Do you or people close to you think you drink too much? Is it affecting your relationships, financial security, physical and/or mental health or your work? If so, or if someone close to you is drinking too much and you are concerned, read on…
Over the past few years, we have experienced a complex interplay between social isolation and uncertainty about the future – and many of us are now facing increasing financial pressure. These factors influence health behaviours and can contribute to an increase in excess alcohol consumption.
What is alcoholism or alcohol dependence?
Alcoholism is a disease - not a lack of willpower. It alters the part of the brain that controls a person's motivation and ability to make healthy choices. Once it takes hold, it can be hard to shake loose - without the right help.
Alcohol dependence is characterised by craving, tolerance: a preoccupation with alcohol and continued drinking despite harmful consequences, e.g., liver disease or depression caused by drinking.
People with alcohol dependency may tend to gulp drinks, have extra drinks before going to social events, drink on their own, lie about how much alcohol they are consuming, drink on the way home and/or keep alcohol on them or nearby.
What makes alcohol harmful?
Some argue that alcohol has its protective mechanisms, with certain antioxidants reducing inflammation and enhancing healthy gut bacteria.
However, in excess and not drinking in the limits of government recommendations, it can become extremely damaging to our health.
When we consume alcohol, it can be converted into a carcinogen called acetaldehyde, which can harm our DNA repair mechanisms. In addition, alcohol is broken down and rebuilt into triglycerides and cholesterol in the liver. If your triglycerides levels become too high, they can build up in the liver, causing fatty liver disease.
There are a host of other negative effects:
- Increasing oxidative stress - which can damage your cells, proteins, and DNA.
- Gut inflammation
- Inability to absorb vital vitamins and minerals
- Encouraging engagement in risky behaviour – smoking, changes in eating habits
- Excess calories leading to weight gain and poor weight management
- Alcohol has a high sugar content putting us at risk of metabolic syndrome - a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
So, what are the recommended limits?
Men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week. A unit of alcohol is about:
- Half a pint of lower to normal strength lager/beer/cider
- A single small shot measure of spirits
- A small glass of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol
If you would like more support understanding units and how to manage them, please visit the NHS page on Alcohol Units.
Are calories in alcohol a problem?
Did you know drinking four bottles of wine a month adds up to a yearly consumption of around 27,000 kcal, equivalent to eating 48 Big Macs per year.
Dinking five pints of larger each week adds up to 44,200 kcal over a year, which is the same as eating 221 doughnuts!
If we are trying to lose weight, we cannot just think about what we are eating, we also need to think about what we are drinking (NHS live well, calories in alcohol).
Wine, beer cider, spirits are made from natural starch and sugar. Fermentation is used to produce the alcohol content. Therefore, alcohol contains around seven calories a gram – almost pure fat. Calories in alcohol are known as ‘empty calories,’ meaning they have no nutritional value - they do not benefit our body. Different alcoholic drinks have different amounts of calories in them, and many are high in sugar. A pint of lager can contain the same number of calories as a slice of pizza or a large glass of wine can be very similar to an ice cream sundae.
What are the benefits of cutting down?
There are immediate benefits of cutting down on our alcohol intake: better weight management, feeling more energised and being less tired during the day and when we wake up first thing in the morning. There is also a strong correlation between drinking and feelings of anxiety and low mood. Cutting down our overall consumption of alcohol will improve our behaviours (irritable, poor judgement) but will also enhance our wellbeing and mood.
Alcohol might help us fall asleep, but even a couple of drinks will affect our quality of sleep. Research shows, when we drink alcohol, we spend less of the night in a deep, restorative sleep (quality) because it interrupts our natural sleep cycle. When we implement drink-free days and change our relationship with alcohol, we can wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges the day brings.
Top tips for cutting down alcohol intake
- Have regular alcohol-free days
- When socialising, consider meeting people in alcohol-free venues (gyms and cafes)
- Pace consumption by sipping drinks slowly or try mocktails!
- Keep an alcohol diary, set yourself an alcohol limit and stick to it
- Set a budget for alcohol, only allow yourself a fixed range
- Let you friends and family know you are cutting back on your alcohol, so you can resist the temptation of over-consuming.
If you think that drinking is costing you more than money, there are places you can go for help & advice:
- Alcoholics Anonymous: a free programme of recovery based on 12 steps, with group meetings and support.
- Freephone 0800 9177650
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Drinkline: National alcohol helpline on 0300 123 1110
- Alcohol Change UK: a website with information and links to support
- Drink Aware: a website with information and links to support Alcohol support services