From a quick pint of beer to a glass of wine with dinner, alcohol plays a role in many people’s lives.
In fact, statistics released by the Office of National Statistics suggest that approximately 57% of British people over 16 years of age drink alcohol.
While it is generally fine to have a drink from time to time, it’s important to understand that drinking too much can have a serious impact on your mental and physical health.
Unfortunately, binge drinking (or occasionally drinking very large amounts in a short space of time) has become an increasingly common problem around the world.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse, in 2015 nearly one third of American adults reported binge drinking at some point in the past month.
This type of behaviour is dangerous as it can lead to both alcohol addiction and the regular misuse of alcohol.
Regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol is also linked to a number of life-threatening diseases, including heart disease and breast cancer.
Even in the case of moderate drinking there is evidence to suggest it could be beneficial to lower the amount you drink.
According to the NHS, any amount of regular drinking increases the risk to your health. You are considered a regular drinker if you consume alcohol most weeks.
In contrast, there are a number of short and long term benefits associated with cutting back on your drinking, from making you less tired to improving your immune system.
The most effective way to avoid the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption is to not drink at all; but if you do want to drink from time to time then it’s best to keep track of how much alcohol you consume and to try to cut down as much as possible.
In the UK, the month-long Go Sober for October campaign is a great opportunity to stop or reduce your drinking.
By trying to cut down for a month, you can get in the habit of drinking less during the rest of the year.
Your friends and family can also join in, which can help make the process easier.
Even if you do not live in the UK, you could still try something similar with your friends and family.
Keep reading to learn more about how much you should be drinking, the signs that you may be drinking too much, the effects of excessive drinking, and the benefits of cutting down.
How much alcohol is too much?
Alcohol misuse is when you are drinking more than the lower risk limit for alcohol consumption. If you choose to drink, it is important that you are aware of the recommended limits so that you can avoid alcohol misuse.
Alcohol consumption is measured in ‘units’.
Units are a way of expressing the amount of pure alcohol in a drink which allow us to compare different types, sizes and strengths of different alcoholic drinks.
A single unit of alcohol is 10ml of pure alcohol. There is about one unit of alcohol in:
- Half a pint of lower/ normal strength beer/ lager/ cider (ABV 3.6%)
- A single small shot measure of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)
- A small glass of wine contains around 1.5 units of alcohol (125ml)
Alcohol misuse and dependent drinking
If someone has an excessive desire to drink - to the point where they struggle to control themselves - it is classified as dependent drinking.
Alcohol is an extremely addictive drug and alcohol abuse can be damaging for you and those around you.
The more you drink and the longer you drink for, the higher your chances of becoming dependent on alcohol.
The negative impact dependent drinking can have on an individual’s life and relationships is often difficult for them to accept, or even recognise, due to the influence of the addiction.
If you become severely dependent on alcohol, you may be able to tolerate very high levels that would usually be dangerous to some people.
Dependent drinkers often experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly cut down or stop drinking.
Possible symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Hand tremors (shaking hands)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Excessive sweating
- Visual hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there)
- Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
Other signs of alcohol misuse
If you have had negative feelings about your drinking or others around you have expressed concern, this might also be a sign that you are drinking too much alcohol.
You should consider the possibility that you are drinking too much alcohol if:
- You feel your drinking is causing you problems
- Other people have asked you about your drinking
- Your drinking makes you feel guilty
- You need to drink first thing in the morning to calm your nerves or relieve the symptoms of a hangover
It might be a sign that someone around you is drinking too much alcohol if they:
- Regularly exceed the lower daily limit of alcohol
- Are sometimes unable to remember what happened the night before because of drinking
- Fail to meet expectations because of their drinking (like missing an appointment or work because they are drunk or hungover)
If you feel you are addicted and do not have control over your drinking, you should seek help from a doctor, a counselor, or someone you can talk to like a family member.
Alcohol abuse is very common, but it is also treatable. There are many organisations that can provide help, some of which can be contacted through our OneStop Health feature.
If you’re in the UK, you could also try a counselling or therapy app like CCBT. This helpful program provides 24/7 accesses to evidence-based, cognitive therapy courses designed to reduce problem drinking.
The risks of alcohol misuse
Drinking alcohol can have numerous effects on your body and your mind.
The liver filters alcohol out of your body and typically takes about an hour to remove one unit of alcohol.
The more alcohol you drink over a short space of time, the more noticable the effect, as your liver will struggle to filter out all of the excess alcohol quickly enough.
People who drink large amounts regularly can often drink more before the effects become noticeable, compared to someone with a normal tolerance for alcohol.
Short term effects
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication with the body. This effect can cause a change in mood and behaviour and make it harder to make good decisions or to move and react properly.
These effects typically become apparent after about 4 to 6 units of alcohol in someone with a normal tolerance level.
At 8 to 9 units, these effects will become more noticeable and you may also start to slur and have difficulty focusing on what you are seeing. A hangover the next morning is also quite likely at this point.
