Alcohol and your health

Do you need to cut down your drinking to stay healthy for life?

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 scenario is sadly all too common in some homes. But regardless of how healthy you think your behaviour is, by drinking more than the lower risk guidelines you could be seriously 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 (1). 

The definition of binge drinking used by the NHS and National Office of Statistics is drinking more than double the lower risk guidelines for alcohol in one session.

Binge drinking for men, therefore, is drinking more than 8 units of alcohol – or about three pints of strong beer. For women, it’s drinking more than 6 units of alcohol, equivalent to two large glasses of wine.

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 (2).

An easy way to see if you are binge drinking, or drinking to high risk levels, is by tracking your drinks on MyDrinkaware – an online drinks tracker 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 (i.e within the guidelines) should not have significant 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 lower risk 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 lower risk guidelines.

But when you reduce your drinking, the short term symptoms of consuming too much alcohol can improve. 

Short-term effects include:

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:

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 (3). 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.

Adding 3 or 4 units per day to your usual diet would lead to an increase in weight of around 4lbs in four weeks.

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 usually be happy to spend time discussing any concerns you have about how much you drink and advising you about how to drink sensibly.
  • Assessing you for signs of alcohol related illness. Your GP may also examine you to see if there are any physical signs of disease. They will also be able to arrange blood tests and, if necessary, additional radiological examinations, like a liver ultrasound scan. However, do bear in mind that having normal blood tests doesn’t mean you aren’t putting yourself at risk from your drinking. Liver function tests can stay within the normal range even when your body is struggling to cope, then increase quickly. By that stage it may be too late to reverse all the damage.
  • Providing you with treatment. If you have developed alcohol related problems and /or become dependent on alcohol, your doctor should be able to offer you a range of advice, support and treatment including  medications. You may also be invited to attend for regular review. 
  • Referring you to a specialist. In addition to advice, treatment and support your GP may also refer you to another professional, such as a hospital specialist consultant or a specialist alcohol treatment unit.

Facts

  • In 2012 there were 8,367 alcohol-related deaths in the UK, 381 fewer than in 2011 (4).
  • Up to 17 million working days are lost each year due to the effects of alcohol (5)
  • Drinking after a workout can cancel any gains.
  • Alcohol isn’t a stimulant, it’s a depressant

Staying in control

Drinking within the government’s lower risk guidelines will help keep your drinking under control. Here are three ways to help you cut back:

  1. 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.
  2. If necessary ask for support in cutting down. Tell friends and family that you’re trying to cut down on alcohol – they might be more supportive than you think. Be prepared to defend your decision to yourself by remembering the benefits that cutting down on alcohol should bring.
  3. 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.

Further information

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.

KEY FACTS ON HOW ALCOHOL AFFECTS YOUR HEALTH

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How to cut down

We have many tips and strategies for cutting down at home or when out and about.

Tips on how to cut down

References

Page updated: November 2014