Friday, 6 January 2012

Do you detox?

Now is the time that many of us, for the only time of the year, give some thought to our livers. We toy with the idea of “doing something” and think of giving it a thorough detox as an antidote to the excesses of December.

The British Liver Trust, a fount of knowledge, as you might imagine, informs me that the liver is our largest internal organ and plays a vital role in keeping us alive, carrying out 500 different functions. It is the factory of the body, making proteins, blood clotting factors and products to help with digestion and energy release. Your body uses it as a store for energy and iron; it also purifies the blood of bacteria, by-products of digestion, alcohol and drugs.

It is this last function that interests us, for one month of the year at least, as many of us undertake to lay off the booze in January. The idea of becoming slimmer, shinier and healthier by giving the liver a rest is undoubtedly attractive.

There are those who want to take things further by going on some kind of detox diet. Sipping water and lemon juice during meals in order to aid digestion and thereby support liver function is currently modish – though there's no scientific evidence to support it. Just a glass of water with meals is likely to be just as valuable.

There is some evidence that green tea, with its high levels of antioxidants, can be helpful – if you can stand the taste of the stuff. Much more palatable to me is the finding that coffee can also be supportive of good liver function – guilt-free flat white please.

However, the idea that we need to detox our liver at all is undermined by the British Liver Trust's finding that “there is no evidence that toxins build up in the liver”. So it looks like we don't need to spend more money and energy on investing in the latest snake oil to rid ourselves of the poisons that we've been busy ingesting for the past few weeks.

Nevertheless, we can't avoid the evidence that alcohol does damage our livers and we drinkers could all benefit from giving our systems a few days off to recover.

But a whole month? Come on, January feels like the longest month already, without making it wine-free. Do our systems really need weeks to recover? The official line at the NHS is that even heavy drinkers should be through withdrawal symptoms (let's hope we're not at that stage) and be on the road to liver recovery within 3-5 days.

So a few days off is really all our systems need. Month-long abstinence is much more to do with testing our will power and self-discipline than any proven health benefits. But there are other upsides: alcoholic drinks contain calories, so cut them out and you might find you're slimmer and trimmer – as long as you don't swap the wine for more food!

Alcohol causes dehydration (the root of many a hangover) so cutting it out should result in better skin and overall healthiness. And there's no getting away from the fact that drinking costs money – cutting out the vino could also help with the wallet hangover of Christmas too.

The trouble is, it's easy to view a booze-free start to the year as a deposit in the good behaviour bank and to excuse excesses later in the year with the comforting thought that you did spend a whole 4 ½ weeks off the drink. But of course the body doesn't work that way and what we really should all be doing is avoiding excess and keeping within sensible drinking limits – and a few wine-free days each week of the year should do the trick. Hmmm. I'll keep you posted on that one.

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