Happy New Year! Have you made any new year’s resolutions? It is that time of year when many people take stock of their lives and maybe take on new challenges for the upcoming 12 months. After a period of over indulgence in many aspects of our lives, we tend to think about a new year giving us the opportunity to change or do something usually healthier. I say healthy because we can eat and drink too much over Christmas period usually due to the parties and extra-large meals that we share with family and friends, and all those chocolates given as presents that we feel need to be eaten. It’s a time of year when we think its ok to eat and drink what we want, but come 1st January some of us have put on a few pounds, drank a little too much alcohol or maybe indulged elsewhere in our lives.
So do you think ‘New Year New You’…? But what does that mean. January is probably the most popular month to start a diet, start an exercise regime, stop smoking, stop drinking or cutting down on alcohol. Whether we like it or not we are inundated with adverts for all different types of diets, or health improvement programmes at the start of a new year. Maybe this is because we are most receptive to change at the beginning of a year? ‘Dry January’ involves stopping drinking alcohol for the whole of the month, ‘Veganuary’ means switching your diet to vegan for January. Because we usually have overindulged during December, these initiatives in January are probably not so hard to adopt. We think we will feel better. But do these initiatives help us improve our health and what happens when February arrives and we return to our normal eating and drinking habits?
This blog examines the effects of too much alcohol and the benefits of cutting down and even stopping. My next blog in January will be about adopting a vegan diet for January and discusses whether a longer term switch away from an animal based diet might improve your health.
How much alcohol is too much?
In 2018 the average Brit consumed approx. 26 units of alcohol on Christmas Day, with the nation collectively consuming six billion units of alcohol between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, according to a study discussed by Lauren Eads (The Drinks Business, 2018). According to Drinkaware almost two thirds of drinkers in the UK claim they drank too much over the festive period, with many stating that they over-drink because of the number of parties they are invited to, especially at New Year’s Eve, and feel pressured to drink whilst there (Drinkaware, 2019).
The health effects of consuming too much alcohol present in different forms. According to the UK Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the maximum units of alcohol consumed by adult males and females should not exceed 14 units per week, spread over the week. A unit of alcohol can vary according the strength of the drink. For example, one unit of a standard 13% ABV (alcohol by volume) wine is 76 ml. Usually the very smallest glass of wine that is served in a bar or restaurant is 125ml, so already this is more than one unit. One unit of a standard 4% ABV beer is 250ml – just under half a pint. So a full pint is more than two units of alcohol.
How too much alcohol consumption effects the body
The obvious effect of too much alcohol is immediate in that a person feels ‘drunk’ and maybe becomes incapable of being in control of their own behaviour. Feeling of sickness or being sick. The following day the feeling of being ‘hungover’ in terms of suffering from headache and dehydration. Usually the body is able to recover from too much alcohol within 24 hours and painkillers and rehydration with water helps with recovery.
However, this is not always the case, we are all different and our body’s may recover from so called ‘alcohol poisoning’ at different rates, and much of the damage to our body can be unseen and unfelt until it is too late. If a person is a regular drinker then they will be causing continued damage to their liver, which increasingly will become less efficient at repairing itself. According to the National End of Life Care Intelligence Network, alcohol is a major cause of the 25% increase in deaths from liver disease in England over the last decade from 2001 to 2009. Alcohol though doesn’t just effect the liver, it also has a negative effect on sleep quality, can cause weight gain as it is quite high in calories at 7 calories/g (almost as many as a gram of fat at 9 calories/g), can damage the stomach and gut lining, and can cause migraines. Alcohol is directly linked with increased risk of seven types of cancer (World Cancer Research Find, 2018).
Alcohol and mental health
People may use alcohol as a crutch to help them cope with anxiety, but according to Drinkaware (2017), consuming too much alcohol can increase the feelings of anxiety. Alcohol disrupts the chemicals and processes in the brain associated with inhibition, and causes the drinker to feel sedated and relaxed. However, these feelings quickly wear off meaning the person needs another drink to continue the feelings of relaxation. The more a person drinks the more tolerant they become to the effects of alcohol, so needs more to get the same effect. This can lead to dependence and further mental health issues such as bad mood and depression.
Alcohol and pregnancy
Drinking alcohol whilst pregnant can affect the unborn baby’s health. The CMO recommends that pregnant woman do not consume any alcohol at all during the pregnancy, and care should be taken whilst breastfeeding as a unit of alcohol can take approx. 2 hours to leave the mothers blood (Drinkaware, 2019). The risks to the unborn baby if the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy include miscarriage, stillbirth, and small birth weight.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that effects the baby’s central nervous system development such that as the infant grows up they experience neurological problems at different stages of development up to adulthood. The problems may a variety of conditions including learning disabilities, abnormal growth, distictive facial features, hearing and ear problems, liver damage and weak immune system (Drinkaware, 2019).
So ‘Dry January’ is potentially a good idea, not just for people who might drink regularly, but for others who might only consume small amounts of alcohol. But it could be argued that the biggest concern is; what happens when January is over? Do people go back to their old drinking habits, or will they drink less? Either way there is no doubt that although drinking alcoholic drinks can be pleasurable in moderation, it does damage the body and should be kept to the very minimum at all times. Although the CMO recommends no more than 14 units per week, consuming much less than this is healthier and decreases risk of developing many illnesses.
My next blog will discuss the pros and cons to our health of adopting a vegan diet for ‘Veganuary’ and maybe into the future.
Drinkaware (21 March 2017) Alcohol and Anxiety. Accessed on 10 Jan 20 at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-anxiety/
Drinkaware (2019). Foetal Alcohol Syndrome(FAS). Accessed 10 Jan 20 at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/fertility-and-pregnancy/foetal-alcohol-syndrome-fas/
Drinkaware (21 August 2019). Drinkaware: Drinkaware Monitor 2019. Drinking behaviours and peer pressure. Accessed online 10 Jan 20 at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/research/our-research-and-evaluation-reports/drinkaware-monitor-2019/
Eads, L. (21 December 2018). BRITONS TO CONSUME SIX BILLION UNITS OF ALCOHOL THIS CHRISTMAS. The Drinks Business. Accessed online 10 Jan 20 at: https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2018/12/britons-to-consume-six-billion-units-of-alcohol-this-christmas/
National End of Life Care Intelligence Network website. Deaths from Liver Disease: Implications for end of life care in England. Accessed online 10 Jan 20 at: http://www.endoflifecare-intelligence.org.uk/resources/publications/deaths_from_liver_disease.aspx
World Cancer Research Fund (19 Jul 2018). An inconvenient truth: alcohol and cancer, written by Catherine Gray. Accessed online 10 Jan 20 at: https://www.wcrf-uk.org/uk/blog/articles/2018/07/inconvenient-truth-alcohol-and-cancer