The media loves a story about young women binge drinking but drinking to excess is a big issue for British men too. The NHS estimates that around 9% of men in the UK show signs of alcohol dependence against 3% of UK women1.
If you’re a man who regularly drinks alcohol, you risk a whole host of health issues – from short term harms like injuries or accidents, low energy and sexual performance difficulties, to increased risk of heart disease and cancer in the long term2.
It’s important to remember that the health risks covered below are those specific to men and that there are many others that affect people of all genders. You can find out more about these in our Health effects of Alcohol section.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) advice is that people should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low. If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinks evenly over three or more days.
If you wish to cut down the amount you are drinking, a good way to do this is to have several drink-free days per week.
The Low Risk Drinking Guidelines are the same for men and women, but for different reasons. There are some similarities in how alcohol affects men and women but there are differences too.
Biologically, men and women process alcohol differently. The average man weighs more than the average women and so has more tissue to absorb alcohol. Men also have a proportionally lower ratio of fat to water than women. This means they’re more able to dilute alcohol within the body. So when they drink the same amount of alcohol, men will end up with a lower concentration of alcohol in their blood than women3.
However, men tend to experience more alcohol related harm than women because on average they drink more4. Also men have a higher risk of alcohol-related injury in the short term compared to women5. This is why the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that both men and women do not drink over 14 units a week to keep risks low.
While the low risk guidelines are the same for men and women, it is important to be aware that drinking at a higher level (beyond the low risk guidelines) more quickly causes severe health problems to women. For example, drinking 35 units per week (around 15 pints of beer or 15 medium glasses of wine) evenly spread over the week gives men an 8% lifetime risk of dying from their drinking, whereas women drinking at this level have a 12% risk6.
For both men and women, regular drinking can lead to your body building up a tolerance to alcohol. You have to drink more to get the same effects, which can mean you end up drinking to levels that are harmful to your, short and long-term, health. Many medical experts recommend taking regular days off from drinking to ensure you don't become addicted to alcohol. This can have the effect of ‘resetting’ your tolerance, so it becomes easier to cut back.
In small amounts, alcohol may give you confidence and help you feel less inhibited. But it certainly won’t help your performance in the bedroom. And it can reduce a couple’s chances of conceiving7. The good news is, if you reduce what you drink, its effect on your sex life can be reversed8:
Alcohol and testosterone levels
Studies have shown that alcohol reduces testosterone levels. This can lead to loss of libido and reduce sperm quantity and quality9.
Alcohol, sperm production and movement
As well as affecting hormone levels, alcohol can inhibit the function of the testes stopping sperm from developing properly10, resulting in reduction of the sperm’s ability to move towards an egg. Alcohol may also affect the structure and movement of sperm by stopping the liver from properly metabolising vitamin A11, which is needed for sperm to develop12.
Alcohol and impotence (erectile dysfunction)
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system which means it can make it difficult for some men to get, and keep, an erection13.
You’d probably think twice about eating a hot dog, followed by a burger, with a doughnut for dessert. But drinking four pints of lager might not cause you such concern. In fact, you’d be consuming about the same amount of calories in each situation – around 1,000.
Excessive drinking can lead to weight gain
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 bodies want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and this process takes priority over absorbing nutrients and burning fat14.
Excessive long-term drinking can also cause some seriously unattractive things to happen to men’s bodies.
- withering of the testicles
- enlargement of the breasts or ‘man boobs’
- loss of hair on the body
Heavy drinking can also worsen skin disorders like rosacea which causes the blood vessels in the face to expand, making your face permanently redder15. It can also cause inflamed red bumps and pus spots.
Heavy drinking can, of course, have more serious consequences than wobbly pecs and a beer belly. It can also cause gout, an arthritic condition that causes inflammation, swelling and pain in your joints which is most common in men aged 30 to 60.
In the long term, drinking to excess can have many adverse effects on your health, including increasing your chances of:
- liver damage
- heart disease
- bone disease
- your pancreas becoming inflamed
- your stomach becoming irritated
- type 2 diabetes
- anxiety and depression
Here are three ways you can cut back and keep your drinking under control:
- Keep track of what you’re drinking: Your liver can't tell you if you're drinking too much, but the Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app can. It can even help you cut down.
- Know your strength: Alcoholic drinks labels will have the abbreviation “ABV” which stands for Alcohol By Volume, or sometimes just the word “vol”. It shows the percentage of your drink that’s pure alcohol. This can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5%, some stronger lagers can be as much as 6% ABV. This means that just one pint of strong lager can be more than three units of alcohol, so you need to keep your eye on what you’re drinking.
- Size matters: It’s easy to cut down by switching pints for halves or bottles of beer and choosing a smaller glass for your wine. Opting for spritzers or shandies will also help reduce the number of units you’re drinking.
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 0300 123 1110.
For more information about men’s health, visit the website run by the Men’s Health Forum – an organisation working to improve men's health and wellbeing.
Last review: 26 May 2017
Next review due: 26 May 2020
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