Many of us like a drink after a long day at work, but drinking too much and too often can have a really detrimental effect on our health. It isn't just alcoholics who can experience alcohol-related health problems, so it's important we heed the warnings and know our limits.
Men who drink eight units a day (50 units a week) and women who drink six units daily (35 units a week) are considered "higher-risk" drinkers, and should particularly look to reduce their drinking.
Some of the conditions associated with being a heavy drinker include:
Heavy drinking can reduce the number of red-blood cells, which help to carry oxygen around our body, to an abnormally low level. There are a number of symptoms related to this, including feeling light-headed and fatigued, and experiencing a shortness of breath.
There are many cancers associated with alcohol, including the mouth, throat, neck, voice box, oesophagus, liver, breast and bowel. If you smoke as well as drink, these risks increase even further.
Drinking too much alcohol can scar the liver, and stop it from functioning properly. This is known as cirrhosis, and is both unpredictable and potentially deadly.
Heavy drinking can cause blood clots, which can lead to either a heart attack or a stroke. It can also lead to cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening of the heart muscle, while it can also contribute towards heart rhythm abnormalities.
Alcohol has an interesting link with depression. Some may argue it is used as a method of combatting depression (although as it is a depressant it simply exacerbates the situation) while others would suggest depression is caused by regular excessive alcohol intake. Either way, they are a very unhealthy combination, and the more you drink the more at risk you are of developing depression.
Part of the ageing process involves a degree of normal shrinkage in the brain, but this process is exacerbated by heavy drinking. When certain areas of the brain shrink, they can lead to memory loss and the development of dementia, while it can also affect our judgement and our problem-solving capabilities.
Raised blood pressure
Alcohol has a direct effect on the nervous system, which in turn can help to raise our blood pressure. Drinking heavily on a regular basis can lead to our blood pressure remaining high all of the time, which can in turn lead to a number of other health problems including kidney disease, stroke and heart disease.
Drinking heavily can reduce your immunity and increase your risk of relatively minor coughs and colds, as well as far more serious conditions such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. The lowering of inhibitions may also lead to more risk-taking behaviour. If people have risky sex, they increase their chances of developing sexually transmitted diseases.
Alcohol can cause some mild stomach irritation, but it can also lead to more serious issues such as pancreatitis - a potentially life-threatening condition.
Cutting down - try focusing on just two or three of these ideas and see what works for you:
- If you drink every day then set aside two regular alcohol-free days a week
- Let your friends and family know that you're trying to cut back on alcohol. They may well be very supportive, especially if you can add some 'medical' weight to your decision such as trying to get your blood pressure down or a family history of heart disease - play the 'doctor's orders' card!
- Avoid choosing alcohol to quench your thirst - soft drinks are much healthier and more effective
- Pace your drinks - sip slowly
- If you have a drink at a regular point in the day then try changing your routine with an alternative activity
- Think of some activities you could do for when you get a spontaneous urge for a drink - see a friend, have a bath or go for a walk.
- Remember to take it slowly - set yourself a realistic target for the first week and then keep cutting down each week until you reach your overall goal. Cutting right back in one go can sometimes be very unrealistic.
The healthy limits
Men should not regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day or 21 units per week, while women should not regularly drink more than two to three units a day or 14 units per week. If you've had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol completely for a couple of days.