‘Imagine your liver is a series of tunnels for processing alcohol,’ says the specialist, based at Bupa’s Cromwell Hospital in west London. ‘Every drink you have is a car, which has to pass through those tunnels. But the tunnels can only allow a certain amount of traffic to pass every day. Too many cars and you get a jam – and that’s when the problems begin.’
These ‘problems’ can get serious, says Oscar, because often there aren’t any signs of an impending pile-up.
‘The liver is an incredibly important organ, but it’s also a very silent one – it doesn’t complain,’ he says. ‘That’s an issue, because when the signs do finally appear, you’re already in big trouble.’
The figures make scary reading. According to research, about nine in 10 people who regularly drink alcohol will get a fatty liver. Most of them, particularly those in the 25–44 age group, have little or no idea of the traffic chaos they’re already causing in their gyratory system. Starker still is that in 2013, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all alcohol-related deaths in England were caused by alcoholic liver disease. If that’s not a sobering thought, I don’t know what is.
The good news, however, is that there is a light at the end of this particular tunnel.
‘The liver is the only internal organ in the body that regenerates itself,’ says Oscar. ‘What that means is that all of this damage is entirely reversible.’
This is particularly welcome news to my ears, after blood tests before my 100 Days Dry challenge showed my liver already displaying signs of fibrosis (scarring). Three months on the wagon should go a long way to reversing that damage, says Oscar.
‘Giving up alcohol is a great thing to do for your liver, but there are other things you can do to help as well,’ he says. ‘Exercise is very important, as is diet – pulses, fish, nuts and brown rice are very liver-friendly foods.’
The exercise aspect is being overseen by Cathy Brown of The Third Space Soho. A former European boxing champion turned personal trainer, she’s pulling no punches when my weight has not only failed to decrease after the first 40 days, but has actually increased. This is largely a result of my natural impulse to replace the feel-good effects of alcohol with sugar. But it is doing my waistline – and the levels of fat in my liver – no good at all.
‘Giving up booze isn’t like waving a magic wand – you still need to put the effort in‘, growls Cathy when she sees my results. ‘Exercise will raise your mood just as well as chocolate or biscuits – and it’ll bring your weight down too.’
So there we have it. Giving up alcohol was never going to be easy, and now the process has thrown me another, sugary curveball. But if I want to improve my health – and particularly my liver – then I need to cut out the sugar as well as the booze.
‘If you work hard to give your liver some clear road, it’s going to thank you,’ says Oscar. ‘Think about that traffic jam and then think about the roads of central London at 6am on a Sunday morning. That’s your goal.’
There’s a long way to go, but at least I have a clearer idea what I need to leave in the rear-view mirror to get there.
Follow Jonathan’s journey using the hashtag #100DaysDry and join the conversation to suggest your sobriety tips