The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) advises that people are safest not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week (this is equivalent to six pints of average strength beer, or six 175ml glasses of average strength wine). If people do chose to drink as much as 14 units, it is best to spread them evenly over three days or more.

The health effects of alcohol 

 

How to keep your risk low

Drinking within the recommended alcohol unit guidelines (of no more than 14 units a week for both men and women) can help keep health risks from the effects of alcohol low.

If you do choose to drink, you should spread the units evenly across the week rather than “saving-up” all your drinks for one or two days. If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break from alcohol for yourself and see what positive results you notice.

Alcohol and the heart

It was previously thought that some alcohol was good for the heart. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) guidance now points out that very low levels of drinking can have cardio-protective effects for older women (aged 55 and over drinking around 5 units a week).

The guidance now reflects a better understanding of the health harms linked to drinking alcohol than in previous years. By drinking more than the alcohol unit guidelines you could be seriously damaging your health without realising it.

Instantly cut-back by drinking more slowly, ensure you have eaten properly or alternate alcoholic drinks with a soft drink or water.

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%).

Visit our What is an alcohol Unit? page to watch a short animation which clearly explains more. 

Are you a binge drinker?

The NHS defines binge drinking as “drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk”.1 

Because everybody is different, it is not easy to say exactly how many units in one session count as binge drinking. The definition used by the Office of National Statistics for binge drinking is having over 8 units in a single session for men and over 6 units per women.2

Of course, people may drink at different speeds or drink over a different amount of time and this definition may not apply to everyone. 

What we can say is that the risk of short-term harms like accidents or injuries increase between two to five times from drinking five-seven units.3 This is equivalent to 2-3 pints of beer.

How drinking can affect your short-term health

There are short and long term effects of regularly drinking more than the low risk unit guidelines.

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

Short-term effects of alcohol can include:

  • Alcohol-induced anxiety
  • Diarrhoea
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Increasing feelings of stress
  • Impaired judgement which can lead toaccidents and injuries
  • Memory loss or black-outs
  • Shaking
  • Sickness or vomiting
  • Skin conditions
  • Stomach problems
  • Sweating
  • Weight gain

How drinking can affect your long-term health

Some effects of drinking to excess are not reversible and can cause permanent damage to your long-term health.

Long-term effects of alcohol can include:

  • Brain damage
  • Cancers
  • Dementia
  • Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety
  • Pancreatitis
  • Reproduction problems
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Stroke

Why drinking can make you put on weight

Alcohol can be just as fattening as some foods. For example a 4% ABV pint of beer can have as many calories as a slice of pizza (197 calories). A glass of 13% ABV wine can have as many calories as a slice of sponge cake (195 calories). 

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.4 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.

In particular, binge drinking may be linked to weight gain. It has been suggested that binge drinking for some may lead to unhealthy over-eating and lack of exercise, all contributing to weight gain or obesity (6).

Slimming World have produced a report on the link between excessive alcohol consumption and obesity.  

How your GP can help

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Providing you with treatment.  Services for people with possible alcohol-related problems do vary depending on where in the UK you live. Some practices have an alcohol advisor within the practice which your GP can refer you to. Other practices have access to local alcohol services which you can attend with or without a referral from your GP.
  4. Medication: In many areas, some medication will only be prescribed if you are also getting support and follow up from specialist services. Your GP can advise about the services in your area. Many of these services are based in the community – as a rule, only people with severe alcohol problems will be referred to hospital.

Three ways to drink less alcohol now  

You can keep your risk low by staying within the government’s recommended low risk guidance. Here are three ways to help you cut back:

  1. Have several drink-free days a week. If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice. 
  2. If necessary, ask for support to cut 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 and Calorie Calculator will make the calculations easier you can download our free Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app 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.

 

References 

(1) NHS Choices website, Binge Drinking. The Information Standard member organisation. Page last reviewed: 31/12/2014. Available at:
http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/Bingedrinking.aspx
(2) Office of National Statistics (2015), Adult Drinking Habits in Great Britain, 2013. Accessed on: 25 February 2015. Available at:
http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_395191.pdf
(3) Department of Health (2016), UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review: Summary of the proposed new guidelines. Available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489795/summary.pdf(4) Charles S Lieber, ‘ALCOHOL: Its Metabolism and Interaction With Nutrients’, Annual Review of Nutrition, July 2000, vol. 20, pp. 395-430. Available at:
http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.nutr.20.1.395?journalCode=nutr
(5) Office for National Statistics (ONS) website. Alcohol related deaths in the UK, 2013. Available at:
http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2013/index.html
(6) Slimming World, The missing link between alcohol and obesity: How passing a ‘tipping point’ can impact on weight, 2014. Available here:
http://www.slimmingworld.co.uk/alcohol/downloads/themissinglinkbetweenalcoholandobesity.pdf