The essential guide to alcohol and your health

Take control of your drinking

To help you through the alcohol maze, here is's essential guide to alcohol intake, the positive and negative effects of alcohol on health, and how to take control of your drinking — as well as some great tips on how to drink while maintaining your health.

Here’s a little quiz for you. Answer ‘true’ or ‘false’ to the following three statements:

  • It doesn’t matter if I drink more than my allotted alcohol units per week because I exercise daily and eat healthily.
  • I don’t need to worry about my alcohol intake because I only drink red wine.
  • It’s better to just have a blow-out once in a while than to drink regularly.

Well, the answer to all three statements is ‘false’ — yet these and other myths regularly abound when it comes to alcohol intake. First we hear that booze is good for the heart, then that it increases the risks of breast cancer. Then we read that only men benefit from the health-giving effects — oh, but then women over 50 do, too. No wonder we’re confused!

Recommendations vs reality

First off, let’s look at the issue of the recommended quantities of alcohol per week. Alcohol is measured in units, and what many people fail to recognize is that a unit and a glass of drink are not one and the same. In fact, while a standard unit of wine is 125ml, most pubs offer ‘small’ glasses containing 175ml (while a ‘large’ glass is 250ml — i.e. a third of a bottle!). And while half a pint of ordinary-strength lager or bitter (3 to 3.5 per cent alcohol by volume) constitutes a unit, stronger premium strength lagers (5 per cent) are now the norm.

There’s also confusion about the number of units allowed. Pre-1995, the recommended alcohol intake was based on a week’s consumption of alcohol. For women, the limit was set at 14 units — for men, 21 units. Then in 1995, guidelines changed so that they were based on daily intake — with the recommended range for women being two to three units, and three to four units for men. This was done to combat the growing practice of ‘saving up’ units to drink all on one or two big nights out — but unfortunately, some people interpreted the change as an increase in the amount of alcohol they could safely drink.

The recommendations advise incorporating a couple of alcohol-free days into each week, meaning that the weekly maximum is still around 14 units for a woman and 21 for a man. Yet 39 per cent of men and 23 percent of women in the UK regularly exceed the recommended drinking limits. Does it matter? The statistics — as we will see — suggest it does.

The negative effects of alcohol

The amount of alcohol consumed by the average person in the UK doubled between 1950 and 1980 — and the trend shows no signs of abating. According to the General Household Survey in 2002, 15 per cent of women in the UK are drinking at levels high enough to place their health at risk. And what’s more, a study in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2001 revealed that higher alcohol consumption is associated with less healthy eating habits — in particular a lower intake of vegetables, calcium and carbohydrates, and a higher intake of cholesterol and fatty acids and animal products. In 2001, the Chief Medical Officer’s report stated that liver cirrhosis had increased seven-fold in the last 30 years in women aged 35 to 44, and eight-fold in men of the same age group. Excess alcohol consumption is also linked to hypertension; stroke; heart disease; cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon; other stomach problems; and poor bone health.

In addition to this, the risk of contracting breast cancer — the most common cancer affecting women — by the age of 80 rises from 88 per 1000 women in non-drinkers to 133 per 1000 in women consuming the equivalent of a bottle of wine per day. Fertility can be reduced, and drinking while pregnant is linked to a higher rate of miscarriage, lower-birth-weight babies and, in extreme cases, defects of the central nervous system.

If you are watching your waistline, bear in mind that alcohol contains seven calories per gram (one ‘unit’ of alcohol is 8g). A can of premium strength lager weighs in at 260 calories, while a large glass of wine contains 170 calories. So, if you drink your full quota of units, you could be taking in approximately 1500 liquid calories per week! Sugary drinks used as mixers — such as tonic or coke — also add roughly 50 calories per shot. So it’s easy to see how booze can contribute to excess body fat.

The positive effects of alcohol

What about the much-publicized health benefits of alcohol? Well, it’s true that alcohol has some cardiovascular benefits. And yes, it’s particularly true of red wine. For example, a review article of the latest studies looking at red wine and cardiovascular health last year showed that, according to the Journal of American College of Surgeons, drinking two to three glasses of red wine daily is good for the heart. It’s believed that the antioxidant compounds in red wine contribute to its beneficial effects — in other words, it’s not just the alcohol content. But bear in mind that these effects still occur only within the daily and weekly recommended limits. Just because some is good, it doesn’t mean more is better!

