The 10 health benefits of giving up alcohol

The benefits of quitting alcohol
The benefits of quitting alcohol

It’s often said that the British love their tea, discussing the weather and, let’s face it, enjoying a tipple. Little wonder, then, that research from The Global Drug Survey in 2019, which examined 120,000 adults worldwide, found that Britons get drunk more than any other nation in the world, at least once a week.

The charity Drinkaware reported that 49 per cent of adults aged 16 or over drank alcohol at least one day each week in 2021. It might be a favoured national pastime, but the health benefits of cutting back both in the short and long term cannot be ignored. “Once you’ve made the decision to reduce your drinking or take a break, you’ve already taken the first step to a healthier lifestyle,” says Karen Tyrell, the charity’s chief executive.

Here’s why…

Understanding the effects of alcohol on your body

Alcohol contains a type of molecule called ethanol. When you drink alcohol, ethanol molecules are absorbed into your bloodstream and travel to different parts of your body, including your brain, where chemical changes take place.

For example, it suppresses the part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, that normally controls inhibition, so after a drink you may say or do things you wouldn’t normally do when sober.

And despite its reputation as a mood lifter, alcohol has a depressant effect on the brain that remains until your body has metabolised all the alcohol, hence why it can make you feel anxious or sad the next day.

Alcohol also increases your risk of:

  • Cancer

  • Heart disease

  • Liver disease

  • Stroke

  • Mental ill health

  • Sleep disturbance

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that alcohol is a ‘toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance’.

“However, human beings continue to drink even though they know it can do them harm,” says Professor Sally Marlow, a specialist in mental health and addiction at King’s College London.

“It’s embedded in our society. We wet a new baby’s head, drink our way through weddings and birthdays, until the end of life when we drink after funerals.”

The Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines for both men and women to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level is to consume 14 or fewer units of alcohol per week.

“A shot of spirit contains 1 unit, a standard glass of wine contains 2, and so does a pint of beer,” says Karen Tyrell. “But you should spread your drinking out over three or more days.”

Immediate benefits of quitting alcohol

  • The end of hangovers

  • Improved sleep

  • Better mental health

  • Healthier skin

“As alcohol is a depressant you should start to feel your mood and mental health improve,” says Tyrell. It can also lead to improvements in how you look, as alcohol dehydrates your body, which can cause your skin and eyes to look dull. When you cut back or stop, your skin looks healthier.”

Improved sleep patterns

As many of us will know from bitter experience, a heavy night of drinking can lead to a bad night’s sleep causing you to wake up groggy, dehydrated, nauseous and with a sore head. But according to Drinkaware, regular drinking or even a couple of drinks can disrupt your sleep cycle and affect the quality of your sleep.

This is because having alcohol in your system means you spend less time in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, so you wake up feeling less refreshed. REM is the stage where your brain rests and repairs itself, and it’s linked to better mental health.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, which causes your body to lose extra fluid. In other words, you’ll pee more, which will cause you to become dehydrated, and this can contribute to poor sleep. Because of how drinking impacts sleep, one of the most noticeable effects of stopping or reducing your intake will be an increase in energy levels.

Decreased risk of accidents

According to NHS data, more than 10 per cent of visits to A&E departments are alcohol-related, while more than 1.2 million violent incidents in England are linked to alcohol misuse.

Long-term health benefits of quitting

“Over the years there is cumulative damage caused by drinking regularly that we can’t see initially,” says Professor Marlow. “This damage is to our livers, our stomachs, our skin, and our brains.

“In our forties and fifties it all starts coming to a head but, crucially, as well as this damage, we are more likely to have become more reliant on alcohol by then or in some cases addicted, or what researchers call dependent.

“This means we find it more difficult to quit, and are less likely to be able to control our drinking.” However, cutting back or giving up at any age will reap huge rewards.

Lowered risk of cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen [something proven to cause cancer], which is the highest risk group and puts it alongside tobacco and even radiation. The WHO states that nearly 4 per cent of cancers diagnosed worldwide in 2020 were due to alcohol consumption.

“Alcohol causes seven types of cancer, including breast and bowel, and it’s responsible for around 11,900 cases of cancer every year in the UK,” says Malcolm Clark, senior prevention policy manager from Cancer Research UK.

