As we ring in the New Year, the traditional talk of “Dry January” starts popping up in the media and casual conversation. The concept of abstaining from alcohol for a period, often after a season of over-indulgence, has become a popular resolution over the past few years. Beyond its popularity, the decision to mindfully abstain holds scientifically backed benefits that extend beyond the month of sobriety. This month, we thought it timely to discuss the risks and benefits of alcohol consumption, and to encourage mindfulness around whatever amount of alcohol you choose to consume.
If you are reading this, you likely have an interest in heart health and probably know something about your own genetic make-up. The relationship between alcohol consumption and heart health has long been debated. Over the years, studies have demonstrated moderate intake (one drink daily for women, two for men) may have potential cardiovascular benefits, including lowered inflammation and raising of HDL. However, this association can be a double-edged sword, as the line between moderate and excessive alcohol consumption is quite thin. The latter poses significant health risks, including an increased risk for hypertension, atherosclerosis, diabetes, fatty liver disease, stroke and brain disease.
While the conversation surrounding alcohol intake and heart health remains controversial, the detrimental effects of alcohol on the brain are well understood and widely acknowledged. There is no reputable research supporting the intake of alcohol for brain health or cognitive function, but this detrimental effect may be more pronounced in some individuals than others.
The Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) gene plays a vital role in lipid metabolism and has different variants, including ApoE2, ApoE3, and ApoE4. The ApoE4 allele is associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. At the same time, studies suggest that individuals carrying at least one copy of the ApoE4 gene may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol on cognitive function and brain health.
Individuals with the ApoE4 gene variant who consume alcohol, even the “heart healthy” moderate amount, seem to experience amplified negative effects on brain structure and function as compared to those without this genotype. Once again, this highlights the importance of a personalized approach to medicine and to our health-related lifestyle choices.
Beyond the long-term health benefits and risks associated with alcohol intake, whether moderate or excessive, partaking in a “Dry January” ritual provides individuals the opportunity to reassess their relationship with alcohol. This is a time to reflect on the impact of alcohol on your general well-being and to experience the possible immediate benefits of abstaining, such as improved sleep, mental clarity, improvement in triglycerides and other metabolic markers.
The debate regarding the effects of alcohol specifically on heart health will continue to rage on, but the well-documented adverse impact on brain health is widely acknowledged. While the ApoE genotype and personalization of dietary recommendations adds another layer of complexity, taking a beat to step back from alcohol consumption and examine its impact on our everyday lives can be a helpful and worthwhile undertaking.
“Dry January” serves as an annual reminder for the potential benefits of reducing or eliminating alcohol intake. Ultimately, embracing a healthier lifestyle, making informed choices about alcohol intake and considering individual genetic factors are crucial steps toward maintaining overall optimal health. Must we all abstain from alcohol completely? Probably not. Should we all take the opportunity to assess our relationship to alcohol and the way it affects our bodies and mind? Probably so.
This month, we encourage you to consider what it might look like to take a step back from whatever alcohol consumption looks like for you. Take a moment to examine any hold it may have on your life, and make some mindful decisions about how, why and when you choose to partake in alcohol consumption in the future. And if taking a complete break from drinking for a month sounds daunting, too restrictive, or just plain unrealistic, consider what it may look like to abstain for one week each month. This would result in three full months of sobriety annually — but in chunks of time that may be more realistic to your life.