This month it's estimated around 4.2 million people will take on the Dry January challenge. Although the campaign is aimed at changing the way we drink long term and hopefully raising some money for charity – many people have their own reasons for taking on the challenge.
No surprise that a popular reason people sign up is to give their liver a break after a party-filled December - in the hope of undoing some of the damage done over Christmas. While this sounds like a good plan in theory, does a break from booze really do good long term? Let's discuss.
It's important to understand what functions our liver performs – and why we need to look after it. Put simply, our liver is awesome! This remarkable organ does all sorts of important jobs from nutrient metabolism, removing toxins and producing proteins to helping with blood clotting. Essentially most things that enter our body are passed through our liver in some way – from pollutants and alcohol, to medication and nutrients. The work it does can cause it to get damaged over time, so the liver is also great at regenerating its cells to remove damaged ones. However, too much strain overtime can cause irreversible damage to liver cells and lead to liver failure – which can be fatal. A healthy and functioning liver is vital.
More or less everything we eat, drink, consume and inhale passes through our liver, so the more toxins this includes, the more work it has to do. Things like alcohol, drugs, medication, pollutants and some ingredients in processed foods, all put strain on our liver as it works to remove them from our body or break them down into less harmful by-products. So in this respect, eating a heavily processed diet, drinking more than the daily recommended amount of alcohol, drug abuse and overuse of certain medications such as painkillers, can all be bad for the health of our liver.
Being overweight also adds strain to our liver and can lead to fatty liver disease. This is a disease in which the cells of the liver have a build up of fat. If this progresses it can cause long term scarring and reduced functionality, and may cause serious damage.
Given that our liver is the most regenerative organ in our body, you'd think a whole month off booze would give it plenty of time to recouperate - but then, this really depends on the state of your liver health to begin with. Studies have shown that having a month off booze can have very beneficial effects on our liver in the short term, as well as our general health. Below are 5 proven health benefits of having a month alcohol free, on the good advice of our medical advisor Dr Ian Campbell:
The issue here though, is that we don't know if these benefits are carried through for long if the individual's regular drinking habits are immediately resumed. Probably not! The hope is that having a break will result in us reassessing our drinking habits, and cutting back in general, so that we continue to benefit going forward.
Advice from the Chief Medical Officer for England also now recommends at least 2 alcohol free days per week – this is for the same reasons as a month off alcohol – giving your liver a rest.
To look after your liver health long term, the best thing you can do is give it a break from all the hard work it does. This means eating a healthy balanced diet, staying within the recommended guidelines for safe alcohol consumption and exercising regularly – and of course abstaining from drug use. When it comes to your liver health it's a lot more about avoidance or moderation than eating/drinking specific things to 'heal' it.
That said – is there anything we can eat that will help to boost our liver health? Well there are certainly lots of claims, so I've looked into the research behind some of them:
Milk thistle – this is an herbal flower which can be made into a supplement. The active ingredient in milk thistle (silymarin) is thought to aid liver function. Currently there is very little conclusive evidence to support these claims, however studies looking at the use of milk thistle by patients with chronic liver disease also found no adverse effects from taking the supplement.
Coffee – interestingly, drinking coffee has been found in some research to reduce the risk of liver cancer. But at this time it's unclear why this is the case or how much coffee we should be having each day to reap these benefits. One to watch though!
Green tea – some observational studies have shown an association between green tea consumption and reduced risk of liver cancer. However the exact mechanism of action has not been clearly defined, so cause and effect can't be well established. Issues also arise with excessive consumption of green tea/green tea extract – as high levels of the antioxidant EGCG in green tea can be toxic to the liver.
In summary, to help maintain a healthy liver, keep eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, good fats and lean protein, take regular exercise, maintain a healthy weight and drink responsibly.
Nutritionist Emma Brown, MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.