According to the charity, there are many ways that alcohol can cause cancer, including damage to the cells, changes to hormone levels, and changes to cells in the mouth and throat, which makes it easier for cells in the mouth to absorb harmful chemicals that can cause damage.

“Whatever people’s drinking habits are, cutting down will decrease cancer risk. And for those who don’t drink, research shows that your [cancer] risk is lower the longer you are teetotal,” says Clark.

Boosted immune system

Another benefit to cutting back on booze is stronger immunity. Binge drinking is particularly problematic for our immune systems. The NHS defines binge drinking as ‘drinking heavily over a short space of time’, or 8 units of alcohol in a drinking session for men, and 6 units for women.

In 2015, a study published in the health journal Alcohol found that just one episode of binge drinking can reduce your white blood cells, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of your immune system.

Even moderate drinking impacts the immune system, and makes it harder for the body to repair itself. If you stop drinking, your immune system will begin to repair itself, unless long term damage has already occurred, for example liver disease.

Heart health

There has long been a common perception that red wine is good for the heart, because it contains an antioxidant called resveratrol. In 1992, the medical journal The Lancet published a study that claimed moderate drinking was linked to a 40 per cent reduction in heart attacks, and something known as the ‘French paradox’ was born after researchers noticed that French people suffered from fewer heart attacks than other nations, despite eating saturated fat (found in cheese) and red wine.

However, sadly, in recent years experts have debunked this. According to Professor Marlow there are no health benefits to alcohol, including heart health, and in 2023 the WHO published a similar statement that said when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no amount that does not affect health.

Meanwhile, according to a study from Boston University, published in July 2023, having just one alcoholic drink a day was linked to a rise in blood pressure.

Weight loss

Cut out alcohol and lose weight. Alcohol is made from natural starch and sugar, and is a well known risk factor for weight gain. A pint of lager for example contains around 200 calories and a large glass of wine contains slightly more.

And in the case of spirits, they’re often mixed with sugary and calorific mixers, like cola or lemonade. It’s worth noting that healthier options include soda water, while Professor Marlow advises diluting wine with soda water to make a spritzer.

A study published in 2023 in the BMC Public Health Journal found that regular drinking was linked with obesity, so it is little wonder that regular binge drinkers are more likely to have larger waist circumferences.

While a 2020 study from University College London, published in the journal Addiction, found that heavy drinking in later life adds 4cm to your waistline. Dr Linda Ng Fat, who led the study, said: “This suggests that the longer adults engage in heavy drinking the larger their waistline in older age. That is why it is beneficial, along with other health benefits, that adults reduce heavy drinking earlier rather than later.”

Improved mental health

“When people give up or cut back on alcohol, they often say that they feel less anxious, or less depressed,” says Professor Marlow. “For many people this is surprising, because they’ve assumed that alcohol has been helping them to manage anxiety and depression, whereas in fact it’s the opposite.

“Alcohol is a really complex molecule, and when it crosses from the blood into the brain it reacts with various different neurotransmitters, including those linked to depression and those linked to agitation and anxiety.”

Professor Marlow adds that many people who give up drinking discover that their mental health improves. “Particularly women who are feeling depressed, GPs are more likely to prescribe antidepressants,” she says. “But if they are drinking alcohol, this interferes with the antidepressants, so they don’t work.

“It’s a double whammy for these women, and rather than be given antidepressants they should be given support to stop drinking. Then secondly even if they did have depression, the antidepressants won’t work.”

Impact on relationships and social life

“Alcohol is often thought of as a great social lubricator, and people who don’t drink in the UK are often viewed with suspicion, other than those who don’t drink for religious reasons,” says Professor Marlow.

“However, the flipside of this is that when alcohol drinking is problematic, it causes conflict. This might be conflict with a partner or with family members, or conflict with strangers, which can manifest into arguments, or worse, lead to aggression and violence.”

When it comes to how alcohol affects our relationships with those around us.

“There is a spectrum that people find themselves on with alcohol. Light-hearted fun can slide into a situation that’s causing harm to your relationship with your friends and family,” says Karen Tyrell.

“For example, arguing with friends and loved ones, or not being able to take part in family or social occasions because you’re hungover.”

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