Skip to content

Alcohol-free January: What do four weeks without alcohol do for our health?

After the New Year's hangover, many people want to avoid alcohol in January. This means: no after-work beer, no glass of wine with dinner. But can the body benefit from this? Stern spoke to an alcohol researcher - and got a clear answer.

Bye, bye, bubbly! An alcohol-free January is a popular New Year's
Bye, bye, bubbly! An alcohol-free January is a popular New Year's

Prof. Dooley, many people want to give up alcohol after New Year's Eve. For example, an alcohol-free January is popular. Why is that?

Alcohol is harmful to the body and to health. Many people are aware of this. Such a decision is a sign that they believe they have consumed too much alcohol in the past. Otherwise they wouldn't have to decide to give up alcohol. So the awareness is there. All the more so, of course, because the Christmas holidays and New Year's Eve are still very much present - days when people usually look a little deeper into their glass.

The crucial question is: does giving up something help - or can you just leave it at that?

The answer here is quite clear: any abstinence is sensible and important. Alcohol is a poison and stresses the body's cells, especially cells in the liver, which are responsible for metabolism. The liver is the organ that metabolizes and breaks down alcohol. Each individual alcohol molecule damages the affected liver cell.

Every single molecule?

Yes, exactly. The breakdown of each individual alcohol molecule produces degradation products that put liver cells under stress. If too many molecules arrive at the same time, the liver cell is damaged to such an extent that it dies. This leads to cell death. This creates a wound that can scar. This can be compared to a cut in the skin. The problem is its chronicity. In other words, unlike a cut in the skin, the wound-causing influence, for example chronic alcohol abuse, comes back again and again and the organ scars over time.

What does this mean for the liver?

The organ is increasingly no longer able to perform its actual function: To build up, break down and excrete metabolic products. Cirrhosis develops and, in the worst case, there is a risk of acute liver failure. If the liver is already severely damaged, the risk of liver cancer is also increased.

But surely this only applies to heavy drinkers.

Not exclusively. The liver can also be severely damaged by hepatitis pathogens, toxins, an unhealthy diet or drug abuse. Alcoholic cirrhosis is the result of continuous, progressive damage and occurs most frequently with regular, risky alcohol consumption. However, some occasional drinkers are also particularly at risk, even with moderate consumption.

Why is that?

There are personal risk factors that multiply the damaging effect of alcohol. One example of this is a hepatitis C virus infection. If this is present, the risk of developing liver cancer after drinking alcohol is increased many times over. Other possible risk factors are currently being researched. These include, for example, inflammatory messengers or a genetic predisposition.

Watch the video to see how author Susanne Kaloff talks about her self-experiment: What was it like to live without alcohol for a year?

What is the minimum length of time you should go without alcohol to benefit your liver?

There is no general answer to this question. I would advise against consuming alcohol continuously for six months and then taking a four-week break, like a kind of cure. Instead, my advice is to adopt a conscious attitude, pay attention to your well-being, stop drinking alcohol for a certain period of time every now and then and prove to yourself that you can do it. It is also helpful to always drink at least the same amount of water when you drink alcohol. Otherwise, the rules for moderate consumption apply: men should not drink more than 20 grams of alcohol per day. This corresponds to about a quarter of a liter of wine or half a liter of beer. For women, half that amount is considered acceptable. In addition, at least two to three days a week should be alcohol-free. However, even these guidelines must be carefully weighed up against the risk factors mentioned above. There are constellations where this is already too much, such as a history of hepatitis C.

Is abstinence better than moderate consumption over a longer period of time?

Yes, definitely.

Even if this abstinence is only temporary, say for a few months?

Then it's better than not consuming for those few months. There's no question about that.

Some people report that they feel better without alcohol. Is that just a placebo?

Certainly not. People who give up alcohol sleep better and more deeply and therefore feel fitter and better rested. However, this only applies to people who are not addicted to alcohol. Addicts can even experience life-threatening side effects if they stop drinking overnight. A doctor should be consulted in this case.

Alcohol damages the liver, as we have already discussed. Where else does alcohol cause damage?

There are around 200 alcohol-related illnesses. For example, high-proof alcohol can cause mechanical damage to the surface of the throat and pharynx. If consumed regularly, it increases the risk of cancerous tumors in this area. And let's not forget the many hospitalizations that are indirectly attributable to alcohol: Car accidents, falls, fights.

How do those affected notice that they are drinking too much alcohol?

Physically, you often only notice it when it is already too late and the liver has suffered irreversible damage. It can be helpful to take a critical look at your own consumption: How do I see my own drinking behavior? Are friends and family worried? Can I give up alcohol for a longer period of time without finding it difficult? There are also questionnaires online that can make it easier to assess yourself.

Is there such a thing as a healthy glass of wine in the evening?

There is no such thing - for one simple reason: alcohol is a poison, and a poison cannot be healthy by nature. Of course, the situation is more complex. A little wine in the evening can also contribute to quality of life and support well-being. This has nothing to do with escaping the daily grind, but with enjoyment. And that in turn can be good for your health. When we talk about a "healthy glass of wine", there are two different poles: conscious, beneficial enjoyment on the one hand, and biochemical stress on the other. If you only consider the latter, you have to say quite clearly: alcohol is toxic.

How do you feel about alcohol yourself?

Every now and then I have a glass with a meal. Or open a bottle of wine at the weekend, which I drink with my wife. Spread it out over the weekend. I largely avoid high-proof spirits. For me, the focus is on taste, quality and enjoyment. Not the level.

This article comes from our archive.

Read also: