Devil's Advocate: the Benefits of Post-Christmas Cold Turkey and Dry January

Halfway through what for many is a month with no alcohol, Devil's Advocate Robert Joseph considers why a period of abstinence could be a good strategy for members of the wine industry. And not just in January.

Reading time: 2m 30s

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

Do you take sugar in your coffee? Do you regularly add salt to your food?

Your doctor would probably advise you to stop doing both.

Do you drink wine every day? If you are reading this, there’s a fair chance the answer is ‘yes’, and if it’s only a glass or two, or maybe three, and you’re in good health, your doctor might see no reason to object.

But what if you were to give up completely for a while? During the month of January, for example.

Two good reasons for doing Dry January

Recent chatter online has centered around whether moderation at this time of the year is better than a period of abstinence. Those supporting this argument often quote a 2016 Decanter column by US gastroenterologist and wine writer Dr Michael Apstein, in which he says that “there’s no science to support” the notion that “‘giving your liver a rest’ by abstaining from alcohol for a month or so is beneficial.”

Apstein points out that “the liver can metabolise a small and steady amount of alcohol without difficulty”, and I’m not remotely qualified to argue with his knowledge of the subject. 

However, I would take issue with another of his comments:

“If you think you need to take a month off, you’re either drinking too much during the rest of the year or you have a guilty conscience.”

This strikes me as horribly simplistic. There are two very good reasons for doing Dry January. First there’s the fact that, as Apstein admits, cutting out alcohol might well fit into the post-Christmas diet many people think they need. He states that “foregoing one 175ml glass of wine a day for a month will save you the caloric equivalent of 0.5kg of weight.” 

Half a kilo might not sound like much, but nor does one glass of wine per day. Seriously, how many wine drinkers really drink that little? How many casually enjoy half a bottle over dinner on a couple of occasions and then fail to let another drop of wine, beer or spirits pass their lips on the other five days of the week? And in any case, let’s be blunt, how many of us keep any kind of accurate track of how much of anything we consume?

If you don’t know anyone who has lost a lot of weight by cutting out alcohol, you must have a pretty small or unusually lean set of friends and acquaintances.

But, of course, the other good reason for temporary abstinence, like so many other things we all do, may have nothing to do with a ‘guilty conscience’. It may be simply to discover whether one can achieve it, or how hard it may prove to be.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of human behaviour will be aware of the struggles experts have had over the years with terms like habituation, addiction, tolerance and dependency. Lawyers argue about whether ‘sex addiction’ can be used as a legitimate defence and doctors debate whether there is any such thing as ‘sugar addiction’. 

The links between nutrition, genetics and general health are only belatedly being taken seriously by the medical fraternity and studies of the effects of various foods on the brain are already yielding fascinating results. 

Habit or addiction?

So, according to the US Addiction Center “there is a surprising genetic link between children of parents who abuse alcohol and sugar addiction. A recent study confirmed dopamine receptors in the brain light up when sugar is consumed, similar to the receptors lighting up in the brain of someone who abuses alcohol. This can encourage people who struggle with sweets to develop alcoholism.”

Sugar, salt and alcohol are all products to which it is easy to become, at the very least, habituated. 

If you can’t enjoy life without them, you may have at least a bit of a problem. And until you go cold turkey for a while, it’s impossible to know whether that is the case.




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