The post-Christmas booze

By Lauren Hoskin

For many, January is a time of cut-backs after the lavish Christmas season. Avoiding alcohol is often at the top of people’s lists. So how much difference to our health does quitting alcohol for a month actually make? And is there any alternative?

Recently, a team of fourteen New Scientist staff took part in a miniature study where ten people refrained from drinking for five weeks. The control group of four carried on drinking as normal. Before and after, they were tested on a number of markers such as liver fat, blood glucose and weight.

Despite being a very small group of participants, results showed beneficial changes in all areas tested for the teetotallers, except for social contact. Those who abstained experienced a large reduction in liver fat and blood glucose levels, lessening their risks of liver disease and type 2 diabetes, respectively. Meanwhile, the control group experienced little change.

Whilst results look promising, more research with a larger group of participants is needed to determine if these effects are long-lasting and significant or simply momentary deviations.  There is also the possibility that going teetotal for a while could help people to drink less throughout the year.

Martini by geishaboy500


But given that the abstainers reported less social contact, could cutting out alcohol actually be negative for our mental health? In a time when feelings of loneliness and isolation are rising amongst young people, should we not be encouraged to catch up with a friend over a pint?

Recent research at Imperial College London suggests there could be a way for us to unwind without damaging our health. A newly developed substitute induces the positive effects of alcohol such as relaxation and pleasure but without the loss of coordination and hangovers that many of us abhor.

Both alcohol and this drug mimic the shape of a molecule naturally produced in the brain called GABA. GABA regulates activity throughout our nervous systems. Whilst the alcohol we drink is unspecific and contains other toxins, this drug targets the GABA receptors directly, avoiding any effects other than those desired.

Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London, who is leading the research, says “Alcohol is the most harmful drug to young people in the world today. Modern neuroscience allows us to replicate the positive effects whilst minimising the harmful ones, and to my mind this could be one of the most rational applications of science for health there has ever been!”

In experiments the feeling of the drug has been labelled as indistinguishable from alcohol. What’s more, it might be possible to eliminate alcohol addiction as well as develop an antidote to provide instantaneous sobering. The health benefits are clear; all it needs now is the investment to bring these new forms of cocktails to the market.