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Alcohol awareness – are you aware of the risks?

Alcohol is linked to more than 60 different medical conditions – are your drinking habits damaging your health?

We look at the effect alcohol has on our health and how it can impact other aspects of our lives, such as our job and relationships.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BODY WHEN WE DRINK ALCOHOL?

Around 20% of the alcohol we drink is absorbed straight into the bloodstream through the stomach. The rest is absorbed into the blood at a slower rate through the small intestine.

Once in the blood, alcohol can move into nearly every tissue in the body. This is one of the reasons alcohol is linked to more than 60 different medical conditions [1].

Alcohol can also lower white blood cell count, which weakens the immune system. Around 90% of alcohol metabolism occurs in your liver, which is why of all the organs affected, the liver is particularly susceptible to alcohol-related injury.

WHAT IS A SAFE LEVEL OF ALCOHOL?

Our understanding of the harmful effects of alcohol continues to improve with more research. Previously, there was a view that moderate drinking provided some protective health benefits, but this evidence seems to be less strong than previously thought.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a safe drinking level. That’s because even small amounts of alcohol can cause adverse effects to the body. Many assume that only people who binge drink or drink way beyond the recommended limit develop liver problems, but this is not the case. Moderate lifestyle drinking over a prolonged period can be just as harmful to the body; it can be easy to lose count of the units you’ve consumed over the week.

The government recommends that adults should not regularly exceed 14 units a week —this is considered low-risk drinking. If you are following this advice, you should aim to spread your drinking over at least three days.

Did you know that adults aged 45-65 were more likely to exceed the weekly limits than younger adults aged 16-24? Up to 37% of men and 19% of women in this age bracket drank over 14 units of alcohol in a week in 2019 [2].

Knowing your units is important to calculate your weekly consumption.

A unit of alcohol is equivalent to:

  • half a pint of lower-strength lager, beer or cider (ABV 3.6%)
  • a single small shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)
  • half a glass of wine (76ml, 13% ABV)

HOW DOES ALCOHOL DAMAGE THE LIVER?

The liver is the largest internal organ and is responsible for many processes in the body, including removing toxins, fighting infections, and aiding digestion. Every time we drink alcohol, the liver filters it to break it down and remove it from the body.

Over time, high levels of alcohol can cause the accumulation of fat in the liver, which increases inflammation and causes scar tissue to form. This can eventually lead to the development of liver disease. Currently, alcohol is the most common cause of liver disease in the UK.

Liver disease doesn't usually cause any major signs or symptoms until it's advanced and the liver is badly damaged. Although the liver can develop new cells, prolonged alcohol consumption over many years can reduce its ability to regenerate, resulting in severe and permanent damage to the liver.

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to many liver conditions:

  • Fatty liver disease (steatosis)
  • Liver inflammation (hepatitis)
  • Acute alcoholic hepatitis
  • Irreversible liver scarring (cirrhosis)
  • Liver failure and death

Our Liver Blood Test is a comprehensive examination of liver enzymes such as alanine transferase (ALT), alanine phosphate (ALP), and gamma GT (GGT) which can be raised if the liver is damaged due to alcohol. This is a great choice for people who want to find out if their lifestyle is damaging their liver.

For a more comprehensive screen, our Advanced Well Man Blood Test and Advanced Well Woman Blood Test both include a liver screen along with an additional 40 biomarkers. These tests are useful to determine how your body may be affected by alcohol and give you the power to take control of your health.

WHAT OTHER EFFECTS CAN ALCOHOL HAVE ON THE BODY?

As well as damaging the liver, alcohol can cause lots of other problems in the body.

In the short term, alcohol can cause:

  • Injuries and violence – including drink driving, aggression and assault, crime
  • Alcohol poisoning – when a person drinks a toxic amount of alcohol, often during a binge
  • Risky sexual behaviour
  • Sleep disturbance – though alcohol may help some people fall asleep, it is more likely to cause disruptions to your sleep cycle by blocking REM sleep (an important restorative stage of sleep), interrupting your natural sleep-wake rhythm, its diuretic effect (multiple trips to the bathroom), and poor temperature control [3]

In the long term, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to:

  • Raised blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems
  • Increased risk of cancer – breast, mouth, throat, oesophagus, larynx, liver, colon, and rectum [1]
  • Weakened immune system – making you more prone to infection and illness
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Mental health problems including depression and anxiety

HOW CAN ALCOHOL AFFECT MY SOCIAL LIFE?

For many of us, having a drink is a way of socialising or unwinding after a busy day. However, this occasional habit can affect our relationships.

It has become an increasing concern over the pandemic, where many of us have turned to alcohol to deal with isolation and feelings of loneliness. Going back to normal ways of living has introduced new pressures, such as the pressure to drink socially and sober shaming.

Life at home

The social effects of alcohol are often felt most harshly in the home. Alcohol removes our inhibitions, which makes us feel more confident, but it can also make us more prone to unpredictable behaviour and doing things we may come to regret. It can lead to arguments and put a strain on family life.

