Alcohol consumption is considered a Halloween tradition by many people. But how can consuming too much in too short a space of time affect our bodies?
We decided to take a look at this in more detail, and put together our very own Halloween alcohol monster to demonstrate the scary effects of alcohol on our organs and bodily functions.
The scary effects alcohol has on the body
“Firstly, it’s important not to exceed the recommended amount of alcohol.” comments GP clinical lead Dr Daniel Atkinson, “no more than 14 units of alcohol should be consumed a week. Ideally, nobody should be consuming more than 3-4 units on Halloween night.
However, data shows that any amount of alcohol consumption comes with risks. There is no ‘safe’ amount to aim for. 14 units a week is merely a lower-risk recommendation.
If someone were to consistently exceed these amounts, then this could impact on a person’s health in several ways. Physically, long term alcohol abuse may damage the liver, the heart and raise blood pressure.
Psychologically, those who drink are usually more likely to have mental health problems. In the short-term, drinking too much can cause people to become less inhibited and act more impulsively. This can be dangerous.”
How do different types of alcohol affect the body?
As Daniel pointed out, any amount of alcohol consumption is risky. Simply, the more a person drinks, the more at risk they are.
However, different types of alcohol may impact people and their health in different ways.
What happens when you drink any type of alcohol
Whatever type of drink you have, alcohol will impact the body and mind in several ways. The liver is responsible for detoxification. However, it can only do this at a steady rate of around one alcoholic unit per hour.
Anything in excess of this will simply circulate around in the blood stream until the liver catches up. This is why the effects of drunkenness can last for several hours. If it’s in the blood, then it’s also in the brain.
The brain is made up of several regions, all with different functions and capabilities. This is why the effects of drunkenness can vary. Commonly, people will probably notice slurred speech, decreased coordination and mobility skills, less control of impulses and inhibitions and a spike in emotional responses.
The breath will begin to smell of alcohol because it is present in the lungs and airways. Excessive consumption may result in inflammation in these areas.
Drinking upsets the stomach because it causes it to produce too much acid. This can result in vomiting and diarrhoea.
As well as this, sustained alcohol abuse can increase the risk of heart problems such as cardiovascular disease. It can cause the immune system to become weakened and make people more susceptible to long-term illness. It may also interfere with fertility and cause male impotence.
Why you’ll want to avoid spirits (and fizzy mixers) this Halloween
Spirits, such as vodka or gin, contain higher amounts of alcohol. This usually ranges from between 37.5 and 42.5% ABV. People can consume smaller volumes of spirits and still feel the same effects were they to drink several pints of beer.
Spirits can be particularly dangerous when mixed with non-alcoholic fizzy drinks, such as lemonade, or if they’re used to make cocktails. Mixers are sometimes used to detract from the sharp or bitter taste of spirits, but this can make it easy to drink them quickly and lose track of how many you have had.
These types of drinks, carbonated pop and fruit juices, also contain a lot of sugar. This is a health risk in itself. If you regularly drink fizzy, sugary drinks, alcohol or not, then you may be at risk in several other ways.
“If you’re concerned about your sugar intake,” says Daniel, “it’s important to differentiate between ‘free sugars’ and ‘natural sugar.’ Free sugar is defined as any sugar added to a drink or product in the creation process. This includes fizzy drinks, as well as biscuits, cereals and flavoured yoghurts. Fruit juices, smoothies, honeys and syrups, where sugar content is high but naturally-occuring, also count as free sugars.
Adults should consume no more than 30g of free sugars a day. If it’s Halloween, and you’re surrounded by sugary sweets and sweet alcoholic drinks - this can easily be exceeded. So it’s important to be careful.”
Excessive sugar intake over a long period of time can contribute towards weight gain, increase the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Too much sugar can seriously damage the oral ecosystem and bring about severe tooth decay.
“It’s vital not to forget,” says Superintendent Pharmacist Sanjeda Chowdbury at Treated.com, “that there are a number of medicinal treatments that alcohol may interfere with. Some medications for common conditions such as allergies, seizures, epilepsy, angina, arthritis, high cholesterol, heartburn, high blood pressure and diabetes may be of particular concern.
It would be impossible to list all medications that do not interact well with alcohol. My advice would be, if you’re currently taking any medication to check the patient information leaflet before you drink. Alcohol can detract from the effectiveness of medication, or bring about a number of adverse side effects.”
Red wine: should you be afraid?
“Red wine can sometimes seem a bit like Jekyll and Hyde,” comments Daniel. “I say this because it is often portrayed in the media as having certain health benefits. However, the reality is - any alcohol is bad for you. The risk is the same regardless of what you are drinking - alcohol doesn’t differentiate.”
Clinical studies into the health benefits of red wine are limited, and focus on very moderate consumption. There is a compound called resveratrol which is found in the skin of grapes. Studies carried out on mice have shown that this compound may reduce the effects of ageing, although no trials have been conducted at human level.
On the subject of resveratrol, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University said that “at low doses, resveratrol [does] help regeneration. However, if the dose is higher, it doesn't mitigate ageing from oxidative stress and even hampers the repair cycle.”
There are also arguments that one glass of red wine may dilate the blood vessels and increase blood flow, which may be of benefit to the heart. However, while it appears a study found in favour of this - it was only executed using 13 volunteers. This may not be representative of the broader population.
“All I would say about these claims is let’s wait for more compelling evidence. Even so, these arguments are only made based on moderate consumption; it doesn’t legitimise or excuse alcohol abuse. With so many conflicting reports, it’s much safer at this point to approach red wine in the same way we would any other alcoholic drink - with caution and concern for our health” concludes Daniel.
However, red wine may also come with specific health risks. Firstly, if consumed regularly, it has the potential to stain the teeth. This is because our teeth are made up of tiny grooves and irregularities.
Red wine is also among some of the more calorific of alcoholic drinks. On average, a 750ml bottle of wine contains around 600 calories. If you share a bottle or two with friends, these calories can quickly add up.
On average, adults should consume around 2500 and 2000 calories per day - for men and women respectively. If you’re drinking a lot of red wine this Halloween, this could easily put a huge dent in your daily intake without even thinking about food.
Ale, lager and beer
Beer and ale are among some of the oldest alcoholic drinks in the world. There was once a time when beer was safer to drink than water. This was because water was unfiltered and full of harmful bacteria, whereas the boiling process in brewing ensured harmful bacteria was eradicated.
Thankfully, drinking water is now much safer. But drinking too much beer isn’t. Beer and lager contain alcohol, and so any risk associated with alcohol consumption in general is present when drinking them.
But beer may be specifically less healthy in other ways too. Many types of beer, namely lager, are carbonated. This means that carbon dioxide (CO2) is dissolved into the liquid. This is what causes bubbles to appear.
However, there are some concerns about carbonated drinks because of their acidity levels. “Consuming too many acidic foods and drinks can be dangerous,” says Daniel, “it can interfere with the urine and cause a type of kidney stone, called uric acid stones, to develop.”
Another problem with highly carbonated drinks, such as lager, is that they cause us to feel full until we pass wind. If people are drinking pints of beer consistently in a sitting, the feeling of fullness will last. This may interfere with people’s eating habits because it won’t feel as if it’s time to eat a meal. People may even forget to eat because they’re ‘full on bubbles’.
“This is also likely one of the reasons that the journey home seems like the perfect time to grab a kebab, because we’ve given our bodies ample time to expel any build-up of gas - often found in drinks like lager.” Daniel adds.