As we turn our calendars to a new year, many of us use this time to hit the reset button on any one of a number of things we want to improve in our lives. Some may focus on eating better, others on exercising more, some on being more of service to others. Another resolution trend that has come up in the past few years in response to overindulging in alcohol during the holiday season is “dry January,” wherein you give up drinking alcoholic beverages for the first month of the year.
Despite studies over the years suggesting the benefits of moderate alcohol intake (one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men), a recent study by the University of Washington concluded there is no safe level of drinking alcohol, and that it is the seventh leading risk factor for death worldwide. Over a 10-year period (from 2007-2017), deaths caused by alcohol increased by 35%.
"For individuals between 15-49, the most important intervention to save lives would be to limit or stop alcohol use,” says Eric Shipley, MD, medical director for Overlake’s emergency department. “Many people who die accidentally or by suicide – two top-10 leading causes of death in the country for people under 50 – are intoxicated at the time.”
In fact, according to the CDC, a staggering 28% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States in 2016 were from alcohol-impaired driving crashes.
Other causes of alcohol-related deaths include cardiovascular disease, tuberculosis and other unintentional injuries, such as from fires or drowning. Heavy drinking over the course of time can cause serious liver diseases, such as hepatitis and cirrhosis, but even drinking in moderation raises the risk of cancer.
“Alcohol causes cancers across the board. The ones that top the list include cancers of the mouth and throat, esophagus, liver, colon cancer and breast,” says Dr. Shipley.
The UW study found for those over age 50, 27.1% of females and 18.9% of males died from alcohol-attributable cancers in 2016.
The link between the risk of cancer and alcohol is the chemical called acetaldehyde (a known carcinogen) that results when your body breaks down alcohol. This chemical causes damage to DNA, which then can make a cell grow out of control and eventually create a tumor.
Going “dry” in January might be a great way to kick start a healthy habit. In addition to reducing the negative impacts of alcohol, other positive health benefits are likely to follow, such as weight loss and better sleep.