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Health & Science

How A Break From Alcohol Influences Health

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This sober curious movement is relatively new, and scientists are just beginning to study the health effects of taking a short break from alcohol. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey with what researchers have learned so far.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Whether it's sober September or dry July - pick your month - there's a handful of small studies that have evaluated what happens when people stop drinking for 30 days. Aaron White is a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. He's reviewed all the studies, and he points first to one published last year. Researchers in Britain compared a group of men and women who drank moderately with a group who agreed to one month of abstinence. Their average age was mid-40s.

AARON WHITE: And they found that at the end of that month, just after one month, people by and large lost some weight, they had improvements in insulin sensitivity, their blood pressure numbers improved, their livers looked a little healthier.

AUBREY: The improvements were small, but White says he didn't expect so many changes.

WHITE: The findings of these studies are actually very surprising.

AUBREY: When it comes to changes in the liver, as part of a separate study, researchers in the Netherlands took liver measurements on a small group of people who drank on average about two drinks a day. But after a one-month break, the researchers found a measurable reduction of a compound called GGT, which is a marker of oxidative stress.

WHITE: So everybody is aware that you can do some serious damage to your liver with chronic high levels of alcohol consumption. But one of the things we're learning is that even moderate levels of drinking can tax the liver.

AUBREY: There's also evidence that a break from alcohol can improve sleep and energy levels. And White says, at the very least, a break can help people sort of reevaluate their relationship with alcohol.

WHITE: I think sometimes we're not aware of how our habits are actually affecting our lives until we take a break from them. And in the case of alcohol, I think that what seems to be happening is people take a break and they're pleasantly surprised to find that they feel better.

AUBREY: We should point out that this does not happen for everyone. In one study of about 850 British men and women, a 30-day break from alcohol worked for some, but...

WHITE: The heavier drinkers often drop out; they don't make it through the month of abstinence.

AUBREY: But for those who did make it through, there seemed to be a lasting impact on their drinking habits.

WHITE: Six months later, long after that period of abstinence ended, about half of the people still said they were drinking less.

AUBREY: So for people who want to take a break, there's a lot of preliminary evidence that it can be beneficial.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEATHERED PEARLS' "PERFUME CATALOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.