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The effects of excessive drinking

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What actually happens if I drink more?

If you are drinking 4 or more units a day on average then the first problem is that alcohol can cause high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is the major cause of strokes, the risk is not particularly high but when you look at the population as a whole it makes quite a big impact. The major health problem with drinking too much is that it damages the liver.

Firstly a few myths about alcohol and the liver.

You do not need to be an alcoholic to get liver disease; only 1 in 5 patients with alcohol induced liver failure are alcohol dependent or alcoholic.

You do not need to drink spirits to get liver disease. Approximately 1/3 of our patients drink mainly spirits, 1/3 lager, cider or beer and 1/3 wine. Twenty or thirty years ago to get liver disease from drinking wine was pretty unusual in the UK, it was something that happened in France, Spain or Italy. However many of us drink wine regularly now, and liver disease from drinking wine regularly is increasing. The threshold for liver disease is around 4 bottles a week, above this the incidence of liver disease goes up rapidly. It is also only a matter of time before we see cirrhosis from alcopops.

Everyone who drinks more than 4 or 5 units each day is likely to get what is called fatty infiltration of the liver.

You don't have to be old to get health damage, as I write this we have a 29 year girl on the ward with alcoholic cirrhosis. Our youngest patient so far with severe alcohol induced liver disease was 22 - and he very nearly died. It is unusual however to get serious liver disease at this age, it's more common in your late 30's, 40's and 50's.

Why does alcohol damage the liver?

As far as your body is concerned alcohol acts both as a food and a poison. For example 2 glasses of wine comes to around the same calories as a bag of chips.

If you drink too much alcohol it poisons your brain - as everyone is pretty well aware. One of the main jobs for your liver is to remove poisons and toxins and make them safe - as the liver does this with alcohol it is turned into another poison that damages the liver cells. Alcohol damages the liver when the toxins produced by drinking outstrip the defences against them - later in this article we will discuss how you can increase these defences. A strange thing about alcohol is that a single big dose doesn't really do the liver much harm. The problem lies when people drink too much over a long period of time - months or years.

Tolerance to alcohol

Alcohol is a drug. It is an addictive drug, like nicotine, heroin or cocaine. The withdrawal symptoms from severe alcohol dependence are at least as severe as those from heroin, and much more so than those from cocaine. Like these drugs people who drink too much develop something called tolerance. This means you need to take more of the drug to get the same 'buzz'.

With alcohol this tends to happen when you drink heavily and regularly. Western society is very familiar with tolerance, in fact is often highly praised as an ability to 'hold your drink'.

There is a very positive side to tolerance - if you are drinking too much, and you are starting to need more booze to get the same buzz it is a sign that you drinking too much. If you cut out the booze for a while - go on a detox for a few weeks, to use an increasingly popular term - then your tolerance will drop. You will need to drink much less to get the same 'buzz', and you will be very much healthier as a result - a win / win situation, for everyone except the drinks industry. If this scenario is familiar to you then you should read the section on alcohol dependence, and you should also check out the DRINKULATOR if you haven't already.

Alcohol dependency units have a different type of detox - they use drugs like valium to prevent the physical withdrawal effects of severe alcohol dependence. These effects include visual hallucinations, feelings of severe acute anxiety and fits. Acute alcohol withdrawal can be utterly terrifying, and can also be fatal if not properly treated.