Thanks to Febfast, Dry July and Ocsober we're getting used to the idea of a holiday from alcohol – a four-week break that can reconnect us with the bright side of zero alcohol like more money and less brain fog. But what about the health benefits of taking more regular mini-breaks from wine, beer and spirits – like the two alcohol-free days a week that are often recommended to help reduce the risks from drinking?
"The main advantage of two alcohol-free days each week – as opposed to occasional alcohol-free days when you're sick, for instance – is that it reduces your lifetime exposure to alcohol, which in turn helps lower the risk of both liver disease and alcohol-related cancers such as cancer of the breast, colon, oesophagus and mouth," says Associate Professor Simone Strasser, a gastroenterologist and spokeswoman for the Australian Liver Association.
Women have the most to gain from these regular breaks because when it comes to treating the sexes equally, alcohol breaks the rules. The damage that drinking too much can cause to the liver happens more rapidly in women and at a lower intake of alcohol, says Strasser, who sees the pointy end of too many drinks in her job as a liver specialist.
"I'm seeing an increase in the number of deaths due to liver failure from alcohol in young people in their 20s and 30s, especially in women," she says.
Still, the liver can be very forgiving – to a point.
"If your liver is already showing the first signs of liver disease – the build-up of fat in the liver that is the first stage of alcohol-related liver disease – then a month-long break from alcohol can be enough to reverse the damage," Strasser says. "Even if the damage has progressed to the second stage where there is some scarring on the liver, the liver function can still return to normal as long as the person abstains from alcohol."
But how would you know if your liver was beginning to show signs of damage? Although there are no obvious clues at first, a new non-invasive and painless scan called FibroScan can detect problems early on.
"If people are worried about the effects of their drinking we can check for signs of liver disease and it may act as a wake-up call," Strasser says.
But apart from reducing the amount you drink, another good reason for two alcohol-free days each week is that it helps to prevent psychological dependence, according to Professor Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance in Britain and adjunct professor at Curtin University's National Drug Research Institute in Western Australia.
"If you can't get through the day without a drink you have to ask yourself why," he says. "It's about developing a sense of discipline so that you don't need alcohol every day."
As for any concerns about two alcohol-free days diluting the benefits of a regular glass of red for your heart's sake there's no need to worry.
"There is a plausible mechanism by which alcohol may help your heart by raising the level of 'good' cholesterol, but if the benefits are real they can be achieved by only one or two standard drinks a week. Also, having four or more standard drinks on any one occasion more than wipes out that potential benefit," Gilmore says.
"When people pour themselves a glass of wine, it is often the equivalent of two or three standard drinks, but they kid themselves they are just 'having one'."