New Year’s resolutions start to wane and the good intention of giving up alcohol is now passing as we return to our usual drinking habits.
However, are we really aware of the risk of drinking alcohol? Alcohol is a powerful chemical that can have a wide range of effects on almost every part of the body including the brain, bones and heart.
UK drinking guidelines for both men and women suggest there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. To keep the level of health risk low the national guideline suggests not to drink more than 14 units per week regularly. It is advised to spread alcohol consumption evenly over three days or more rather than binge drinking and both men and women should aim for at least two alcohol free days each week.
One unit of alcohol is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, however as alcoholic drinks come in different strengths and sizes, units are the way to well how strong your drink is. For example, one pint of 4% ABV beer and/or a medium glass (175 ml) of 12% ABV wine contains around two units of alcohol each. A strong 5.2% pint of beer contains three units and a strong wine, (14%), in a large glass at 250 ml, contains around three and a half units.
It takes an average adult around one hour to process one unit of alcohol so that there is none left in their blood stream although this can vary from person to person.
There are short- and long-term health effects of alcohol. These can affect your body, lifestyle and mental health.
Alcohol effects on the brain. Small amounts of alcohol can affect important functions like speech and movement. The medium-term effects of drinking can include slow reactions and impaired memory. Alcohol is a depressant which therefore means that it can affect feelings and actions, and sometimes long-term mental health. While alcohol may have a temporary positive impact on our mood it can cause long term problems including anxiety, depression and memory problems.
Alcohol effects on the heart. Drinking large amounts all at once can slow the heart rate and breathing down to dangerously low levels. There is a clear link between drinking too much alcohol and having high blood pressure. This high blood pressure over time puts strain on the heart which can lead to cardiovascular disease and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Alcohol effects on the liver. Most alcohol that goes into the body is processed by your liver. Long term drinking can lead to a fatty liver, hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and cirrhosis. A fatty liver is when there is a build-up of fat within the liver cells. This makes it harder for the liver to work; alcoholic fatty liver disease is preventable and will usually get better when you stop drinking. However, it can lead to an enlarged liver and alcoholic cirrhosis. This is when the normal liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue and can lead to liver failure.
Alcohol effects on the gastrointestinal system. Excess alcohol may also lead to conditions including gastritis, which is inflammation of the stomach lining, and stomach ulcers.
Alcohol effects on the bones. Alcohol negatively affects bones, excess alcohol disrupts the balance of calcium and vitamin D as well as affecting hormone levels. This increases the risk of osteoporosis, causing thinning of the bones.
There have been studies that have linked excess alcohol as a risk factor for cancers including breast cancer and oral cancers.
Drinking excess alcohol affects social wellbeing, especially when the impact of drinking alcohol needs time off work due to hangovers or feeling unwell in the morning. Drinking can lead to poor sleep and poor performance at work. Drinking also can affect the ability to carry out expected duties at home.
Alcoholic drinks are also high in calories and drinking regularly can lead to too many calories leading to weight gain and therefore obesity. In its purest form alcohol contains around 7 kg calories per gram, one unit of alcohol is around 8 g, which is 56 kilocalories.
Like many other drugs alcohol can be both physically and psychologically addictive. There are signs to look out for that may suggest you are becoming dependent on alcohol.
If you have any concerns about drinking it is advisable to seek medical attention and talk to your GP or other local alcohol services. For information and advice or to find out more please get in touch here.
Dr Angela Rai