Alcohol and Risk: When Will Alcohol Start to Damage My Health?

28/01/2016 10:23 GMT | Updated 27/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Dry January is undoubtedly a valuable campaign. It provides an opportunity for participants to experience the advantages of lowering alcohol intake first-hand.

Despite the noble intentions of this campaign however, the concept of 'staying dry' for January is one which can be interpreted in a detrimental way after the 31-day window is over; with some potentially feeling the need to 'compensate' by drinking more than they should come February 1.

Remaining alcohol free for a month is an achievement, which deserves to be rewarded, but compensatory drinking is not what Dry January is trying to advocate.

A healthy attitude towards consumption (not necessarily total abstinence) is something which should be practiced during every month of the year to reap lasting health benefits.

Hospital admissions

Alcohol overuse is a serious problem in the UK.

• In England alone, for the year April 2013 to March 2014, there were 1,253 hospital admissions per 100,000 people related to alcohol.

• Also in England in 2013/4, there were 374 hospital admissions per 100,000 which were 'alcohol-specific'.

• The 45-54 age group had the highest prevalence of admissions wholly or partially attributable to alcohol.

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What are the risks?

Many will be familiar with some of the immediate effects of heavy use, but it may not be obvious to everyone just how much (or in fact little) you need to drink before your body begins to act differently:

(Reference point: there are two units in one pint of lager, or a 175ml glass of wine).

1-2 units: Muscles become relaxed.

4 units: Lower inhibitions. Difficulty focussing attention for long periods. Blood starts to move through the body faster.

6 units: Decision-making becomes affected. Strain on liver function.

8 units: Emotional confusion. Drop in sexual capability. A hangover becomes much more likely.

10 units: Digestion problems, potentially vomiting. Urinary frequency increases, and in turn the likelihood of dehydration.

12 or more units: Alcohol poisoning becomes a real risk. Breathing problems. Heartbeat may become irregular.

Long-term risks

Risk is dependent on consumption: for some conditions, levels need to be considerable to pose a real risk; but for others, even a mild alcohol habit can significantly raise susceptibility.

Hypertension

1,049 of the 1,253 alcohol-related UK hospital admissions in 2013-14 were for cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure. Hypertension can of course lead to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.

Erectile dysfunction

Alcohol-induced impotence can be either acute or chronic in nature; drinking considerable amounts can suppress erectile potency within hours, while a regular alcohol habit can induce blood flow problems which lead to repeated episodes. Chronic ED is thought to affect around two thirds of alcohol dependent men.

Type 2 diabetes

According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate alcohol use is thought to increase sensitivity to insulin and actually lower the risk of diabetes, but this is not true of heavy use, which increases the risk of this condition developing. The definition of 'moderate alcohol' in this respect is up to two drinks daily for persons aged 65 and under; and one daily for those over 65.

Liver disease

Of the above 1,253 hospital admissions per 100,000, 105 were linked to alcoholic liver disease. Cirrhosis becomes more likely after 10 years or more of heavy drinking. Men who drink over 35 units per week and women who drink over 28 are at particularly high risk.

Cancer

Regular beer drinkers have a 20% increased lifetime risk of developing cancer. Even drinking a limited number of units every day can increase the risk of bowel cancer by 23%.

Depression

Roughly 40% of heavy alcohol users will develop depression or a condition with similar symptoms. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 'the use of alcohol acts to trigger genetic markers that increase the risk of depression.'

Dementia

Binge drinkers are more at risk of developing dementia earlier, but even those who drink in moderation (seven to 14 units per week) are thought to be at increased risk according to an American study published in 2012.

Guideline amounts

In the UK, alcohol risk guidelines were recently revised; the risk to health is said to be greater for men and women drinking more than 14 units per week on a regular basis. Those who do drink this amount are advised to spread their consumption over at least a three day period.

For people looking to adopt healthier drinking habits in the New Year, abstaining for the month of January is a great way to start. But this alone is not enough to counter the health risks posed by habitual overuse during February to December

To paraphrase a well-worn cliche (apologies in advance): moderation is for life, not just for the new year.