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Health

Alcohol: How much is too much?

25 November 2019 in Health

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An alcoholic drink every now and then is unlikely to harm your health, but drinking excessively can have negative consequences.

If you drink regularly you may not realise how many units you’re actually drinking or what the limits are.

This article will give you guidance on how much you should drink, what happens when you drink and how to cut down.

How much should you drink?

Guidelines on how much alcohol you should drink tend to vary from country to country, but in the UK, men and women are advised to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week. A unit of alcohol is the same as a single shot of spirits, half a standard 175ml glass of wine or half a can of beer, lager or cider.

Aim to have several alcohol-free days a week (minimum). If you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol altogether. If you have a medical condition or take certain medications, speak to a doctor about whether or not it’s safe for you to drink alcohol.

The following questionnaire can help you understand if your drinking habits should be brought to the attention of a medical professional.

Answer yes or no to the following questions.

  1. Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people annoyed you by criticising your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you answered yes to 2 or more questions, see a doctor. They can offer advice as to whether you may benefit from making changes to your drinking habits.

How does alcohol affect your liver?

When you drink a lot of alcohol over a long period of time, it damages your liver, causing:

  • fat to build up in your liver cells (fatty liver) - this can happen within weeks, but can be reversed if you stop drinking
  • inflammation - this can be mild in its early stages and severe later on
  • scarring (fibrosis) - this takes years to develop. When the scarring spreads through all of your liver, it causes cirrhosis

The more alcohol you drink and the longer you drink for, the more likely you are to get liver damage.

While it may seem like everyone around you is drinking without a problem, this isn’t strictly true. In fact, studies show that between 1995 and 2013 the number of 15 to 34-year-olds with alcohol-related liver disease tripled, so be mindful about how much you’re drinking.

How does alcohol affect your brain?

We know that too much alcohol is bad for the liver, but alcohol can also have a negative impact on the brain. It can cause chemical changes in the brain, which can affect our thoughts, feelings and actions. This is why a drink can help you to feel more confident and relaxed, but it can also make some people feel angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed, especially if they continue to drink.

If you drink a lot for many years, alcohol can interfere with ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain, contributing to feelings of depression and anxiety. But that’s not all. Regular heavy drinking can lead to long-term memory problems, even when you’re sober. To prevent this, keep track of how many units of alcohol you drink and try not to go over the recommended limit.

And if you think alcohol may be affecting your mood, try to cut down the amount you drink and track how you feel.

How to cut down

If you want to cut down the amount of alcohol you drink but don’t know where to start, these tips may help.

  1. Decide what your alcohol limit will be each week and stick to it.
  2. If you’re going out for drinks, take a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol.
  3. Tell friends and family you’re trying to drink less alcohol so they can support you.
  4. Focus on cutting back a little each day, even if it’s only a small amount.
  5. Ask for a small glass of wine rather than a large one, or have a half pint instead of a pint.
  6. Pick lower-strength alcohol (you can compare the volume of alcohol a drink contains by looking at the volume % on the drink label).
  7. Try and have a few days each week when you don’t drink.

If you regularly drink a lot of alcohol or tend to drink more than the recommended weekly limit, to suddenly reduce your alcohol intake may be dangerous. See a doctor for advice on how to cut down on alcohol safely.

You may find the following resources useful for managing your alcohol habits:

Drinkaware Ask about alcohol NHS alcohol support

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.