In another recent study in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers found that, like aspirin, alcohol helps to thin the bloodthereby possibly reducing the risk of heart disease. This is good news for the heart — but the change in coagulation increases the risk of bleeding strokes. Also, bear in mind that — once again — the benefits occurred via ‘moderate’ alcohol intake.

The effects of binge drinking

As far as saving up your units for a big session is concerned, research suggests that binge drinking is more harmful to the liver than regular alcohol intake. Heavy drinking destroys B vitamins and vitamin C, and may affect zinc absorption levels (which can be found in meat, shellfish, dairy products and wholegrains). It also increases the need for folate and magnesium.

Aside from the damage to the body, binge drinking also makes you vulnerable to being involved in accidents caused by loss of coordination and road traffic accidents due to drink driving — in addition to making you act in a dangerous manner, such as getting into unlicensed mini cabs, going home with strangers, and having unsafe sex. People who binge drink are more likely to be absent from work, more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and three times more likely to die in an accident.

And for all you fit folk out there, going back to that first statement in this article: no, exercise doesn’t give you carte blanche to booze away to your heart’s content. In fact, muscles cannot use the calories from alcohol as a fuel, so it has to be metabolized directly from the bloodstream — and so until it has been used up, alcohol will prevent the body from using stored fat calories or carbohydrate as an energy source. Research also suggests that energy from alcohol is predominantly stored around the abdominal region — the proverbial beer belly!

So all in all, drinking alcohol within the recommended limits poses no significant risks to your health. But drinking above those limits — whether regularly or in ‘binge’ sessions — outweighs those beneficial effects… even if the alcohol you’re drinking is the world’s finest Pinot Noir!

Keep a diary

If — after reading what we’ve said so far — you think you may be crossing the health border with your alcohol intake, then it might be a good idea to do a ‘Bridget Jones’ and keep an alcohol diary for a period, in which you can write down how many units you consume as well as when and why you drank. You may be surprised at just how much it all adds up — and you might also find that there is a pattern in your drinking, which will help you to identify your own personal ‘triggers’.

Drink to your health

In order to avoid the health risks of drinking too much, the next time you go out for a drink — and any subsequent times after that — try following's tips below, which will help you to enjoy your drinking without risking your health!

  • Stick within the recommended daily and weekly allowances.
  • Have two or more alcohol-free days per week.
  • Don’t ‘save up’ your units and then binge drink.
  • If you do drink over the daily limits, the Department of Health recommends avoiding alcohol for at least 48 hours to allow your body to recover.
  • Alternate your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or water.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach — either drink with food or eat before you go out. It takes approximately an hour to metabolize a unit of alcohol, and this process takes longer if your stomach is empty at the outset.
  • Don’t force yourself to ‘work it off’ with exercise after a heavy night out. Your body is already working hard to process the alcohol and deal with dehydration (and, possibly, lack of sleep!). Instead, drink lots of non-alcoholic fluid, eat something light, and allow yourself to recover.

Comments (6)

  • PaulRitchie2 'I'm getting a bit nervous having read this, but like everything you have to take it with a pinch of salt. We can't all be angerls all the time, but we can try to be more often. I definitely fit into the camp of drinking and then exercising, thinking that makes it ok. '

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  • KIM 'It's friday - so i will be having a little tipple but will thisnk differently from now on'

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  • PaulRitchie2 'God kim, it looks like you're drunk already with the slurred spelling mistakes already.'

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  • adam_s 'what do you mean, exercising after drinking isn't a good idea? i do this all the time!'

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  • KIM 'My spelling's not always grewat when I'm typing quickly, Paul! At least I don't excercise soon after drinking though - it's a definite no-no.'

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  • PaulRitchie2 'I am trying to cut down on the drinking now. Planning to run in the Jersey marathon certainly helps!'

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