Alcohol awareness

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With the party season now well underway, many of us may be consuming more alcohol than usual.

Whilst it's important to have fun with our colleagues, friends and family, alcohol can be very damaging to our health if we consume it beyond safe limits, and it can be easy to underestimate how much we are drinking, particularly at this time of year.

Dr Sally Harris, from The Wilmslow Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, talks about the health implications of drinking beyond safe limits and ways to reduce your alcohol intake.

As a GP, I often have to ask patients the question that I know many of them dread - ‘how much alcohol do you take’, and I’m not always convinced patients are completely honest in their response, or that they are actually aware of how much they are drinking.

It can be easy to underestimate or lose track of your alcohol intake but knowing your units can help you stay in control of your drinking and protect your health.

Units and guidelines

Drinking alcohol is very common in the UK, over half the population drink. If that includes you, are you drinking within safe limits or drinking more than you realise? The idea of counting alcohol units was first introduced in the UK in 1987 to help people keep track of their drinking.

To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level if you drink most weeks, the NHS guidelines say that:

  • Men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
  • Spread your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week
  • If you want to cut down, try to have several drink-free days each week

Fourteen units is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.

Thinking of quitting, or cutting down?

Giving up alcohol completely or reducing your alcohol intake can be challenging – especially if you’ve been a heavy drinker in the past, but there are so many short-term and long-term benefits of reducing your alcohol intake.

When you cut out alcohol completely or begin cutting down, you will notice a number of improvements to the way you look and feel. Among other things, you might find you have more energy, that you’re sleeping better, or that you’ve lost a bit of weight.

If you want to experience the positive benefits of drinking less, a good way is to try having alcohol-free days. Just a few days off a week could be enough to help you see the positive benefits, so you’ll be more likely to reduce your drinking over a longer period of time.

It’s important that if you are thinking about quitting alcohol altogether, but believe you may have a serious drinking problem, or are experiencing the symptoms of alcohol dependence, you should consult your doctor or another medical professional about it as soon as you can. It can be dangerous to stop drinking too quickly without proper support if you were drinking heavily before.

Alcohol-related diseases

In the longer term, quitting alcohol or reducing your intake, can have a significant impact on your long-term health, reducing your risk of cancer and other alcohol-related diseases.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of 7 different types of cancer. This includes:

  • Breast and bowel cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Some types of throat cancer: oesophagus (food pipe), larynx (voice box), and pharynx (upper throat)
  • Liver cancer

Alcohol and breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and drinking alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer. The risk increases even at low levels of drinking.

What’s your individual risk?

If you drink alcohol, you’re more likely to get cancer than somebody who doesn’t drink alcohol. But drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get cancer. Your individual risk will depend on lots of factors, including things you can’t change such as your age and genetics.

Even a small amount of alcohol can increase your risk, so the more you can cut down the more you can reduce your risk. Drinking less alcohol has lots of other benefits too. You can reduce your risk of high blood pressure and liver disease by cutting back.

If you think you might be drinking too much, you can start by talking to your doctor. You can also call Drinkline, the free national alcohol helpline, in complete confidence.

Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1100 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).