LIFETIME non-drinkers are less likely to experience mental health problems, according to a study which also found that women benefit more than men from quitting alcohol.

Researchers found that within four years of giving up alcohol, women had had experienced an improvement in their mental wellbeing that put them on a par with people who had always abstained.

They concluded that the pattern was similar to the physical health prospects seen in smokers after they kick the habit.

They said their findings "suggest caution in recommending that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life".

They add: "Instead, quitting drinking may be associated with a more favourable change in mental well-being, approaching the level of lifetime abstainers.

"This may be analogous to smoking cessation, which results in the recovery of health outcomes to the level of lifetime non-smokers."

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The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), compared teetotallers with moderate consumers of alcohol in both US and Hong Kong populations.

Moderate drinking was considered 14 drinks or fewer per week for men, and seven drinks or fewer per week for women.

Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers were excluded from the study.

It comes at a time when more adults in Scotland are giving up alcohol, and the overall intake of alcohol in 2018 was at a record low - coinciding with the introduction of Scotland's minimum pricing law.

Similarly, alcohol consumption among teenagers is at an all-time low.

However, among adults in Scotland who do drink, the majority are still exceeding recommended guidelines - averaging 19 units per week, compared to the 14 unit maximum advised by Government.

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The sample size for the study was just under 41,500 participants - around 10,400 from Hong Kong and 31,000 from the US.

Those who had never consumed alcohol scored the highest level of mental wellbeing at the start of the five-year analysis.

For female drinkers, quitting was linked to a favourable change in mental health in both the Hong Kong and US populations.

The authors state: "We found that lifetime alcohol abstainers reported the highest level of mental well-being.

"Women who quit drinking were found to have a greater improvement in mental well-being than lifetime abstainers. This association was found in a Hong Kong cohort as well as in a US cohort.

"On average, the mental well-being of female quitters approached the level of lifetime abstainers within a four-year period in both cohorts.

"In contrast, initiation and persistent moderate drinking for four years were not associated with better mental or physical well-being."

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The results remained consistent even after the researchers adjusted for differences in socio-demographic characteristics, BMI, smoking status, self-reported diseases and physical activity.

However they added that it was unclear whether the change experienced by women actually has a physiological basis.

They added: "The explanation for our findings and the underlying mechanism are not clear. It is possible that alcohol-related neurotoxicity reverses following abstinence.

"Alcohol cessation may also reduce stressful life events, such as conflict within family, difficulties in employment and legal troubles, resulting in improved mental well-being.

"It is also possible that improved mental well-being may result from the psychological benefits of 'giving up' per se rather than an effect of alcohol, as most Chinese women in Hong Kong use alcohol fewer than four times per month, which may not have a physiologic effect."

The findings will raise further questions over what is a safe and sensible amount to drink.

Another study by the University of Cambridge last year said regularly drinking more than recommended limits is as bad for health as smoking.

They estimated a 40-year-old drinking two pints or glasses of wine a day above guidelines can expect to die two years early and was associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm and heart failure.

Dr Michael Ni, a brain scientist at the University of Hong Kong and co-author of the study, said: “Global alcohol consumption is expected to continue to increase unless effective strategies are employed. Our findings suggest caution in recommendations that moderate drinking could improve health-related quality of life.

“Instead, quitting drinking may be associated with a more favourable change in mental wellbeing, approaching the level of lifetime abstainers.”

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “We know that regularly drinking above the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines can lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Many people also use alcohol to relax and combat the feelings of stress, but the negative effects of alcohol are actually likely to make stress worse.

"By cutting down on how much we drink we can reduce the risk of developing mental health problems as well as around 60 other diseases including liver disease, heart disease and alcohol-related cancers.

"However, it can be difficult to always make the healthy choice when alcohol is available anytime, anywhere and we’re encouraged to drink in every social situation. Action on the price, availability and marketing of alcohol can help reduce consumption and protect health.”