Love your liver: Some mortal lessons from the past in pursuit of dry January

Everyone has their own motivation, but here’s one: take a month off the booze and your liver will thank you

What has the industry of an insect, the regenerative powers of a starfish, crouches like a thundercloud above its belly-mates, turgid with nourishment, yet is turned to a mass of fatty globules by a double martini?

What is it that’s doted upon by the French, assaulted by the Irish, disdained by the Americans, and chopped up with egg, onion and chicken fat by the Jewish?

It is… the liver. And, if renowned surgeon Richard Selzer wouldn’t mind me drawing on one of his old discourses, it is the one bodily organ most worthy these days of our love and affection. At least among those of us in active pursuit of that visceral wisdom and experience known as dry January.

It is over 30 years now since Selzer’s dazzling and deeply moving Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery was on the reading list for a college course of mine, back before my squeamish side warned me off that bloody subject and on to lesser matters. Still, something about Selzer, a brilliant doctor from upstate New York who could also write brilliantly, has stayed with me, his grace and precision with the pen, as with the surgeon’s knife, the envy of many.


Writing this just six days in, dry January already feels a lot more about the journey than any destination. Everyone has their own different motivation, and you don’t need me to tell you that GAA players across the country have likely sworn themselves off the booze (probably put it in writing somewhere too) until the end of the season, the reward for which will be several hardcore drinking binges. Just don’t call that a healthy relationship with alcohol.

January or not, the dry rule, also known as the drinking ban, is oftentimes enforced as if a wedding vow, given the temptations known to come with it. Most athletes known to me, particularly of long-distance ilk, take a slightly different approach, including myself. It helps when most of us can typically drink and eat whatever we want once it doesn’t get in the way of a long run every Sunday morning. That may not be an entirely healthy relationship either, although, like dark chocolate and ripe bananas, the alcohol burns perfectly clean.

We also have our fabled tales to tell. Such as that of Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion, whose running diet was based around Schlitz beer and Ring Dings (a sort of extra-sweet chocolate Kimberley).

In his book The Frank Shorter Story, he openly admits his fondness for the booze, and certainly wasn’t dry the night before winning his Olympic gold medal in Munich. “That night we went out and I had a litre and a half or two of beer before bed. I didn’t have any trouble sleeping at all. The German beer is great, and I really don’t mind getting half looped the night before a race…” There you go.

Weighing in between three to four pounds, one-fiftieth of the total body heft and yet enough to ensure the other 49 doesn’t break down in tears, the liver is the largest of the glands, appearing as a tree that grows out of the virgin land of the foregut so to maximise its metabolic and digestive function. For anyone still seeking the true meaning of dry January it lies here.

Its starring bodily role is the manufacture and secretion of approximately one pint of bile each day, without which golden liver liquor we could not digest as much as a single peanut. Unlike the heart and more recently the brain, praised in tireless poetic wonder, the liver rarely gets such privilege when really it should, not only in dry January.

In the glorious hepatic age, several centuries ago, the liver was regarded as the centre of all vitality, the seat of the soul itself, nestled in the dome of the diaphragm. It is only in recent decades, with humanity’s true romance with alcohol, that the liver has regained its deserved course of meditation.

Remember Prometheus? It was he who was chained to a rock and had his liver pecked out each day by an eagle, his punishment for stealing fire from the Greek gods and sharing it with humanity

Because through bottle or glass, by ounce or by mega-pint, once alcohol is absorbed into the system, it is the liver’s task to oxidise it, also known as “making it safe”, bathing the brain in happiness while ensuring it is not delivered a lethal dose.

The problem is, even the hardiest of livers can handle only a drop or two at a time – lifelong lessons in the hangover evidence of that. It’s no damnable lie this retributive phenomenon worsens the longer one goes without the consumption of any alcohol. Handle with care.

My assumption is René Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec would approve unreservedly of dry January. In 1816, averse to applying his naked ear to the perfumed but unbathed bosoms of his patients, he invented the stethoscope, writing his name into French physician history. It was Laënnec who was also first struck by the frequent appearance at autopsy of livers which were yellow, knobby and hard, a condition he named cirrhosis, from the Greek word for tawny, kirrhos.

As Laënnec correctly suspected, by far the most common cause of cirrhosis, although not the only one, is the consumption of alcohol. As liver cells implode and die, that once free-flowing bile backs up into the bloodstream to light up the skin and eyes with the sickly lamp of the jaundice. Better be on the dry January by that stage.

Remember Prometheus? It was he who was chained to a rock and had his liver pecked out each day by an eagle, his punishment for stealing fire from the Greek gods and sharing it with humanity. A cruel and unusual penance given the knowledge even back then that his liver’s regenerative powers would see it grow back overnight and be ready for the dreadful feast all over again come morning.

It’s true no matter how much or little alcohol is consumed on a daily or weekly basis, give the liver a breather for a month and it will thank you for it. It may not always be a fully binding relationship for the month of January – hey, we are only human and we’ve a long run planned for this Sunday morning – but you could do worse than take with you the immortal words of Richard Selzer: “Good old liver!”