Like many people, I enjoy a glass of wine or two a few times a week (perhaps more at times of celebration and holidays). Alcohol makes me feel happy, relaxed and sociable, and a little bit of red wine is good for you, isn’t it? “Dry January” hadn’t appealed before, but this year the scientist in me was intrigued to find out if short-term abstinence can really make a difference to brain health.

What I found was genuinely surprising! For healthy people with a moderate or heavy alcohol consumption, a month’s abstinence from alcohol can lead to significant improvements in blood sugar control, blood pressure, weight loss and a reduction in cancer related factors; all of which can affect brain health and mental wellbeing. In addition, moderate drinkers who avoid alcohol for a month will reduce the risk of liver cell damage because oxidative cellular stress is reduced. I couldn’t find any studies that prove this has a knock-on effect on brain health (for obvious reasons), but what is good for the liver is most usually beneficial for the brain too.

I also discovered that good dietary sources of folate and riboflavin (vitamin B2) may be protective of cognitive function following a period of regular alcohol intake. It does this by helping to reduce homocysteine levels, which is an important biomarker for brain health.

This next bit of information will be disappointing for many people (myself included). The perceived connection between a little bit of red wine and good health is being eroded by science. Yes, red grapes and red wine contain a polyphenol called resveratrol that has been found to be beneficial for rat brains, but research doesn’t support the view that drinking wine is as beneficial for human cognition as eating the grapes. 

With all this in mind, how to approach lifestyle change, even if short-term? For me, I prefer to slowly reduce consumption in order to give my liver and brain a chance to wind down naturally. For others, it’s easier to get started knowing that others are doing it too. Whichever route you choose, research does show that as soon as we reduce our alcohol consumption and initiate some longer-term changes like eating well and taking more exercise, the sooner we can feel more energised and develop healthier drinking patterns!

I’ve changed my mind about Dry January. It’s not about depriving ourselves of enjoyment, it’s about getting ourselves and our brain back in harmony so we can make 2022 an awesome year. This January I will be raising a glass of elderflower cordial and saying “Cheers” to that!

With thanks to Tracey Hipkiss, Food for the Brain Volunteer, for this article.