Here in the UK, Dry January has become quite the event.
The campaign, run by charity Alcohol Concern, encourages participants to abstain from alcohol for the first month of the year; with the overall aim of increasing awareness of the health benefits associated with curbing overall alcohol intake.
The campaign is undoubtedly a valuable one with noble intentions; providing a communally practicable opportunity for participants to experience the health benefits of lowering alcohol intake for themselves.
However, adopting a strict teetotal lifestyle for a month can encourage some to ‘compensate’ by drinking more than is sensible come the first day of February (or indeed beforehand on the last day of December).
Staying off the booze for a month is an achievement which merits reward, but compensatory consumption after Dry January is over completely defeats the object of taking part in the first place.
Maintaining a healthier and more moderate attitude towards alcohol is crucial all-year round in order to feel the real benefits to health.
Fortunately, the alcohol industry is seemingly making adjustments to help drinkers consume fewer units. As well as increasing awareness through more informative labelling, a concerted effort has also been made to reduce the alcoholic content of the drinks themselves.
The Department of Health reports that in 2011, there were 52 billion units of alcohol released for consumption in the UK. In 2012, this number fell by 253 million.
This drop was reportedly in large part due to manufacturers lowering the alcoholic content of the products they made available; and this trend is one which has continued in the years that have followed.
Yet the fact remains that alcohol overuse is a serious problem for the NHS, and one which is in some respects increasing in scale, according to a report by Public Health England.
- For the year April 2013 to March 2014, there were 1,253 hospital admissions per 100,000 people related to alcohol just in England, compared to 1,040 per 100,000 in 2008/9.
- 374 hospital admissions per 100,000 in the same year (2013/4) were ‘alcohol-specific’ (this includes conditions such as alcoholic liver disease).
- It’s worth noting that male admissions were twice as prevalent as female admissions. For alcohol-related admissions, there were 1,715 per 100,000 males and 859 per 100,000 females.
- For the alcohol-specific indicator, there were 515 admissions per 100,000 males, and 241 admissions per 100,000 females.
- The most admitted age group for alcohol-related and -specific conditions was the 45-54s.
Short and long-term effects
Most of us will be familiar with how alcohol makes us feel in the hours following a heavy session, and aware of some of the more common illnesses which arise from a steady lifetime of consumption.
But just how much (or in fact little) do you need to drink before your body begins to act differently?
Let’s begin with what happens to your body while your alcohol session is in progress, and during the hours that follow.
As a point of reference, there are two units in one pint of lager, or a regular (175ml) glass of wine (12% abv).
(Please note that the following may vary, depending on your individual susceptibility to alcohol and other health factors.)
1-2 units: The first drink will often act as a muscle relaxant, and you may feel more confident in your immediate social situation.
4 units: You may feel your inhibitions lowering. It might also be more difficult to focus your attention in one place for long periods. Inside the body blood will start to move around faster.
6 units: This amount of consumption may noticeably affect decision-making, and put strain on liver function.
8 units: Emotional confusion and a drop in sexual capability may result. After this point a hangover the next day becomes much more likely.
10 units: Digestion problems may occur, leading to vomiting. The need to urinate and the likelihood of dehydration increases.
12 or more units: From this amount, the risk of alcohol poisoning becomes a potent one. Breathing problems may manifest too, and your heart may start to beat irregularly.
The risks associated with alcohol depend on your level of consumption. For some conditions, levels need to be considerable to pose a real risk; but for others, even a mild alcohol habit can be enough to increase susceptibility.
High Blood Pressure
The above-mentioned report from Public Health England stated that 1,049 of the 1,253 alcohol-related UK hospital admissions in 2013-14 were for cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure.
This particular condition can be a precursor to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.
ED related to alcohol consumption can be temporary or chronic in nature; while consuming a considerable amount can inhibit erectile potency within a matter of hours, habitual use can lead to blood flow irregularities and cause repeated episodes.
In one study of alcohol dependent men, over two-thirds were affected by erectile dysfunction.
There are several ways in which excessive alcohol use can induce a drop in the production of some blood cells (megaloblastic anaemia) and a rise in the premature disintegration of these (hypersplenism).
A study published in Alcohol Health and Research World stated that these were more likely to be encountered by those drinking ‘one pint or more of 80- to 90-proof alcohol (i.e. about 11 drinks) per day’ but that ‘alcohol-related hematological problems can occur at much lower consumption levels.’
Type 2 diabetes
Regina Castro M.D. writes for Mayo Clinic that some studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption (up to two drinks daily for persons aged 65 and under; and one daily for those above this age) can increase the effects of insulin in the body and lower the risk of diabetes.
However, the report notes that consuming any more than this increases the risk of diabetes developing.
Of those hospital admissions in England described above, 105 of the 1,253 per 100,000 were cases related to alcoholic liver disease. Cirrhosis becomes considerably more likely after 10 years or more of heavy drinking, but can occur sooner (particularly with excessive consumption).
Women tend to be more susceptible than men, and alcohol-related cirrhosis accounts for 37 percent of liver disease deaths.
Men consuming over 35 units per week and women drinking over 28 are at particularly increased risk of liver disease.
Those who drink beer regularly are thought to have a 20 percent increased risk of developing cancer over their lifetime. Those who consume even a modest number of units each day are thought to increase the risk of bowel cancer by around 23 percent, according to drinkaware.
A study which appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry stated that, ‘the use of alcohol acts to trigger genetic markers that increase the risk of depression.’ Depressive symptoms are thought to affect around 40 percent of those with a heavy alcohol habit.
Those who binge drink are thought to be at increased risk of developing dementia symptoms earlier. However, one study undertaken in 2012 suggested that even those who consume seven to 14 units per week (the equivalent of one to two units per day) are thought to be more at risk.
Drinkaware states that even the alcohol men and women consume in their late teens and early twenties can affect fertility in later life. Long term chronic abuse can cause the menstrual cycle to become disrupted and even bring ovulation to a halt; while for men, it can harm sperm motility and inhibit testosterone function.
Low risk levels
Until recently, the NHS would advise that women drink no more than 2-3 units per day and men no more than 3-4, as exceeding this would impose an increased risk of harming their health.
These levels have now been revised; the risk to health is said to be greater for those, men and women, regularly consuming more than 14 units per week. Those who do drink 14 units on a weekly basis are also advised to spread this out over three days or more.
Giving up alcohol for the month of January is a great way to kick off with a healthier attitude to drinking. But this alone is not a counteractive solution to the health risks posed by habitual overuse over the course of the other 11 months.
Apologies for springing on you the following, but in conclusion, I’m going to paraphrase a seasonal cliche, and that is:
Moderation is for life, not just for January.
(You can find out more about Dry January and healthy approaches to alcohol consumption by visiting Alcohol Concern.)