Woman refusing more alcohol by placing one hand over her glass and holding the other hand up to signify no moreAlcohol And Health

Having an alcoholic drink is often seen as a way to relax, help you get off to sleep, celebrate or give yourself a treat – after all you've earned it, right! Whilst drinking alcohol on an occasional basis is generally considered fairly safe, you may be consuming more units than you realise which could have consequences for your long-term health.

We look at the health risks of alcohol, the guidelines on drinking limits, how to check if you are drinking too much and where to get help with alcohol related problems.

Watch our Alcohol And Health webinar

We recently held a webinar on alcohol and health with a guest speaker from Drink Aware.

The video of this webinar will be available shortly for you to watch.

A tray with glasses of cocktails at a barThe effects of alcohol on your health

Alcohol is broken down in the body differently by men and women, and changes as we age. What you might have had to drink on a night out when you were in your twenties is metabolized differently by your body when consumed in your sixties.

Medication can also affect how alcohol is broken down by your body.

How much is it ‘safe’ to drink?

New guidelines for alcohol consumption were introduced in 2016 by the government’s Chief Medical Officers. They warn that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers.  The original guidelines were created in 1995 when the link between alcohol and cancer were not fully understood. Now understanding that the risk starts from any level of alcohol being consumed, the new guidelines are aimed at keeping the risk of mortality from cancers and other diseases low.

Changes to alcohol guidelines for men were made in the 2016 guidelines. Men should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women. To put this into context this is 6 pints of average strength beer a week, spread over 3 or more days with at least 2 alcohol free days a week. This helps to reduce the risk of cancer and other alcohol related illnesses.

Individuals who have 1 or 2 heavy drinking sessions each week increase their risk of death, long term illness, injuries and accidents.

Advice is also given on single episodes of drinking to keep the short-term health risks low:

  • limit the total amount of alcohol drunk on any one occasion
  • drink more slowly, with food and alternate with water or other soft drinks

Another way of reducing your alcohol intake is to have several alcohol-free days per week.

No more ‘guess the units’

Alcoholic drinks tend to be much stronger now than they were 20 years ago. This means that the measures we learned previously contain much more alcohol than we might think.

So how do you know how many units of alcohol you are consuming?

You can work out how many units there are in any drink by multiplying the total volume of a drink (in ml) by its ABV (alcohol by volume) which is measured as a percentage, and dividing the result by 1,000.

Strength (ABV) x Volume (ml) ÷ 1,000 = Units

To work out the number of units in a pint (568ml) of strong lager (ABV 5.2%):

5.2 (%) x 568 (ml) ÷ 1,000 = 2.95 units

It’s possible that this is more than you were expecting as people often work on an ‘around about’ number of units. This method can help you gain a better understanding of how much alcohol you are consuming during a typical week. Therefore it will help you to make more informed choices.

 

Illustrations of a variety of alcoholic drinks showing their volume, alcohol percentage and number of units

What is binge drinking and why is it so bad for your health?

Drinking a lot, quickly, and with the aim of getting drunk can have serious consequences for your short and long-term health. Binge drinking is defined as drinking 8 or more units in a single session for a man or 6 units in a single session for a woman.

Binge drinking causes a spike in blood alcohol levels, a rise in blood pressure and can cause an irregular heartbeat. Excessive alcohol acts as a sedative and can lead to collapse, severe dehydration and a drop in blood sugar which can be fatal, particularly for those on diabetes medications. If you vomit when you have consumed excess alcohol this sedative effect can cause you to choke on your vomit and can burn the lungs or lead to severe infections.

Accidents and falls are more common when someone is drunk because balance and co-ordination are affected.

Binge drinking can affect your mood and your memory in the longer term and can lead to mental health problems.

Could you be drinking too much?

If you’re not sure how much alcohol you are drinking a week and whether it could have an effect on your long-term health, there is a tool, developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), called ‘AUDIT’. The tool is used internationally to check for alcohol harm, including dependence.

You can complete the AUDIT assessment tool here

Getting help - what to do if you are worried about your drinking

If you are worried about your drinking, there are organisations you can contact to help.

  • Make a call to the Health & Wellbeing team at the Trust
  • Contact your GP who can refer you for extra support
  • Access your local community support such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The Trust can help you make contact in the first instance.

You can find more good resources and help on these websites:

Drinkaware
One Year No Beer
NHS Alcohol Advice
Cancer Research UK - Alcohol And Cancer

Further information

Alcohol awareness

Information and resources from previous Alcohol Awareness weeks

Read more