Is it necessary to have 'several alcohol free' days every week and, if so, should those days be consecutive? Dr Michael Apstein, in the rare position of wine writer and liver doctor, gives his view to Decanter.

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Health officials in several countries, including the UK, have advocated for people to have at least two alcohol free days per week. The UK government’s new proposal on alcohol guidelines says drinkers should have ‘several’ alcohol free days weekly.

But, how useful is this advice? And do the days need to be consecutive?

I believe advice that everyone should have at least two alcohol free days a week is a well-intentioned effort to combat the enormous adverse impact that alcohol has on some individuals’ health and well-being.

The question, of course, is whether that strategy will be effective in reducing the well-known damages of excessive drinking to individuals and society: liver disease, neurologic problems, socially unacceptable behaviour, and driving under the influence, to name just a few.

Perhaps the government has studies indicating that it will, but I’ve not seen any suggesting that two ‘dry days’ a week will have an impact on the alcohol abuse problem.

A better approach, which granted would be more difficult to implement, would be to identify those individuals who drink too much and convince them to reduce their alcohol intake.

A potential downside of the government’s advice is that is might be a rationale for individuals to over-indulge the remaining days thinking being dry for two days a week willprotect them from the ravages of alcohol abuse. It will not.

For the vast number of individuals who drink moderately and do not abuse alcohol, there is no scientific evidence that shows any difference whether an individual abstains for either two consecutive days or for two non-consecutive ones.

On the other hand, a recent randomised study in which individuals consumed either wine or mineral water daily with dinner demonstrated a potential ‘cardio-protective’ effect for those who drank wine daily [albeit in small amounts – ed.].

Whether interrupting the pattern of moderate daily consumption with a day or two without wine would reduce any potential cardiovascular protection is unknown, but if it did, it would be another example of a policy resulting in unintended, adverse consequences.

For individuals who drink too much, abstaining for a day or days, whether consecutive or not, is a good idea. A better idea would be to reduce the daily consumption of alcohol.

Ultimately, advice on whether to abstain for two days or several days—consecutive or not—permanently, or whether to reduce consumption daily without abstaining on any given day must be individualised.

This is a topic to be discussed honestly and frankly with your GP because one size does not fit all.

As a wine lover, do you consciously take ‘days off’ alcohol? Let us know in the comment section below.

Michael Apstein MD is a gastroenterologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also a freelance wine writer, editor and wine judge.

A Yougov poll conducted in 2012 found that 69% of British adults agreed with advice that those drinking three to four units of alcohol daily would be healthier if they had at least two days alcohol free each week.

  • After missing a few times each week, I often have a glass of ale or wine a lot more than easily consume on the daily schedule. It must provide one guarantee they have independent on booze and certainly will get on only fine.

  • jessica norris

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  • Mark Stanley

    When I wrote “Creating World Class Red Wine”, I thought about including a chapter on wine & health, but decided against it. I had gathered a pile of notes, but it seemed a bit too off-topic. Also, the effects of the anti-saloon league are still being felt here in the US 100 years later, where there is very little funding available for research that could demonstrate that any alcoholic beverages can be healthful.
    There is a big difference in the effects on the body between 12% and 15% alcohol.
    I drink 1/2 bottle of red per evening, usually my own wines, and would prefer to get greater health benefits from the phenolics by drinking more 12% wine, rather than less 15% vino. For me, as a winemaker, the phenolic extraction is the same in the end. Sourcing my fruit from the east side of Washington State, the wines tend to be high in alcohol–So I reduce the sugars during cold soak in the fermenters, aiming for 12.5%.
    I believe that the wines taste and cellar better at lower alcohols as well.
    Concerning the liver, I have been doing monthly liver cleanses for a year now (Andreas Moritz), and released maybe 1/2 pound of stones. During those monthly periods I do not drink wine, but it is still a question as to when and how much.

  • Eric Baugher

    I’ve been engaged in producing wine for the past 21 years and have had some worry over the level of alcohol consumption I’ve experienced. I feel that wine consumption, especially red wine, has less of an effect on my body compared to when I’m tasting white wine or spirits. Unfortunately, in this line of work, you find yourself exposed to a substantial amount of alcohol. There are tastings throughout the day, touring and tasting with customers, sales travel and tastings. There’s an expectation by fellow winemaking friends or customers to consume, and consume a lot. I rarely consume anything other than red wine between 12-15% alcohol, but do so every day of the week.In all the years of drinking wine, having medical examinations made, my doctors have always reported superb health. In fact, my excellent cardiovascular health, coming from a family with a genetic disposition to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, is completely absent in my case. I do suppose the red wine is helping keep my heart and arteries “well-lubricated”. Although, just as a precaution, I do take a “liver” holiday every six months. That’s where I’ll travel to Hawaii and spend a week detoxing my liver, drinking only fruit juice and water.

  • Mark Lindzy

    I have been in the wine trade for the last 8 years, and restaurants/bars/hotels for 13 years prior to that, so alcohol consumption on a daily basis has been ingrained in my lifestyle. My GP has told me to abstain from alcohol 2 days a week since she knows my consumption level, and I “did my best” to achieve this last year. With the start of 2016 though, I’ve severely cut down on my alcohol consumption (a pact with my wife, also in the wine trade) and have been extremely happy with the results. I sleep better, I feel better, and I’ve lost a few pounds just in the last 3 weeks. Going from 2-4 drinks a day to 5-8 drinks a week has made a big difference for me, but everyone has to evaluate their own lifestyle.

  • Carroll Price

    After skipping a couple of days per week, I usually enjoy a glass of wine or beer much more than if I drink on a daily basis. Besides, it should give one assurance that they have not become dependent on alcohol and can get along just fine without it.

  • Hannes Huefken

    For what it’s worth, I’d like to follow the call to share individual strategy.
    I spent the last two years geeking out about wine and sometimes it’s hard not to open another bottle. But I do get between one and four days off every week. It’s not because I think my liver needs the rest, but my stomach does. I have a heartburn problem, even without alcohol and cigarettes (which I smoke occasionally, between zero and maybe ten per week), just from food. Alcohol and especially acidic drinks like wine make that worse. And I don’t wanna gobble PPIs just to maintain an otherwise non-sustainable lifestyle.
    Before I was a hyperactive wine lover, I didn’t need to worry about my alcohol intake, as I occasionally had an alcoholic drink or two, for pleasure, on rarely more than three days per week. Alcohol is so intense on my palate that, after a few drinks, all I want to taste is water. Nowadays though, I can go through four different wine bottles a night with friends, having two glasses of each or so. With enough water in between, and some minerals or baking soda.