I know I’m playing fast and loose with carol lyrics here but now that the festive period is once again upon us (dare I predict a lock down-free Christmas?) there will be corks a-popping, fizz a-flowing and partying like it’s 1999, writes Dr Julia Sen.
Why do so many of us associate drinking alcohol with having fun?
Twenty-first century life can be stressful. Sipping on that first cocktail stimulates the brain to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) which produces a feeling of reward and wellbeing. In a social situation, this may help us to let go of niggling anxieties, boost self-confidence and enjoy being in the moment. All good….so far. So why not have another? Increasing the dose of this neuroactive drug (because that’s what it is) will start to have other less desirable effects on our minds and bodies, manifesting in reduced control over our speech, movement, rational decision-making and inhibitions. This can result in accidents and behaviour that is anything from mildly embarrassing to anti-social or outright dangerous.
How dangerous is alcohol?
Alcohol (ethanol to be precise) is a poison. It’s thought that around 10 million years ago our pre-human ancestors developed a genetic mutation allowing their livers to detoxify it, making rotting fruit safe to eat, thereby giving them a survival advantage. However, despite our liver’s best efforts there are still detrimental effects of alcohol as it circulates around our bodies. Last year 7,423 deaths were attributed to alcohol misuse in England and Wales – a shocking 20% increase from Covid-free 2019. Pubs and restaurants were closed for much of that time and drinking at home became the norm for many. Whether feeling stressed and uncertain about the future, or simply having too much time on their hands, the opportunity and temptation to reach for that bottle of Pinot in the fridge led for some, to significantly increased consumption.
Acute alcohol toxicity, a.k.a. being 2 sheets to the wind, results in dehydration, sleep disturbance, low mood, poor concentration and memory problems, a.k.a. the hangover. Longterm overconsumption increases the risks of cardiovascular and liver disease, stomach ulcers, cancers of the mouth, throat, breast, stomach and liver, depression, stroke, dementia and osteoporosis. Yikes!
Also, let’s not forget – it’s not just the consumers themselves who are affected. The UK has the dubious honour of having the 4th highest prevalence of drinking in pregnancy; since alcohol crosses the placenta, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) a congenital condition resulting in problems including stunted growth, learning difficulties and behavioural problems, is thought to affect up to a staggering 17% of our children. The risk is highest in the first trimester of pregnancy when the mother may not even be aware she is pregnant. In other worrying statistics, the 2017/18 Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that in 39% of violent incidents the victim believed the perpetrator to be under the influence and 7,800 people were killed or injured in road traffic accidents where at least one driver was over the legal limit in 2019, according to the government’s national statistics.
What is a safe amount of alcohol?
Whilst current UK guidelines state a maximum of 14 units per week for both men and women, it remains a highly contentious issue. Gender, age, race, and body composition all influence what a safe level is likely to be for each of us as individuals. There is some evidence that a moderate amount of alcohol, has beneficial effects on cardiovascular wellbeing. Red wine in particular, due to the presence of the antioxidant, resveratrol, is often cited as a healthy choice, however overindulging on red wine will not only lead you to regret it in the morning (the pigments in red wine and dark liquors such as brandy and rum, contain high levels of hangover-inducing congeners) you still increase the risk of developing one or more of the plethora of nasties described above. Sorry.
How to enjoy alcohol responsibly
1) Avoid bingeing. Try to drink your quota in small quantities over the week, rather than all at once. Having a glass of wine with a meal, for example is healthier and much more sociable than a massive binge on a Saturday night.
2) Hydration. Drink lots of non-alcoholic liquids, ideally water, before and during the time you are consuming alcohol to combat its diuretic effects. An oral rehydration salt therapy, such as Dioralyte before you go to bed can also be helpful to maintain an optimal fluid balance if you’ve had one too many.
3) Soakage. Alcohol is quickly absorbed in the stomach, so having food to intercept it, slows
this down considerably.
4) Quality. Clear spirits and white wine contain fewer congeners and are less likely to give you a
hangover. Avoid mixing drinks – it’s a recipe for disaster.
5) Quantity. Try to set a maximum limit on how much you intend to drink before you start and
consider sharing that plan with someone who will be there. N.B. If you do this and they stick to
their side of the bargain, don’t wave them away with an insulting jibe about how boring they are
or you may find yourself drunk and alone!
6) Safety. Remain sober enough that you don’t place yourself at risk. If you are out, stay close to
people you trust and be alert to your surroundings and other people in your vicinity to reduce the risk of having your drinks spiked or finding yourself in a vulnerable situation with someone you would rather not get to know better. Make arrangements to get home in advance so that you don’t end up walking anywhere alone.
It’s not easy to be honest with ourselves and making changes to established habits can be difficult but it’s really important that we recognise and address drinking to excess, or indeed any addictive behaviour, before it adversely affects us and those close to us.
If you often feel that you need a drink, especially early in the day; regularly drink alone to “take the edge off”; find those close to you expressing concerns or if your personal or professional life is being adversely affected by your alcohol consumption, it needs to be addressed.
The good news is that help is available and often free. A good place to start is your GP who can check out your physical health and also advise on local services available to you, including counselling which may be helpful as there are sometimes deeper issues at the root of the problem.
I wish you all a very happy and healthy Christmas – Cheers!
Love Julia x