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Health and wellness

Health benefits of abstinence from alcohol: two regular quitters talk about their dry spells and share tips on giving up

Some give up drinking for January, others may quit for a year. Two who’ve done it say they sleep better and feel much healthier, and medical experts agree, citing reductions in liver fat, blood sugar and cholesterol levels

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2018, 11:49am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2018, 8:07pm

It started, as these things often do, as a dare. Long-time Hong Kong resident Larry Campbell was working in the media 25 years ago and remembers being passionately against smoking.

“Hated it,” he says. “I would leave the table in a restaurant if someone lit up. Remember, this was a time when you could smoke pretty much anywhere, whether it was in the office, restaurant or bars and even certain sections on planes.”

A colleague and good friend was a chain smoker and he would habitually try to reform her. “Finally,” he says, “she told me that it would be as difficult for her to quit smoking as it would be for me to quit drinking. Now that sounded like a challenge.”

A particularly determined sort, Campbell instantly told her, “I would quit drinking for one year if she would quit smoking for one year.” And just like that, a year of abstinence was born.

These days, growing numbers of people are taking at least a month off from alcohol to clean up their system and get a revitalised start. Here in Hong Kong, where disposable income is high and public transport efficient and plentiful, binge drinking is easy.

Business and social obligations seamlessly intertwine and are often mandatory, which is why health-conscious people choose to push back from the bar for extended periods.

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Canadian Bruce Hicks has been on the front line of the business and social scene in Hong Kong for well over three decades. The chairman of Asia Clean Capital, Hicks stops drinking alcohol and coffee for a month every January. Lately, he has noticed he is not alone.

“More people are doing it, no question about that,” he says. “It has been probably over 30 years since I started taking January off from alcohol and coffee, and to me it’s not a big deal. It almost seems like second nature.”

He claims that in the beginning it was a bit difficult, but that the benefits are numerous. “It’s more of a self-discipline and a bit of challenge, like, ‘How long can I hold my breath under water?’,” says Hicks. “I’ve done it enough and I am hard-headed enough that no one is going to convince me to break it. You feel better, no doubt, and you certainly sleep better, particularly if you give up coffee and caffeine.”

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Alcohol retailers remind us it’s OK to drink – just make sure you drink reasonably, ahem – we are well aware of the warnings and risks that come with drinking too much. Older drinkers in particular can vouch for the fact that the hangovers get more severe with passing years.

None of this is by chance, according to medical researchers, who claim that the level of the enzymes that break down alcohol significantly decrease as we age. The medical establishment also traces everything from organ failure to increasing risk of cancer when we overindulge.

The Canadian Cancer Society now sponsors a fund drive called “Dry Feb”, which challenges people to go alcohol-free in February while raising funds. “Having a month off alcohol has great health benefits so you’re not only helping others, you’re helping yourself,” says the society’s website. “It’s a win-win.”

However, none of these healthy and altruistic goals were the impetus for Campbell’s abstinence 25 years ago. “It was ego,” he says. “My motivation first time around was to win a bet, I had to prove someone else was wrong and I was right, and the only way was to see it through.”

Campbell indeed saw it through, and at five seconds past midnight on January 1, he celebrated. “I looked forward to it,” he says. “Having my first whisky in the new year, I completely savoured it.” His friend also quit smoking, but three months later she started again.

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Five years after his year of abstinence, Campbell decided to test his willpower again, purely as a personal challenge, and took another year off. “At the end of that, I was so pleased with my success that I decided to make it a five-year routine,” he says.

In 2002, he was dry for a life-changing event: his wedding. “I poured champagne for all our guests and toasted with sparkling water.”

In 2017, he had his sixth dry year, and plans to continue for the foreseeable future. He readily admits that it is not for everybody, but claims the benefits far outweigh any social issues.

“It’s routine for me now,” the financial consultant says. “The big thing that I noticed on the last two cycles, this last year and five years before, was the reduction in visceral fat. Again, men, as we get older, we put weight on around the waist and around the organs, and technology can now measure this through ultrasound. It is noticeable and statistically relevant – and I like working with data and facts.”

A recent study from British researchers showed how subjects who took a month off from drinking significantly improved their health. “The results were staggering,” a professor involved in the study says. “There was a 40 per cent reduction in liver fat, they lost about three kilograms in weight and their cholesterol levels improved significantly.”

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Another more detailed study found that liver fat fell by 15 to 20 per cent, blood glucose levels were down 16 per cent, cholesterol dropped by 5 per cent and sleep quality rose by more than 10 per cent. Some researchers question how long the improvement persists, particularly if the subjects went back to even moderate alcohol consumption.

Local counselling psychologist and life coach Sebastian Droesler admits that in a frantic cauldron like Hong Kong, abstinence can be difficult.

“This place is rife with distractions, temptations and opportunity,” he says. “It is a challenge for many people to maintain a healthy balance. It is certainly more open now and acceptable for a lot of people to take periods of abstinence, and there is a high priority put on things like detox retreats.”

Campbell admits that there have been more than a few times he has been in situations, in Hong Kong and in China, where he was expected to not only drink, but also to take part in drinking games.

“I always declare ahead of time that I am not drinking,” he says, “especially if I am doing something that involves quite a lot of social activity.”

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He would even turn down chocolates with liqueurs in them, he says. His go-to drinks in dry years have included sparkling water, an occasional Virgin Mary, or V8 (vegetable juice), and alcohol-free beer.

Abstinence can also provide a number of positive psychological effects, according to Droesler. “Since you have had the experience that you can actually go without alcohol or coffee or sugar, the brain will remember that,” he says. “You know that you did it before. These types of experiences are a foot in the door in the fight against addiction, abuse and overuse.”

Campbell agrees. “Having proved I could do something that was incredibly difficult to do helped in my everyday life,” he says. “I knew that if I put my mind on a specific target, that nothing else but me could stop me from getting there.”

Campbell also believes that attitude is key to successfully staying with a prolonged abstinence programme. “It’s all about the proper mindset,” he says. “Go in there and have fun, it’s that simple. If you think it is going to be a miserable experience, then you have a negative outlook. But you can have fun with it, like when you are with friends and you are the only guy in the room who remembers what everyone does.”

While this year he will be raising a glass along with them, he already knows what alcoholic beverages he will be drinking in 2022. None.

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Tips for would-be teetotallers

Campbell says there is no one-size-fits-all solution for those who want to abstain, for a while or for good. “Everyone’s different and this is a deeply personal choice and journey,” he says. He offers this advice:

*Be clear about your motivation and know yourself.

*If you react well to timelines and deadlines, give yourself clear ones.

*If you are concerned about succumbing to temptation, don’t put temptation in your way. If you are worried that going out for drinks with friends will only result in you drinking as well, consider inviting them out for some other activity. A hike in the hills? Not every social activity has to revolve around alcohol or food.

*Be honest with people, and don’t make them uncomfortable. There are more people who are supportive of this sort of attempt than those who may try to bully you into having a drink. Today, in more informed societies, people generally respect your choices.

For help tackling alcohol addiction, contact Alcoholics Anonymous at HK aa-hk.org, or Tuen Mun Alcohol Treatment Service, tel: 2456 8260.