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Drinking advice - how to drink safely

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How does alcohol effect us?

Alcohol can cause harm in three ways:

  1. When people get drunk they do stupid things, and can become either aggressive or vulnerable.

  2. Alcohol can be a highly addictive drug - around 3 million UK adults have evidence of mild alcohol dependancy, and should cut down on their drinking before it progresses. People with severe alcohol dependancy are often unable to stop drinking even though alcohol is ruining their lives.

  3. Moderate to heavy drinking over many years damages the liver, brain, heart and pancreas, and causes cancer. One in twenty adults in the UK are drinking enough to run the risk of serious liver disease.

We are all different in our sensitivity to the harmful effects of alcohol. Family or genetic factors are important along with cultural and lifestyle choices.

If alcohol is important in your life then we suggest you find out a little more about how to drink safely.

How do I work out how much alcohol I am drinking?

Not many people drink neat alcohol, and so to help calculate how much alcohol there is in any particular drink most people talk about units of alcohol. This is the same sort of thing as calories in food.

1 unit of alcohol is 10 mls or 1 cl of pure alcohol:

Originally this was the same as:

However over the years the drinks industry have made drinks stronger:

Most lagers or ciders are now 5% alcohol by volume, and a pint is 3 units.

Pub glasses of wine are 175ml or 2.5 units, or even 250ml or 3.5 units.

Even measures of spirits have often been increased from 25ml to 35ml or 1.5 units.

The alcohol content of some normal drinks is as follows:

How much alcohol is safe to drink?

The news is not all bad. If you are healthy and eat a good diet, sensible drinking should not harm you. The government published a report on sensible drinking in December 1995, which focused on daily rather than weekly limits and emphasised that for some groups of people, small quantities of alcohol could help protect against heart disease. It is not clear why or what it is in alcohol that offers the benefit.

The UK Department of Health's current advice on sensible drinking can be summarised as follows:

Men

The government advice is to be sure that alcohol will not harm your health you need to be drinking less than 21 units a week, this is just over 2 bottles of wine or 8-10 pints of beer or lager.

As liver doctors we start to become concerned at around 30 units / week, and become very concerned at 40-50 units / week. This may seem like a lot of booze, but it is only 4-5 bottles of wine each week and plenty of people in the UK drink this much much these days.

Turn to the liver section for advice.

Women

Up to 14 units a week or one and a half bottles of wine is fine - above this all the potential health benefits have disappeared, and the risk of high blood pressure and stroke start to increase.

Drinking more than 20-30 units a week may give you a fatty liver - and may cause more serious problems. Turn to the liver section for advice.

Regular v binge drinking

The government changed their advice on weekly units it to a daily measure because they were concerned that people would think it was OK to drink all the units in one go. In actual fact as far as the long term health risk are concerned, regular drinking is no better than binge drinking - it is the overall alcohol intake that counts.

These figures are all based on the modelling of an alcohol intake across a whole population. As far as serious liver disease is concerned the risks start at at around 3-4 bottles of wine a week, and are relatively small at this level. As alcohol intake increases then the risks increase correspondingly - see the liver section for details.

As liver doctors we are concerned about the daily drinking advice because daily drinking is pretty much guaranteed to cause tolerance where the amount you need to drink to get the same buzz gradually increases.

If you do have a drink most days then you may be storing up trouble for yourself.

Drink-free days

Try not to drink alcohol every day, if you are a moderately heavy drinker give yourself a rest for at least two to three days a week.

Some of the research that we are doing in Southampton is starting to suggest that this may be the most important thing of all.

If you try to cut out alcohol from Monday to Thursday and find it difficult then you probably have a degree of alcohol dependency, and this in itself is something that you should be thinking about.

Pregnant women

Many mothers prefer not to drink at all during pregnancy because alcohol passes straight into the bloodstream and travels to the baby. There is no evidence that an occasional glass of wine causes any harm to a pregnancy, but regular drinking can lead to a problem called fetal alcohol syndrome, and evidence is emerging that even occasional alcohol binges can cause problems as well.

If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant then think carefully about whether you should be drinking alcohol.