IT’S been an incredibly tough year – and it’s not surprising more people than usual have been drowning their sorrows, or spicing up endless evenings at home by reaching for a wine bottle.
The alcohol education charity Drinkaware (drinkaware.co.uk) found more than a fifth (22 per cent) of adults drank more during the first lockdown, and research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found the number of people drinking at high-risk levels had almost doubled after this period.
This could have huge health implications, as binge-drinking and regularly consuming too much alcohol is linked to a whole host of diseases and problems.
:: Tempted to try Dry January?
“January is a good time to reflect on your relationship with alcohol – by starting the new year drinking less, or not at all, you might notice your sleep improving, that you lose some extra weight, and find you have a bit more money in your pocket,” says Mark Bellis, professor of public health at Bangor University and alcohol advisor to the UK Faculty of Public Health.
“Over time, less alcohol means a lower risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and liver disease. Dry January can be a way of starting to reduce your alcohol use, but the real benefits start to accrue if you then maintain those lower levels throughout the year.”
Alcohol Change (alcoholchange.org.uk), the charity which runs Dry January, points out that 86 per cent of past participants have saved money, 70 per cent reported better sleep, 66 per cent said they had more energy, and 65 per cent felt their health had generally improved.
According to Drinkaware research, just over a quarter of drinkers (26 per cent) think they should cut down on their boozing.
“Many people have found themselves drinking more since the start of the pandemic, often out of boredom or to cope with what’s going on,” says Drinkaware chief executive Elaine Hindal. “But drinking more can lead to devastating health consequences, both mental and physical. Cutting down on alcohol has many positive health benefits – from reducing our risk of serious illnesses, to helping us get a better night’s sleep.
“Having a complete break from alcohol, like taking on Dry January, can be helpful to reset your relationship with alcohol. The key is not to go back to old habits on February 1,” Hindal adds. “If abstinence isn’t for you, try sticking to the low risk guidelines of 14 units a week – that’s about six medium glasses of wine or six pints of beer. And make sure you have at least three drink-free days every week.”
For extra motivation, Drinkaware outlines 10 key ways drinking can negatively impact your health…
1. Mental health problems
Alcohol is a depressant, and as well as contributing to depression it can interfere with processes in the brain that are important for good mental health. “Alcohol is best avoided when you’re anxious because it can make feelings of anxiety and stress worse,” says Hindal.
2. Increased risk of cancer
Alcohol is also a risk factor for developing cancer. Drinking above the low risk guidelines increases your risk of seven types of cancer, including breast, liver and mouth cancer, and Cancer Research UK (cancerresearchuk.org) points out: “Cancer risk starts to increase at small amounts, so the more you can cut down, the more you can reduce your risk.”
3. Raised blood pressure
Alcohol is also an entirely preventable cause of severe high blood pressure, says Hindal. Untreated high blood pressure greatly increases the risk of having a stroke and heart attack.
4. Liver damage
Drinking alcohol can cause irreparable damage to the liver and increase the risk of developing liver disease, says Hindal. Regularly drinking more than eight units a day if you’re a man, and more than five units a day if you’re a woman, over the period of two or three weeks can lead to the development of fatty liver, the first stage before more serious liver damage.
This is often reversible if you stop drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption is a cause of cirrhosis of the liver, which happens when scar tissue builds up on the liver, stopping it from working properly. Alcohol-related cirrhosis can also increase the risk of liver cancer.
5. Brain damage and dementia
Regularly drinking more than the low risk guidelines is linked to brain damage and even dementia, warns Drinkaware. Alcohol can damage the brain in a number of ways, affecting its ability to function properly over time. For example, causing a person’s memory to worsen or affecting other cognitive skills.
6. Fertility problems
Drinking more than the low risk guidelines may also increase the risk of experiencing fertility problems, says Hindal.
7. Reduced immune function
Heavy drinking may increase vulnerability to viral infections and other illnesses, because alcohol can disrupt immune function. “This impaired immunity isn’t restricted to chronic heavy drinkers,” warns Hindal. “Less frequent episodes of binge drinking can also affect your immune system.”
8. Sleep problems
It might ‘seem’ to help some people nod off, but alcohol can actually disrupt sleep. Hindal says a heavy drinking session of more than six units in an evening can make people spend more time in deep sleep and less time than usual in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is an important restorative stage of sleep. Plus, several sleepless nights can impact on day-to-day mental health, mood, concentration and decision-making.
9. Weight gain and bloating
Hindal points out that alcohol contains more calories than many people think – a pint of lager contains about the same amount of calories as a slice of pizza, or a large glass of wine the same as a bowl of ice-cream – and drinking can easily make you gain weight. In addition, drinking alcohol dehydrates our bodies, including the skin, and can make faces look bloated and puffy. The dehydrating effects of alcohol can also cause stomach bloating.
10. Sexual problems
Alcohol can reduce testosterone levels, leading to loss of libido and reduced sperm quantity and quality. It also depresses the central nervous system, which means it can make it difficult for some men to get, and maintain, an erection.