Alcohol and your health
The effects that alcohol can have on your short and long-term health and what you can do to protect yourself from them.
- Are you a binge drinker?
- What is a safe level of drinking?
- Improving the short-term effects of drinking too much
- Long-term damage to your health
- Why drinking too much can make you put on weight
- How your GP can help
- Staying in control
It’s the end of the working day and you’re de-stressing in the gym. At lunch you had a healthy salad instead of joining your colleagues at the local greasy spoon. This morning, you walked to work. All in all, you’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself.
Heading home, you pop into the shop to pick up a bottle of wine to share with your partner at dinner. You intend to have one glass – but end up drinking the bottle.
This is a common scenario in some homes. But regardless of how healthy you think your behaviour is in an average day, by drinking more than the daily unit guidelines you could be damaging your health.
You might be a binge drinker and not even know it
The UK has one of the highest rates of binge drinking in Europe.
The NHS defines binge drinking as drinking over double the daily unit guidelines in one session. For men this is over eight units, and for women, more than six. However, because individuals are all different, the rate at which they reach intoxication varies.
You can’t avoid alcohol all week and “save up” your units for one night. And it doesn’t matter what you drink – it’s how much. The harmful effects of drinking are almost entirely related to the alcohol content of what you drink, not the type of drink. In other words, beers are no safer than spirits.
Binge drinking is a major factor in accidents, violence and anti-social behaviour. In young people, it’s also associated with a range of risky behaviours, including a higher chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
An easy way to see if you are binge drinking, or drinking to high risk levels, is by tracking your drinks on MyDrinkaware.co.uk – an online drinks diary and unit calculator that gives personalised feedback and tips to help you cut down if you need to.
Stick to safe levels of drinking to protect your health
Drinking in moderation should not have any adverse health effects.
The alcohol content of drinks is measured in units. One unit is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. This equals one 25ml single measure of whisky (ABV 40%), a third of a pint of beer (ABV 5-6%) or half a standard (175ml) glass of red wine (ABV 12%).
The government advises that people should not regularly drink more than the daily unit guidelines of 3-4 units of alcohol for men (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and 2-3 units of alcohol for women (equivalent to a 175 ml glass of wine) ‘Regularly’ means drinking every day or most days of the week.
Short-term effects of drinking too much improve when you consume less
There are short and long term effects of regularly drinking more than the daily unit guidelines.
But when you reduce your drinking, the short term symptoms of consuming too much alcohol can improve.
Short-term effects include:
- Disturbed sleep and sleeplessness
- feeling stressed
- memory loss or blackouts
- loss of appetite
- stomach problems
- impaired judgement which can lead to accidents and injuries
- bad skin
- weight gain
Regularly drinking above guidelines causes long-term damage to your health
Some effects of drinking to excess are not reversible and can cause permanent damage to your health. Alcohol can contribute to:
- raised blood pressure
- liver disease
- cancers, particularly breast cancer and cancer of the gullet
- mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
- heart disease
- stomach ulcers
- damage to an unborn child
- osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
- brain damage
Drinking too much can make you put on weight
You’d probably think twice about eating a hot dog, followed by a burger, with a doughnut for dessert. But drinking four pints of strong lager might not cause you such concern. In fact, you’d be consuming about the same amount of calories in each situation – over 1,000.
Alcohol is seriously fattening.
But it isn’t just the calories in the drink that makes you gain weight. Alcohol reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy. Because we can’t store alcohol in the body, our systems want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and this process takes priority over absorbing nutrients and burning fat.
Five ways your GP can help you take control of your drinking
- Discussing your concerns. GPs are increasingly involved in helping people to stay fit and healthy. And since a healthy lifestyle is a key factor for preventing illness, your GP will be happy to spend time discussing any concerns you have about how much you drink.
- Assessing you to see whether you’re dependent on alcohol. If you think you are already experiencing some of the possible harmful effects of drinking, or that you have become dependent on alcohol, your GP can help. They will listen to your symptoms and concerns and assess whether you have become dependent on alcohol.
- Examining you. Your GP may also examine you to see if there are any physical signs of disease. They will be able to arrange blood tests and, if necessary, additional radiological examinations, like a liver ultrasound scan.
- Helping you detox. If you have become dependent on alcohol, your doctor can offer you advice, support and prescriptions for medications to help you detox.
- Referring you to a specialist. Your GP may offer you advice and support in the practice or refer you to another professional, such as a hospital specialist consultant. Alternatively, you and your GP may decide that it would be better for you to be referred to a specialist alcohol treatment unit.
- There were 8,790 alcohol-related deaths in the UK in 2010 (1).
- Up to 17 million working days are lost each year due to the effects of alcohol (2) (3)
- Drinking after a workout can cancel any gains.
- Drink three double gin and tonics a day and you’ll put on up to 4lbs in four weeks.
- Alcohol isn’t a stimulant, it’s a depressant
Staying in control
The government advises that people should not regularly drink more than the daily unit guidelines of 3-4 units of alcohol for men (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and 2-3 units of alcohol for women (equivalent to a 175 ml glass of wine). ‘Regularly’ means drinking every day or most days of the week.
Here are three ways to keep your drinking under control.
- Give alcohol-free days a go. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is one of the main reasons why it’s important to consider taking regular breaks from drinking. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.
- Ask for support. Tell friends and family that you’re trying to cut down on alcohol – they might be more supportive than you think. But beware, some people don’t like to have their drinking behaviour challenged. Be prepared to defend your decision by remembering the benefits that cutting down on alcohol brings.
- Keep track of your units. Using our unit calculator will make the calculations easier or you can sign up to MyDrinkaware to track your drinking over time.
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0800 917 8282.
Are you drinking too much?
Find out how many units you are drinking
Compare your drinking to the government's daily unit guidelines.Try our Unit Calculator
Take a drinking self assessment
Answer these simple questions and find out what kind of a relationship you have with alcohol.Assess your drinking
Office for National Statistics (ONS), Alcohol related deaths in the UK, 2010.http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_254061.pdf
Institute of Alcohol Studies. National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy Interim analysis: Executive summary September 2003.http://www.ias.org.uk/resources/publications/alcoholalert/alert200303/al200303_p11.html
Institute of Alcohol Studies. Workplace factsheethttp://www.ias.org.uk/resources/factsheets/workplace.pdf
Page updated: May 2013
Did you know?
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