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Counting the cost of alcohol

With Dry July fast approaching, it's time to weigh up the health benefits of a month off the booze. MiNDFOOD reports.

Growing up in the UK, the sound of tennis balls bouncing on the immaculate cut grass courts at Wimbledon acted as a reminder that summer was well and truly on its way. Now an Australian resident, summer is already long gone, and the return of Wimbledon to our TV screens has simply reminded me we’re already six months into the year and that, worse still, we’re only two weeks away from dreaded July.

So far, over 2,500 people – me included – have signed up to take part in Dry July – a month long sponsored abstinence from alcohol, which aims to raise money for a number of hospitals across Australia. It’s a great cause, not to mention a personal challenge, which is something I would normally relish, so why am I filled with dread as Friday 1 July approaches?

The reason, I suppose, (and please don’t tell anyone) is that I’m not sure I can do it (and there I was claiming to have a touch of ‘Superwoman Syndrome‘ on Twitter earlier today). But let’s face facts. Currently, barely two days (okay, you got me. Make that one) will pass during which I abstain from alcohol, so a thirty-one day month is nothing if not a daunting prospect.

And it’s not just me. Dry July ambassador Mikey Robins is also anticipating a challenging road ahead, although he’s doing a much better job at looking at the positives. “A month off the grog never did any harm,” he says. “I’ll be really cheesed off if I don’t drop at least a few kilos.”

Weight loss is an obvious advantage of reducing alcoholic intake. With every glass of wine, beer and spirits packed with calories, excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to weight gain (although research suggests regular moderate consumption has the opposite effect). So what are the other health advantages I can look forward to?

Waking up the morning after a big night out, it’s likely your gut (as well as your head) will be crying out in pain. Patrick Holford, nutritionist and author, suggests there are two reasons for this. Firstly, alcohol irritates the intestinal tract, making it more permeable to undigested food – this is also why many beer and wine drinkers become allergic to yeast. Secondly, Holford explains that alcohol converts the bacteria in your gut into secondary metabolites, which increase the proliferation of cells in the colon, initiating cancer.

And if there’s anything that’s going to scare me into alcoholic abstinence, cancer could be it.

Research published earlier this year in The Medical Journal of Australia showed that the level of cancer incidence caused by alcohol in Australia is higher than previously thought, with more than 5,000 new cases each year linked to long-term drinking and one in five breast cancer cases linked to alcohol consumption.

The link between alcohol and cancer is made worse when you consider the impact alcohol has on the absorption of nutrients – many of which are cancer fighting – in the body. Just washing down your meal with a glass of your favourite alcoholic accompaniment reduces the amount of zinc and iron you absorb from your food.

And we haven’t even mentioned hangovers yet…

Alcohol, it seems, affects almost every part of the body – from the liver to the mind to the heart to overall longevity. And although research into moderate consumption of alcohol (one alcoholic drink per day for women) throws up some health benefits, how many of us can say we stop at just one glass?

What about you, readers…

- How much do you drink?

- Are you taking part in Dry July?

- What health benefits have you experienced from abstaining from alcohol?

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