Bye bye booze! Here’s why giving up alcohol could be the best decision you make this year

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Sober January brings many health benefits. (Photo; GALLO IMAGES/ GETTY IMAGES)
Sober January brings many health benefits. (Photo; GALLO IMAGES/ GETTY IMAGES)

Many of us do it by choice at this time of the year – so much so, Dry January has even become a phenomenon around the world. It’s seen as the perfect time to give our bodies a break after the excesses of the festive season and start the year on a clean, flushed-out slate.

It’s by no means easy to cut out booze but try to think of it as a glass-half-full situation.

Experts agree ditching the drink, even temporarily, can transform your mental and physical health, provided it leads to moderate and mindful drinking. A study done by the University of Sussex found that 70% of its participants who took part in Dry January were still drinking considerably less seven months later. Experts weigh in on what alcohol can do to you – and it’s pretty sobering stuff.


Alcohol has short- and long-term effects on the brain. It blocks signals between the brain cells, or neurons, which leads to common immediate effects such as slurred speech, poor memory and slow reflexes.

Binge-drinking – characterised as four drinks over a two-hour period for women and five drinks over the same period for men – also affects the cerebellum, which helps regulate balance; and the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for taking in and processing new information.

“Heavy drinking over a long period of time can cause the hippocampus, which is critical to memory and learning, to shrink,” says Kirby Hendricks, a Cape Town-based dietician.

When the hippocampus region of the brain is affected by alcohol, people experience blackouts and short-term memory lapses.

Excessive alcohol intake can lead to a thiamine deficiency, adds Tselane Ramothata a registered dietician from Pretoria.

“Thiamine deficiency can lead to memory loss or Wernicke-­Korsakoff syndrome, sometimes commonly referred to as ‘wet brain’.”

Wet brain can cause mental confusion, eye-movement disturbances, difficulty with coordination and persistent learning problems.


This organ is vital for breaking down toxins and metabolising fats and excess hormones.

“Alcohol is a toxin that consumes the liver, making it less effective in performing its major health functions,” says Mbali Mapholi, who owns a wellness company in Johannesburg.

Excessive drinking causes inflammation and a build-up of fat and can lead to conditions such as fatty liver disease or alcoholic hepatitis.

When you don’t drink, she adds, the liver can focus on its other jobs – clearing the body of toxins and metabolising fats and excess hormones.

“This can also stop us from feeling sluggish and prevent diseases such as liver cancer.”


Both long-term and binge-drinking disrupt the heart’s rhythm by causing it to speed up or beat irregularly, a condition referred to as arrhythmia.

Drinkers are also at risk of developing cardiomyopathy, which is a disease of the heart muscle.

“Alcohol also raises our blood pressure and excessive consumption over a long period can lead to high blood pressure, which is one of the main causes of heart disease and can also lead to strokes,” Hendricks warns.

Regular heavy drinking can cause episodes of tachycardia – an increased heart rate due to a miscommunication in the signals that produce a heartbeat.

Episodes of tachycardia may cause blood clots that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.


Gastritis, constipation, acid reflux . . . these are just some of the side-effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

Alcohol damages the gut lining and affects the balance of good bacteria (probiotics) and disease-causing bacteria.

“When this bacteria harmony is disturbed, it can cause serious gut-­related health issues,” Mapholi cautions.

Even moderate consumption can lead to stomach and intestinal ulcers, Hendricks adds. “It can also cause damage to the digestive system by blocking the absorption of thiamine, folic acid, fat, vitamin B1 and B12, and amino acids.”


Of all the organs in your body, these two are arguably most severely affected by alcohol.

“The kidneys are a powerhouse organ,” Ramothata says. “They help with hormone regulation, pH balance, absorption of nutrients, water and electrolyte balance and the excretion of waste.”

Ever wondered why you urinate more when you’ve knocked back a few drinks? The reason is simple: alcohol is a diuretic. The more you consume, the more you urinate.

“Alcohol can inflame the lining of the bladder, causing it to swell and stretch to a dangerous size,” Hendricks says.

“If it swells, it can block flow to the kidneys, which could cause renal failure.”


Booze has an impact on the fertility of both men and women, whether you’re a light or heavy drinker, experts warn.

“Alcohol affects the endocrine system, which is the network of glands that produce your hormones,” Hendricks explains.

This can alter cortisol, oestrogen and progesterone levels and bone density, which can lead to menstruation and ovulation issues.

In men, excessive alcohol consumption does the following:

  • Lowers testosterone levels and raises oestrogen levels, which reduces sperm production.
  • Shrinks the testes, which can cause impotence or infertility.
  • Changes the release of gonadotropin, which impacts sperm production.
  • Causes premature or decreased ejaculation.
  • Changes the shape, size and movement of healthy sperm.

Research done by Reproductive BioMedicine Online found that the effects are reversible. A study done in 2010 showed it took three months for healthy sperm production to return after alcohol consumption stopped.

Regular drinking reduces fertility in women by:

  • Interrupting the menstrual cycle.
  • Changing ovarian function.
  • Changing hormone levels of testosterone and oestradiol, both involved in the regulation of the menstrual cycle.
  • Causing hyperprolactinemia or high prolactin in the blood. Prolactin is important to enhance breast development during pregnancy and to induce lactation. However, excess prolactin can cause the production of breast milk in women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding.

More reasons to just say no!

Improved sleep

  • You may experience more rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, as alcohol reduces this restorative sleep stage where the body repairs cells and dreams occur.
  • Better sleep quality because after a night of binge-drinking, the body is usually woken by a shot of adrenaline and cortisol, interfering with the natural sleep cycle.

Weight loss

  • Drinking reduces the body’s ability to burn fat, accelerates appetite and hinders your ability to make healthy food choices.
  • Alcohol also has little nutritional value and is high in kilojoules.
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