Health: Health Check: Drink to your liver

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THE DEFINITION of a drunk used to be one who drank more than his doctor. A pickled liver was evidence of a tough constitution and as much a part of the medical make-up as a white coat and a hard heart. But ask a doctor today about drinking and the likeliest advice you receive will be to have frequent drink holidays.

As we approach the longest drink holiday in a millennium, this will appear welcome news to party goers. Unfortunately, the advice is not quite what it seems. In this context, a drink holiday is a holiday from drink, not a holiday to drink.

They are days on which no alcohol is consumed to give the organ time to recover from the last drinking bout. It takes the liver an hour to metabolise a half-pint of beer or equivalent, so after a heavy session it can be 12 hours before it gets back to normal. One or two drink-free days a week can help the liver from becoming overloaded - and its owner from being cumulatively tired and emotional. If the liver doesn't get the rest it needs it suffers gradual but progressive damage which results, ultimately, in cirrhosis.

But hey, who's counting the drinks at Christmas? Loosen up, I hear you say, live a little, have another. And why not. Drinking is one of our most popular social pastimes. Alcohol helps us to relax, it reduces our inhibitions, it enhances enjoyment. Drinking, like sex, is something people enjoy when they are doing it and are censorious about when they are not.

This was neatly illustrated by a Health Education Authority survey a couple of years ago which found binge drinking was epidemic, despite the fact that people disapproved of it. One million men and 190,000 women said they got drunk at least once a week - and those were the ones who admitted it. When asked what they meant by drunk most said "not in control".

When the drinking is done, there is the hangover. And for hangover cures there is none better than a hair of the dog. Doctors from the National Hospital for Neurology in London showed this a couple of years ago. A small dose of alcohol, such as contained in a glass of sherry, blocks the formation of formaldehyde and formic acid which are the main causes of hangovers.

The culprit in the drink is substances known as congeners. These are complex organic molecules such as methanol, a large quantity of which is present in red wine. The body metabolises methanol into formaldehyde and formic acid and it is this process that half a glass of sherry or wine can stave off.

The secret of most hotel hangover cures lies in the small quantity of alcohol they contain. A better option may be the preventive strike. Take a couple of ibuprofen with plenty of water before bed - and wake up clear headed for a new century.