Alcohol use is extremely common in many societies and can be strongly associated with the ways in which we socialise.
It's also well known however that heavy drinking, whether that is regular 'social' drinking or even occasional binge-drinking, can significantly increase our risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It can also contribute to a wide range of other health conditions, including liver disease and cancer.
In the immediate term, drinking too much alcohol can also reduce your energy levels, affect your quality of sleep and reduce your ability to concentrate and think clearly.
Guidelines for responsible drinking
If you drink alcohol then healthy drinking means staying within healthy limits, avoiding binge-drinking and having one or two alcohol-free days each week.
If you do overindulge then you should avoid alcohol altogether for at least a couple of days in order to give your body a chance to fully recover.
How many alcohol units are there in common drinks?
A simple way of working out how many units there are in your drink is to remember that the ABV percentage figure on the bottle or can tells you how many units there are in a litre of that particular beverage - so all you need to do is to take the figure and work it back to the size of your drink.
As an example, a bottle of 12% strength wine is three quarters of a litre which means it contains nine units of alcohol - similarly, a large 250 ml glass of wine is a quarter of a litre which means it contains three units.
Here are the alcohol unit contents of some common drinks:
One pint of 5% beer or cider : almost 3 units
One large (250 ml) glass of 12% wine : 3 units
A single measure of 20% port or sherry : 1 unit
A single measure of 40% spirit : 1 unit
Can alcohol benefit our health?
There is some evidence associating light to moderate drinking with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. This is due to effects on cholesterol levels and a reduced tendency for the blood to clot. However, this benefit appears to be limited to certain groups of the population, such as women past the menopause. What's more, it's still not sure whether 'confounding factors' such as more healthy diets and more exercise in light to moderate wine drinkers in particular, are the real cause of this apparent benefit.
Light to moderate drinking means no more than one to two units per day - that's half a pint of beer, a small glass of wine or a single measure of spirit. There is also some evidence suggesting that choosing red wine may bring some further benefit due to compounds called phenols found in grape skins and seeds.
As with most things, moderation is key because as consumption increases beyond this level the friendly face of alcohol can start to turn very ugly.
If you don't drink alcohol, then starting to do so as a way of reducing your cardiovascular risk is not recommended - you should instead positively address other cardiovascular risk factors.
Healthy drinking tips
• Avoid stocking up on alcohol in the house as you're far more likely to drink more that way
• If you drink alcohol at mealtimes, serve individual glasses on the table and leave the bottle in the kitchen
• Don't feel you need to finish wine to avoid it going off; use a wine stopper and save it for later
• Home servings of wine and spirits are typically larger than standard measures so remember to watch your servings.
• Set yourself a limit and stick to it. Remind yourself of the health benefits involved, and make a decision about what you're going to drink after you've stopped the alcohol
• Take a small amount of cash with you and leave your cards at home
• Choose lower-strength varieties of your usual alcoholic drinks
• Alternate your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks such as fruit juice or a glass of water in between
• Snack as you drink - it will slow your drinking down
• Try to avoid buying drinks in rounds - you'll have less control over your decisions and will probably end up drinking more than you planned.
And here are some general tips for cutting down…
• Take it slowly - set realistic targets and cut down a little each week until you reach your goal
• Do you drink every day? Set aside at least two regular alcohol-free days a week
• Don't choose alcohol to quench your thirst
• Pace your drinks - sip slowly
• Let your friends and family know what you're doing - they'll probably be supportive, especially if you can add some 'medical' weight to your decision and say you're under doctor's orders to get your blood pressure down.