Detox Debunked: Why Life Depends on the Liver

The New Year is now well under way. In a British custom practiced nearly as much as Christmas itself, many of us have shuffled guiltily on to the alcohol detox bandwagon after reflecting on the festive season’s excesses.

As I write, a quick look on Facebook tells me at least a dozen friends have proudly reached their third week of abstinence: a status-consuming trend that I can confidently predict will have all but vanished within a month. However, a recent study from the British Liver Trust published early this year has dismissed this gung-ho strategy as futile, proposing instead two to three alcohol free days a week. What provoked the sudden scientific interest in our drinking habits, and how did this mass misconception of a healthy attitude to alcohol arise?

Before we can answer these questions, it’s important to know the basics about how the liver works. Since adolescence, we’ve known that the liver has something to do with alcohol consumption, evident in the timeless “The liver is evil and must be punished” t-shirt slogan favoured by gawky teens nationwide. Despite this, most know little else about this remarkable organ, but with an estimated 500 functions, the body would shut down completely within 24 hours of losing it.

About 60% of the liver is made up of hepatocytes, cells that absorb nutrients and remove toxic substances, including alcohol, from the blood supply the liver receives from your gut. The liver also stores glucose from digested carbohydrates as glycogen, a substance that can be readily converted back to glucose when your body needs a quick energy boost. Additionally, over 50% of the body’s Kupffer cells are in the liver; these cells are a vital part of the immune system, destroying harmful bacteria and preventing nasty infections. To fulfil all these vital demands, your all-singing, all-dancing digestive organ can function with only 30% of its mass, and takes just 24 hours to repair itself after minor damage.

Far from being a reason to drink as much as you like, this astonishing regenerative capacity is the crux of the argument for allowing a two to three day break from alcohol per week, ensuring your liver stays fighting fit to face all kinds of challenges. Alcoholic liver diseases like cirrhosis (scarring and hardening) and hepatitis (swelling) happen gradually — that’s why it’s a bad idea to abstain for a month, then drink heavily or on a daily basis for the rest of the year. Moreover, there are few nerve endings in your liver, so you can’t feel damage and disease occurring. It’s more likely that you won’t know about damage until it is irreparable, and this is why prevention is key.

The incidence of alcoholic liver disease has increased by 11% since 2005, and sufferers are getting younger. Early this year, one worrying BBC news article reported the case of Matt Maden, who was diagnosed with cirrhosis at 21 and is now on the liver transplant waiting list at 26. Ultimately, these trends suggest we’re ill informed about the impact alcohol has on our health. This isn’t surprising: a news report in early January pointed out that the government’s alcohol consumption guidelines haven’t been reviewed since 1995. In the interim, studies that should have informed these guidelines haven’t been translated into public advice.

Without evidence-based advice in plain English, it’s easy to see how the public can fall into the detox trap. Quick-fix solutions are more attractive than long-term strategies that require planning, but are often ineffective too. This isn’t helped by media obsession with detox in the UK and US, through which celebrities publicise their bizarre health regimens; though fashionable, these are scientifically, a load of bunk. So, the latest advice seems like the best. Although it might seem restrictive, think of it with your glass half full: four or five days a week, we’re free to have a pint down the pub. I’ll drink to that!

Emma Saxon

3 Comments on this post.
  • Sandy Halliday
    30 March 2012 at 07:13
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    Well of course it’s pointless to abstain from alcohol for a month and then start to drink heavily again. It’s like eating healthily to lose weight and then binging on junk food after you have lost the weight. Of course people do that all the time.

    Detox is not a fad if done properly. If you are serious about your health you will find it necessary to encourage or help your liver to detox. I very much doubt that I would have recovered from chronic fatigue if I had not followed a good detox plan. It was not a starve yourself detox. I ate plenty of food. I value my liver so treat it well.

  • Roland Wood
    31 March 2012 at 17:12
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    This article is specifically talking about alcohol. It’s not necessarily obvious that infrequent week or month-long abstinence is “pointless”, hence the British Liver Trust conducted this research. The apparent benefits of frequent, short breaks in alcohol intake (e.g a few days a week) is surely useful information, amid a shit-storm of whimsical detox fads. It’s not an attack on detox per se, just the idea that a tea-total January is adequate penance for a year-long binge.

  • John. Philips
    24 February 2014 at 08:15
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    It’s also interesting to point out that some livers are far more susceptible to alcohol related damage than others. As someone who has worked with alcoholics and after speaking with many gastroenterologists and hepatologists on the issue, I’ve learned that some people (mostly men) can drink up to a bottle of vodka a day or the equivalent of and have normal liver enzymes. For others 3 glasses of wine a night can spell serious liver damage in as little as 5 years. Also alcohol isn’t like smoking. Whereas smoking causes cancer gradually and the risk is related to how long you’ve smoked, alcohol can cause irreparable damage in as little as 6 months if one is drinking heavily enough. There have been cases of 19 year olds who are drinking 30 units if alcohol a day plus who have been told they won’t see their 21st birthday if they carry on.

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