Heavy drinking can take a toll on your health, but abstaining from alcohol—even in the short term—may give your body a fresh start, as a small research study recently demonstrated when 10 healthy staff members at New Scientist, a London-based magazine, put themselves to the test by taking a five-week break from alcohol. After their alcohol vacation, the volunteers had notable reduction in liver fat (liver fat is often a warning of liver damage to come) and blood sugar levels, indicating better blood sugar control. Other benefits included lower cholesterol levels, better quality sleep, and even weight loss.

Understanding Liver Function

These results are especially significant because the liver plays numerous roles in maintaining key bodily functions, says Clark Kulig, MD, of Porter Transplant Service at Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver, Colorado. For instance, the liver removes and metabolizes substances that end up in the blood from the things that we eat, drink, and smoke. The liver also takes in nutrients from the intestines and produces many proteins, fats, and sugars. Finally, it produces bile, which helps us digest food.

Heavy drinking can have a negative effect on these important processes; it prompts the formation of fat in the liver and causes inflammation. Over time, this can lead to scarring that damages the organ’s ability to function. (In medical terms, a fully scarred liver is referred to as cirrhosis.)

Over Time, a Little Alcohol Can Do a lot of Damage

While you might assume that it takes many years of drinking for the negative effects of alcohol to appear, Kulig says that just one night of heavy boozing can cause damage. This damage can sometimes be reversed when you cut out alcohol temporarily. But heavier chronic drinking (two to five drinks a day) over a period of five to 20 years can cause serious, even life-threatening scarring that probably won’t go away.

The Take-Away

While it’s never a bad idea to take a month off from drinking and start the health benefits rolling, for the improvements to stick, Kulig says you will probably need to avoid alcohol for good: "Inflammation and fatty liver changes can decrease quickly in the liver, but they will recur quickly with a return to drinking," he says.

While the physical benefits of giving up alcohol are important, Kulig recommends that people who are thinking about taking a break from drinking consider how alcohol negatively affects other parts of their lives, including their relationships, jobs, finances, and even their legal standing.

When to Get Help

Kulig encourages anyone concerned about his or her alcohol use to seek help from a health provider. "People who are concerned about their own alcohol use should consider whether they have tolerance (needing to drink more to get the same feeling) or withdrawal symptoms (shakiness, irritability, headaches, seizures, or hallucinations). Any of these symptoms should be a sign to walk with your health provider about your alcohol use," he stresses.

Clark Kulig, MD, reviewed this article.


Clark Kulig, MD, Porter Transplant Service, Porter Adventist Hospital, Denver, Colorado. Email interview March 18, 2014. 

Andy Cohen. "Our Liver Vacation: Is a Dry January Really Worth it?" New Scientist. January 13, 2014.