Many of us enjoy an occasional alcoholic drink, and our body can cope with drinking a small amount of alcohol - but it really is a small amount. People who drink 1-2 units a day are statistically at a slightly lower risk of heart attack than teetotallers, but drinking more than that increases your risk of several cancers and heart disease, as well as liver disease - that news seems to be taking longer to filter through.
How much alcohol is too much?
Drinking more than the recommended safe limits of alcohol can cause significant problems with your health, and the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risks.
The Chief Medical Officer recommends that men and women should stick to a maximum of 14 units a week. If you are drinking that much, you should spread it evenly over three or more days, ideally with several alcohol-free days a week. One unit of alcohol is equal to about half a pint of ordinary strength beer or cider, a small single measure of spirits or a standard pub measure of fortified wine such as sherry or port.
What are the symptoms?
The liver is in the upper right part of the tummy (abdomen), just below the ribs.
Drinking too much alcohol leads to three main conditions which can seriously threaten your health:
- Fatty liver.
- 'Scarring' of the liver (cirrhosis).
If you have early-stage liver disease (fatty liver or mild hepatitis), you may not get any symptoms. As the condition progresses, you may feel sick and generally unwell, feel tired all the time or get pain over your liver. You can also develop jaundice, where your skin and the whites of your eyes go yellow. In severe cases your liver may fail completely.
Learn more about symptoms associated with drinking too much alcohol.
Alcohol causing even more health havoc
In addition to the above main alcohol-related conditions, drinking too much alcohol can also cause many other medical problems. These include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Stomach and bowel conditions.
- Depression and anxiety.
- Sexual difficulties.
- Some cancers.
- Being overweight (obesity).
- Damage to an unborn baby.
- An increased risk of accidents.
- Addiction (alcohol dependence).
Read about the causes of alcohol-related conditions.
What tests will I need?
Alcoholic liver disease is diagnosed by a doctor taking a careful history of your drinking habits, a physical examination and tests such as blood tests and liver scans. Sometimes your doctor will recommend you have a liver biopsy, where a small sample of the liver is removed to look at under a microscope. Discover more about how liver problems associated with drinking too much alcohol are diagnosed.
What's the treatment?
If you have alcoholic liver disease then you must stop drinking completely. Fatty liver and mild alcoholic hepatitis usually recover if you can manage this. Also, mild cirrhosis will often not progress if alcohol is avoided for life. In severe cases, however, where liver scarring is extensive, a liver transplant may be the only possible treatment option.
If you feel that you are drinking more alcohol than you should, or that you cannot stop drinking, then treatment and support are available. Learn about treatment options for conditions caused by drinking too much alcohol. Remember that prevention is the best option.
Further reading and references
House of Commons Science and Technology Committee - Alcohol Guidelines (Eleventh Report); UK Parliament, December 2011
Schutze M, Boeing H, Pischon T, et al; Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2011 Apr 7342:d1584. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d1584.
I J Beckingham and S D Ryder; ABC of diseases of liver, pancreas, and biliary system: Investigation of liver and biliary disease. BMJ 2001322:33-36.
Antenatal care for uncomplicated pregnancies; NICE Clinical Guideline (March 2008, updated 2017)
UK Chief Medical Officers' Alcohol Guidelines Review, Summary of the proposed new guidelines; Dept of Health, January 2016
Alcohol-use disorders: diagnosis, assessment and management of harmful drinking and alcohol dependence; NICE Clinical Guideline (February 2011)
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Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.