Around 10 to 12 units of alcohol is close to a toxic (poisonous) amount and your body will attempt to flush the alcohol out through your urine. This will make you very dehydrated in the morning, which can lead to a severe headache.
You may also experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea as the excess alcohol can upset your digestion.
Other effects like loss of coordination and slower reaction times will put you at a high risk of injury to yourself and others.
Anything more than 12 units of alcohol puts you at a very high risk of alcohol poisoning. The liver is no longer able to filter out the alcohol quickly enough to prevent damage to the body’s automatic functions.
Your breathing, heart rate and/or gag reflex (which stops you from choking) may be impaired. Alcohol poisoning can also cause an individual to fall into a coma which may lead to their death.
Long term effects
It’s important to remember that, like any drug, alcohol can also affect your health in the long term.
Drinking large amounts over a long period of time can have a serious impact on your body.
Your organs, specifically your brain, nervous system, liver and pancreas, are known to be damaged by long term alcohol misuse.
You may also see a rise in your blood pressure and cholesterol, which can increase your risks of heart attacks and stroke.
Your immune system can also be weakened by too much drinking and you will be at higher risk of developing serious infections.
Your bones can also be weakened and you may break or fracture them more easily.
There are also a number of serious medical conditions associated with excessive long term drinking. These can develop after 10–20 years of excessive drinking and include:
In the short term, alcohol misuse can make you less coordinated, slower to react and more likely to engage in risky behaviour, putting you at risk of things like:
- Accidents and injury
- Violence and antisocial behaviour
- Unsafe sex (which can lead to unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, or STIs)
- Loss of personal possessions
- Interference with work or college
Long-term alcohol misuse can also lead to various social issues, including:
- Family difficulties or divorce
- Domestic abuse
- Financial problems
It is also recommended that you avoid alcohol when you are pregnant as alcohol passes from your blood to the baby through the placenta.
Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can and too much alcohol can seriously affect its development.
The more you drink, the higher the risk of lasting damage to your child.
You can find out more information about alcohol and pregnancy on the NHS website.
The benefits of drinking less alcohol
Cutting down on your drinking can have many positive effects, both in the short and long term.
In the short term for example, it may help you control your weight better.
This is because alcoholic drinks contain calories. A standard glass of wine can contain as many calories as a piece of chocolate.
Other ways you may notice your health improve after cutting back on drinking include:
- Feeling more refreshed in the morning
- Feeling less tired throughout the day
- Feeling more energetic
- Your skin may start to look better
There are also a numerous long-term health benefits you can enjoy if you regularly cut back on alcohol, on top of reducing your risk of illnesses caused by long-term heavy drinking like liver or heart disease.
Cutting back on alcohol may help you improve your mood if you often feel anxious or low.
Strong links have been made between heavy drinking and depression.
Feeling unwell from hangovers can also make you low, so avoiding these may help improve your overall mood.
Drinking can interrupt your sleep patterns and stop you from getting enough deep sleep, despite making some people fall asleep faster.
Once you cut back, you may start to feel more rested and energetic, which in turn can put you in a better mood.
You may also find it easier to concentrate, which can help you perform better at work or college.
Drinking heavily can have a negative effect on your judgement and the way you behave.
Some individuals can be irrational or violent when drunk. Some may also experience memory loss from drinking too much.
Cutting back can help reduce such instances.
Drinking too much can lead to a serious condition where your heart swells up.
You cannot reverse this change, but quitting drinking can stop it from becoming worse.
You may also notice you are getting sick less often as your immune system may become stronger.
This is because drinking can make your immune system less effective.
Alcohol irritates the stomach and makes it produce more acid. This can cause the lining to swell.
By cutting down, you may also experience less diarrhoea or indigestion.
Tips for reducing your alcohol intake
Whether you are an excessive or moderate drinker, if you are drinking more than 14 units per week, there are a number of benefits to reducing your alcohol intake.
Here are some steps you can take to make sure you are successful in cutting back:
- Set a limit on how much you will drink in one sitting
- Set a limit as to how much you will spend on drink
- Ask family and friends for support
- Cut back a little bit everyday
- Go for the same drink in a smaller size
- Have a weaker drink
- Try swapping for alcohol free drinks
- Stay hydrated by drinking water alongside alcohol
- Have several drink free days a week
In both of these campaigns, you stop drinking alcohol for one month.
This is beneficial as it can be easier to stop drinking if the people around you are doing the same.
The good habits that you develop throughout the month can also help you cut back on alcohol during the rest of the year.
At the same time, you can raise money for charity and improve your health in the long term.
It is perfectly normal to want to enjoy a drink every now and again. Even so, it is easy to forget the recommended limits and this can result in short as well as long term damage to your health and wellbeing.
It is important to be aware of how much you are regularly drinking and the effect this can have so you can limit your risk of alcohol related harm.
There are many opportunities, as well as benefits to cutting down on how much you drink, even if you only try it for a month-long event like Go Sober for October. This can help you feel much happier and healthier in the long run.