When should we worry about the level of our own – or somebody else’s – alcohol intake?
Recent, lower recommendations for alcohol consumption have had a mixed reaction as alcohol in moderation does have some positive effects.
It can relax, de-stress and make us more sociable, and small amounts may even have health benefits, such as reducing women’s heart attack risks.
But we can slip from ‘low risk’ to hazardous, harmful or problem drinking almost without noticing, so the Chief Medical Officer has produced new weekly guidelines for people who drink regularly or frequently.
Apart from the unpleasant effects of a hangover (sweating, palpitations, headache, nausea, lethargy and muscle aching from chemicals/toxins as our livers metabolise the alcohol), we are more likely to have an accident or even die if we drink too much.
We may also become verbally or physically aggressive, break the law, embarrass ourselves on social media or damage our relationships.
Our skin becomes red and puffy, and alcohol calories may make us gain weight or eat unhealthily.
We also become prone to many serious diseases, although they take years to develop.
Even lower alcohol intakes are linked to many cancers, including mouth, throat, breast and gullet (drinking at the new guideline level increases breast cancer risks by 16%) and higher levels increase bowel and liver cancers.
Drinking too much is also linked to abnormal heart rhythms, such as atrial fibrillation, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, bone-thinning osteoporosis, epileptic fits, as well as liver cirrhosis or failure, and acute/chronic pancreatitis.
Signs that someone is drinking too much
You may notice that they (or you) are regularly drinking more than the guidelines – for example, every day, earlier in the day, ‘extras’ between rounds, or binge drinking – even if they don’t seem to get hangovers.
They may appear depressed (a common cause and effect of drinking too much), irritable/anxious, sleep poorly, go off sex, have accidents, neglect themselves and responsibilities, drink-drive, or develop money, work or relationship problems.
But they may get angry if asked or criticised about their drinking, feel guilty, hide the empties, or make repeated attempts to cut down. They may also be misusing painkillers, antidepressants or illegal drugs.
Getting help with problem drinking
The most important step is to admit there’s an issue – you can change yourself but you can’t change other people.
Keeping a drinking diary can reveal how much you’re drinking, when, and what factors affect it; you can track how many units (and calories) different drinks contain at drinkaware.co.uk
You can get help and support from your GP, who can carry out physical checks, help you with mental health problems and/or refer you to local alcohol support services.
And try, try, try again – giving up often takes more than one attempt, so don’t despair if you’ve already tried and ‘failed’.
4 new weekly guidelines
1. It’s safest for women and men not to drink more than 14 units regularly per week, to lower the health risks.
2. If you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it’s best to spread this evenly over three days or more. One or two heavy drinking sessions per week increase your risks of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries.
3. The risk of developing a range of illnesses (for example, breast cancer) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis.
4. If you want to cut down, a good way to help achieve this is to have a number of drink-free days each week.