines would suggest and can vary hugely from person to person depending on age, gender, type of food consumed with the alcohol and regularity of drinking. (An argument against Dry January…womp womp!)
My objective would never be to completely exclude alcohol from my life. I am intrigued by the diet of the Sardinians, a disproportionate number of whom live to be 100. They incorporate three to four small glasses of antioxidant-rich local red wine into their daily routine, one of which is consumed at a daily village social hour- la dolce vita down to a tee! I’ve also been reading about wine’s positive effect on metabolism and immunity through modification of gut microbiota… Hey, a girl needs a few straws to clutch!
On a serious note, my intention for February is to adopt a more mindful approach to alcohol. I’ll keep you posted!
P.S. To read more, please visit skipthescript.com