January detoxes are useless—here’s what you can do instead

Not in January, we’re British.
Not in January, we’re British.
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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“Dry January,” a month of alcohol denial and general self-flagellation that follows weeks (or more) of excessive holiday binging has become a staple in Britain and is now making a slow creep across the Atlantic. A British charity called Alcohol Concern has launched a high-profile “Dry January” social media campaign, complete with a Twitter accountPinterest page and a sideline in fundraising. In the US there’s a growing number of New Year “health cleanses” that don’t stop at alcohol, but aim to eliminate gluten, sugar and meat as well, all in an attempt to “detoxify” the liver and other organs.

While British newspaper columnists, in particular, have taken pride in relating the horrors of Dry January—”It was agony,” Peter Oborne wrote last year—there isn’t actually much evidence that it, or any other kind of short-term detox, actually does the body that much long term good. That’s because, unless there is a serious problem with the liver or kidneys, the human body regularly cleans out toxins from food and drink all on its own, doctors say. Meanwhile, environmental toxins like mercury or airborne particulate matter that can accumulate in your body are not affected by diet or abstaining from alcohol.

Still, if you find yourself at the bottom of a New Years revelry-induced shame spiral, there are some actual medically-vetted steps you can take to give your body a break in 2014.

Take two or three days off, in a row, every week

The British Liver Trust has been trying, futilely, to make this point for years. “A one-hit, one-month attempt to achieve long-term liver health is not the way to approach it,” Andrew Langford, chief executive of the trust, told the BBC in 2011, and has repeated the statement annually in every year since. That’s because the liver takes just 24 hours to recover from heavy alcohol consumption, the trust says. Meanwhile, taking off two or three days a week would mean 100 to 150 alcohol-free days over the course of the year, instead of January’s 31.

Find at least 30 minutes a day to exercise

Australia’s liver health organization recommends “moderate-intensity activity” every day that “will cause a slight, but noticeable, increase in your breathing and heart rate.” Common sense suggests that the benefits are even greater if you abstain from drinking while jogging.