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  • Nicole Musuwo

Alcohol and health

Many people often enjoy alcoholic beverages throughout the week, over the weekend and/or on special occasions. Regularly drinking alcohol or heavy drinking, however, is associated with many health risks. We provide some information on the most common health risks associated with alcohol intake, recommendations from the UK Chief Medical Officer and tips for reducing consumption.


Health risks


An alcoholic drink is a drink that contains ethanol, which is a type of alcohol produced by fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugar that acts as a drug. Alcoholic drinks include beer, cider, wine, spirits, liquors and alcopops. There are four main health risks associated with alcohol consumption:

  • Drink related accidents and injuries

  • Liver disease

  • Pancreatitis

  • Cancer, including mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, breast, stomach, bowel and liver cancer. [1]

Other health risks from excessive alcohol consumption include high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. [2] Long term heavy drinking can also negatively affect mental health. For reduction of risk of these conditions, it is best not to drink any alcohol.


Chief Medical Officer's guidelines on alcohol


If you choose to drink alcohol, it is best to follow the The UK Chief Medical Officer's guidelines, which are:

  • Men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.

  • Consumption of alcoholic drinks should be spread over 3 days or more

  • Individuals should aim to have several drink-free days each week

  • If pregnant or think you could become pregnant, do not drink alcohol. [2]

14 units is equivalent to:

  • Six pints of average strength beer OR

  • Six 175ml glasses of average strength wine OR

  • 14 single-volume measure (25ml) of spirits.


Binge drinking


It is best to avoid heavy drinking, or binge drinking, in one sitting. Binge drinking involves having more than 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men (i.e. around 4 medium glasses of wine or 4 pints of average strength beer) and 6 units of alcohol in a single session for women (around 3 medium glasses of wine or 3 pints of average strength beer). [4] However, this is not an exact definition for binge drinking that applies to everyone as tolerance to alcohol can vary from person to person.


Alcoholic drinks often pack a lot of sugar and calories, of which people are often unaware of (as this is information is often not displayed on labels). More so, when drinking alcohol, individuals are more likely to have foods high in salt and saturated fat. Alongside the additional calories consumed from alcohol, this may contribute to consuming excess calories, which may lead to weight gain.


Top tips for reducing consumption

  1. Opt for the smallest serving size when ordering drinks i.e. going for a single measure drink, small glass of wine etc.

  2. Try low alcohol or non-alcoholic drinks

  3. Have water/non-alcoholic drinks in-between

  4. Drink slowly and drink with a meal

  5. Keep track of units, for example keeping a note on your phone

  6. Don't stock up on alcohol at home


References:

  1. NHS. The risks of drinking too much. Available from: www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/. Accessed 06/12/2022.

  2. Drink Aware. Health effects of alcohol. Available from: www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol. Accessed 06/12/2022.

  3. Department of Health. UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review Summary of the proposed new guidelines. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489795/summary.pdf. Accessed 06/12/2022.

  4. NHS. Binge drinking. Available from: www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/binge-drinking-effects/. Accessed 06/12/2022.

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