Alcohol Companion Newsletter 50, February 2nd 2018


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Specials: Dry January brings us valuable insight; Alcohol vendors hope to stop governments informing their citizens of alcohol’s health risks
Notable: A public health champion has proposed information labels in the UK; Doctors offer a three-point plan for a healthier relationship with alcohol
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Dry January lets us realise the benefits of low-level drinking

Dry January is a chance to demonstrate the numerous payoffs of low-level drinking to ourselves and others, transforming them from abstract knowledge into a practical method for improving our mental, physical and financial well-being.

A scientific outlook, and the healthy scepticism that goes with it, are no reason to ignore the need to form beliefs we can apply. Such beliefs provide us with a rugged, reliable and reassuring guide, like a pocket compass.

Some important science does not need to be kept so close at hand. This has little to do with its scope or even its complexity. It has more to do with the demands our belief in it places on us.

Accepting the sun-centred view of our galactic neighbourhood or the mind-boggling basics of quantum theory require an enormous leap of the imagination, but our belief they are true is rarely tested.

Few doubt the sun will rise tomorrow, because this scientific likelihood simply reinforces our experience. And we are unlikely to come to much grief if we occasionally imagine the sun going round the earth or that photons are particles and not waves.

Small wonders
Keeping a firm grip on earthbound, everyday findings is a far bigger challenge for us. The more humdrum the topic, the more difficult it can be, and no more so than when the subject is what we choose to eat, drink or smoke.

We connect with these subjects physically, emotionally and socially, forming an intimate relationship managed by our astronomically complex brains. The statistical results of understanding this relationship often confound our intuition.

As self-centred animals we are fairly hopeless at connecting with statistics, a type of scientific result especially open to manipulation. And, given a choice, we will tend to believe our senses over numbers on a chart.

But the solid statistical evidence of the long-term harm of, say, trans-fats, alcohol or tobacco smoke require us to alter our behaviour or they are are no use at all. We need to embrace beliefs that allow us to benefit.

Beliefs provide the motivation to be wary of tempting forbidden fruit and are even more helpful because we may initially suffer for heeding scientific advice, as we do with nicotine or alcohol dependency.

Truth endures
It may seem to be an impossible to establish facts in our argumentative “post-truth” world. But in the case of alcohol, about which I write, appearances belie broad agreement.

It is hard to maintain a low alcohol intake. Beyond this it fuels anxiety and depression, interferes with sleep and memory, increases the risk of heart and liver disease, cancer and contributes to all manner of accidents and blunders.

Science also indisputably shows there is an effective remedy to minimise alcohol-related problems, one offering large financial, emotional and health returns: to moderate or, more simply, to stop drinking alcohol.

Believing any initial suffering is common, will disappear, and be rewarded makes any hardship far easier to endure. So the dramatic, scientifically-recorded improvement of tens of thousands of people who have done it already is immensely reassuring.

More broadly we might look to evidence that sacrificing the euphoria-on-tap we can get from alcohol tends to help us achieve robust, long-term happiness. Happiness, as people experience it, has been found to be a distinct from euphoria.

It is not always easy to do what science says is best for us, especially when people try to deter us. Having scientific beliefs at hand, like a pocket compass, makes it far easier to stay on course. Dry January offers a chance to develop them. ■

Millions to zero alcohol levels this New Year

More than 3m people in the UK plan to turn their alcohol clocks to zero for a month from January 1st,  joining an increasingly popular annual initiative to realise the multiple benefits of lower levels of drinking.

Alcohol Concern’s Dry January provides information, support and extra motivation for those taking a break. There is a free app to track our progress and the chance to raise money for charity. 

The popularity of the annual lay-off is easily explained, says the charity’s chief executive Richard Piper: “The benefits are astounding”. Around half of those who take part find they lose weight, two-thirds sleep better and over three-quarters save money. It may also lift depression and anxiety.

Parents and the middle-aged were the most likely to be joining in this year, according to a survey of 2,000 people, with parents of more than two children particularly keen, as are people in full-time employment and those from the North East and Northern Ireland.

“Alcohol is the biggest cause of death, ill-health and disability for people aged 15-49 in the UK–but these tragedies are all totally avoidable,” says Piper. It is among the reasons the annual reset has the support of Public Health England.

The benefits of a mass alcohol reset can add up. It contributes significantly to an annual cost to the NHS or around £3.5bn, or £120 per taxpayer. The burden reaches its peak in December as Christmas parties end in injury, alcohol poisoning and violence.

Success is not uniform, although we can still benefit even if we do not make it to the end. In the past around two-thirds of participants made it through January without drinking any alcohol, while nearly three-quarters were sticking to lower levels of harmful drinking six months later.

Realising the full benefits of not drinking much alcohol can often take longer. Typically getting rid of withdrawal symptoms like emotional instability and memory issues takes between three months and a year.