If you find that you are frequently arguing with your partner when you are drunk, it could reveal underlying problems. Be aware that our actions can affect others in the household, including children, who learn about acceptable behaviours from a young age by copying their parents [4].

Alcohol and sex

Many people mistakenly believe that alcohol enhances sexual experiences, but over time, excess alcohol can put a dampener on your sex drive. For women, alcohol may lead to reduced lubrication or find it harder to have an orgasm [5], while men may have difficulties getting and maintaining an erection or reaching an orgasm. These problems are not just short-term; sustained alcohol abuse can lead to sexual dysfunction in later years [6].

Combining alcohol with sex can also result in risky sexual behaviour, especially with new partners, and increase your risk of sexually transmitted infections.

Drinking and the workplace

It might surprise you that most alcohol-related workplace incidents are not caused by heavy drinkers but moderate drinkers. People may attend work hungover, consume alcohol during the day, or be affected by health problems caused by alcohol.

Alcohol consumption makes up three to five percent of all work absences, and even small amounts of alcohol can impair concentration and affect work quality [7]. Drinking too much alcohol is also associated with higher rates of unemployment, resulting in financial strain.

Some risk factors make some employees more prone to drinking:

  • Shift work
  • Low job security
  • Changes or upheaval at work
  • Poor working conditions (hazardous, cramped, hot, underground, etc.)
  • Where drinking culture is seen as the norm

Employees in certain occupations are also more likely to become heavy drinkers, including lawyers, healthcare professionals, mining and construction workers, and people working in hospitality, arts and entertainment, management, real estate, finance and insurance, and education.

READY TO CHANGE THE WAY YOU DRINK?

Reducing the amount you drink can be difficult, especially if it’s become a well-ingrained habit or part of your social scene. But over time, it becomes harder to ignore the downsides of drinking: how it affects our health and behaviour, our weight, and how we feel the next day.

Whether you’re looking to cut back or go alcohol-free, it might just be one of the best things you do for your health.

Here are some ways you can drink more safely:

  • Consider switching to alcohol-free or lower strength alternatives – Many establishments stock a wide variety of mocktails and alcohol-free beers and wines that you can enjoy without feeling rough the next day.
  • Alternate between alcohol and water or soft drinks – Pacing yourself gives your body more time to break down the alcohol.
  • Have your drink with a meal – Food slows down the rate at which you absorb alcohol.
  • Stay within the low-risk guidelines – Limiting yourself to 14 units per week can minimise the harmful effects of alcohol.
  • Plan drink-free days – Sharing your plan with someone else can help you stick to your goal.

Alcohol Change UK has a self-assessment tool for you to check if your drinking habits are putting your health at risk.

They have also created a useful app, TryDry, that allows you to set realistic goals to reduce your drinking and track your alcohol intake over time. It is not always obvious for people who drink moderately. This can be a good way to make sure you are not exceeding the weekly limit.

Organisations and charities can help you if you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking habits. The NHS provides a comprehensive list.

DISTILLING IT DOWN

Alcohol can be an enjoyable part of life for many. But, as with most things, it is best appreciated in moderation. Many of us don’t realise how much we are drinking or that even drinking small amounts regularly can be harmful. Being aware of your drinking habits and understanding the health risks associated with alcohol is one of the first steps in making change.

If you are struggling with your drinking, first know that there is no shame in this. Recognising it as an issue is already a big accomplishment. Tackling it alone can be tricky, but helplines can offer you non-judgmental advice and ways to bring you back on track.

RELEVANT TESTS

Liver Blood Test – this simple finger-prick test includes important liver biomarkers such as ALP, ALT and GGT, which can be raised in people who drink too much alcohol over time.

Advanced Well Man Blood Test and Advanced Well Woman Blood Test – a more comprehensive finger-prick blood test that includes a full liver screen as well as kidney health, cholesterol status, diabetes check, nutritional markers and hormones.


References

  1. Alcohol Change UK. 2021. Alcohol statistics | Alcohol Change UK. [online] Available at: <https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-statistics> [Accessed 12 October 2021].
  2. Zambon, N., 2021. Alcohol Statistics: England. [online] House of Commons Library. Available at: <https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7626/CBP-7626.pdf> [Accessed 13 October 2021].
  3. Drink Aware. 2021. Alcohol and sleep. [online] Available at: <https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/effects-on-the-body/alcohol-and-sleep> [Accessed 13 October 2021].
  4. Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.
  5. Drink Aware. 2021. Is alcohol affecting your sex life?. [online] Available at: <https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/how-alcohol-affects-relationships/is-alcohol-affecting-your-sex-life> [Accessed 13 October 2021].
  6. Benegal, V. and Arackal, B., 2007. Prevalence of sexual dysfunction in male subjects with alcohol dependence. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(2), p.109.
  7. Alcohol Change UK. 2021. Alcohol in the workplace | Alcohol Change UK. [online] Available at: <https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-in-the-workplace> [Accessed 13 October 2021].