We all need a break every now and again. But if we’re used to having a drink to unwind every day, it can be difficult to take a break from alcohol.
We spoke to medical experts Dr Nick Sheron, a liver specialist from Southampton University, and Professor Paul Wallace, Drinkaware’s Chief Medical Advisor, to explore the benefits of introducing some drink-free time to your week.
If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is one of the main reasons it’s important to consider taking regular breaks from drinking.
“Tolerance is a physiological response we have to any drug – including alcohol,” explains Professor Wallace. “The more you consume, the more your body gets used to it.”
Regular drinking induces certain enzymes in your liver that metabolise alcohol. “If you drink heavily, over weeks or months, levels of these enzymes will go up and your tolerance builds,” explains Dr Sheron. “If you stop drinking completely, the enzyme levels go back down.”
As your tolerance builds up, you need to consume more alcohol to get the same effects. This can mean you end up drinking to levels that are harmful to your short and long-term health, putting you at risk a range of problems from heart disease to cancer. Taking a break from alcohol can have the effect of lowering or “resetting” your tolerance, so that it becomes easier to cut back. As all of our bodies respond slightly differently to alcohol, the amount of time it takes to develop tolerance, or to reset it, varies from person to person.
“The benefit of having drinking days off is that your body doesn’t become so accustomed to alcohol, and you’re likely to reverse a tendency towards tolerance,” says Professor Wallace.
There’s another issue to watch out for too: the potential to become dependent. The term ‘alcohol dependence’ might conjure up images of someone who’s putting away whole bottles of whisky or stumbling around drunk every day. But there are varying degrees of alcohol dependence. If you drink every day, you don’t have to be drinking to extreme levels to develop a dependence where you find it increasingly difficult to do without alcohol.
“It may not be a full blown physical dependence, where if you don’t have alcohol you get the shakes,” says Professor Wallace. “But you can become psychologically dependent.”
You may have reached this level if you can’t settle down to a night in front of the TV without a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge. Or if you fear an evening spent with extended-family because you may not be able to have a drink first. “If you find that a day without alcohol becomes problematic, you could be psychologically dependent,” says Professor Wallace.
Dr Sheron suggests that if you’re continuously drinking without having days off, taking a break can be an important way to ‘test’ how dependent on alcohol you might be. “What better sign do you have that your drinking is out of control, than if you promised yourself you’re going to cut it out for a few days and you don’t or can’t?” he says.
To tackle such dependency, Dr Sheron believes it’s important to interrupt your drinking cycle and take regular breaks from alcohol. That way you lower your risk of becoming psychologically – or physically – dependent on it.
Regular drinking, particularly when above the government's low risk alcohol guidelines, can cause an upset stomach, indigestion and headaches. You may well find these symptoms disappear on drinking days off. Alcohol can disrupt your sleep too, so without it you’re likely to wake up more refreshed. You may also feel better in yourself, more alert and generally brighter without alcohol in your system. In the long term, cutting back on alcohol will lower your risk of serious diseases such as cancer, liver disease and stroke.
Both Professor Wallace and Dr Sheron suggest trying alcohol-free days and seeing how you feel. “If you are drinking every day, test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice,” says Professor Wallace.
Liver disease is the term used to describe damage to the liver and there are two types. Acute is when liver problems develop over a few months and chronic is damage over a number of years.
Evidence about how much and how often you need to drink to increase your chances of developing liver disease is unclear. But all the research shows that the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to develop liver disease.
Find out more about alcohol and the symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease.
Our free Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app allows you to track the amount you’re drinking and look at how it may be affecting your health.
We also have an online tool, MyDrinkaware