GP Alice Fitzgibbon spoke to our sister site, Professional Builder, about the subject of alcohol.
Drinking alcohol is very common. For some people, drinking is occasional, for others it is a social routine at the weekend and for some it is part of everyday life. Young people in the UK are drinking less overall, with less binge drinking and increasing numbers of people going teetotal. This might be because we are now more aware of how alcohol can negatively affect our health and wellbeing if taken excessively.
The UK government produces guidelines based on research to give us information on how much alcohol may be consumed so it has a low-risk to our health. The current guidance suggests that for both men and women, no more than 14 units of alcohol should be consumed spread throughout the week over three or more days. So, what does 14 units of alcohol look like?
14 units of alcohol is equal to:
*six pints of average beer
*six medium sized glasses of wine (175ml measurement)
*six pints of cider
*14 single shots of a spirit (25ml measurements)
*12 bottles of alcopops
Does this surprise you? Often when discussing alcohol intake with patients, they are often surprised by how little alcohol is in 14 units. I often use a handy calculator, available on drinkaware.co.uk to calculate how many units someone consumes in a week based on the drinks they have. Many people underestimate their alcohol intake and particularly if people drink at home, standard measures are unlikely be used for measuring volumes of alcohol, leading to greater consumption.
Alcohol impacts on our health. Many health conditions may be directly related to alcohol consumption including liver disease, problems with your pancreas and stomach and high blood pressure. Over the long term, drinking more than 14 units per week increases your risks of cancer (particularly bowel, breast, mouth, throat, liver and oesophageal cancers), it also increases the risk of having a stroke or a heart attack.
Day to day, you might also notice the effects of alcohol on your body. You might feel more tired after drinking; this is because alcohol affects the quality of sleep you get. Alcohol is also full of calories so it can lead to weight gain or developing a ‘beer belly’. Your skin may also be affected; it can dry out or you may develop facial redness or flushing known as rosacea.
Mental health and wellbeing are also affected by alcohol. Alcohol as a substance has a direct impact on the chemicals in our brains that control our thoughts and feelings. Too much alcohol can affect the balance of these chemicals and lead to low mood, depression, anxiety and memory problems. As we discussed last time, alcohol can also be implicated in stress; often drinking alcohol to help with how you are feeling at the time can make you feel worse in the long term. The effect of alcohol also affects our brains in terms of how quickly you can respond or react, for example when driving. This is why drink-driving is banned, and also why it is important to consider if you are safe to drive following alcohol consumption in the hours or even the night before you are due to drive. If you are driving, it is safest to consume no alcohol.
What should I do now?
By talking about alcohol this month, I hope it makes you think about your own intake. Use the calculator discussed above honestly and see what your numbers are… it may surprise you! Unless you have been specifically advised to stop drinking altogether by your doctor, then cutting down your intake will help you see some health benefits. Ways to cut down include having alcohol-free days during the week or reducing the volumes you drink (half pints rather than pints). If you would like further information about alcohol then the Drink Aware website and NHS Live Well have lots of information and support options. If you want to discuss alcohol intake and get help to cut down, then seeing your GP is a good place to start.