The risks of regular drinking

Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
05 September 2018

It’s common knowledge that drinking too much is bad for us. There are well-established links between alcohol and problems with the heart, liver and digestive system, and the increased risk of cancer and mental health problems. This probably isn’t news to you ... but can you be sure that you’re not drinking dangerously high amounts of alcohol? You may be clocking up more units than you think, especially if you drink on a regular basis.

Here I’ll outline some of the risks of regular drinking, and give some tips on monitoring and regulating the amount of alcohol you drink.

Image of a couple cooking with a glass of wine

What does ‘regular drinking’ mean?

‘Regular’ is a subjective term. One person’s ‘regular’ might be another person’s ‘occasional’. So what do we mean when we say ‘regular drinking’? The current national guidelines for low-risk drinking advise ‘several drink-free days each week’. So in this context, I’d define ‘regular drinking’ as four or more days per week, drinking any amount of alcohol.

Exceeding the recommended weekly limit

It may sound obvious, but the foremost risk of regular drinking is simply drinking too much. We’re advised not to exceed 14 units per week on a regular basis, but do you know what 14 units actually looks like? Can you categorically state that you didn’t drink more than 14 units last week? You don’t necessarily need to be getting drunk or waking up with a hangover to be drinking too much. While packing your drinking into heavy ‘binge’ sessions is a particularly bad idea, this doesn’t mean that spreading this out over the week takes away the health risks completely.

The problem with regular low-level drinking is that it’s hard to keep track of, and that tally of units can creep up unnoticed. Here’s an example of how easily you could go over the limit in what looks like a normal week:

  • Tuesday: work lunch out
    1 small bottle of 5.1% ABV lager (1.7 units)

  • Thursday: meet friends for ‘drink or two’ after work
    3 pints of 4% ABV bitter (6.8 units)

  • Friday: an aperitif, then open a bottle to enjoy with dinner
    1 gin (37.5% ABV) and tonic, 2 medium glasses of 13.5% ABV red wine (6.6 units)

  • Sunday: a couple more glasses with Sunday lunch
    2 medium glasses of 13.5% ABV red wine (4.7 units)

Not exactly a week of wild excess, but unfortunately a total of 19.8 units of alcohol – way above the recommended limit.

I often find when I speak to patients that they’re unaware of how much alcohol they’re drinking. When they sit down and work it out, they’re often surprised at how prone they are to going over the recommended weekly limit.

Quite simply, if you’re regularly going over the 14-unit limit, you’re putting yourself at risk of the health problems associated with alcohol. Even under this threshold, it’s good to manage your drinking habits. It’s increasingly accepted that there’s no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption, and that some of the positive effects that have been reported in the past are far outweighed by the health risks. This was reflected in the results of a large-scale study published a couple of weeks ago.

Not getting good sleep

Another thing to consider with regular drinking is the effect it can have on your sleep. You may feel as though you get off to sleep easily after a couple of drinks in the evening. This makes sense, as alcohol does have sedative effects. But, crucially, alcohol can affect the quality of the sleep that you get.

There are a number of phases of sleep that we cycle through during the night. Having alcohol before bed can disrupt these phases. If your body is still processing alcohol, you may experience more REM sleep (where you tend to dream) during the second half of the night. This increases the likelihood of sleep disruption, intense dreaming, and even nightmares.

If you regularly drink in the evenings before bed, you continually put yourself at risk of disrupted sleep. This can have an impact on how you function the next day, making you less alert. There’s even evidence to suggest these effects can accumulate across nights, so your daytime alertness may get steadily worse if you’re drinking throughout the week.

Developing into problem drinking

As well as the inherent harm of regularly exceeding recommended drinking limits, there’s also the ongoing risk that your drinking habits could get worse.

You may feel you’re in control of your drinking. But it’s thought that continually exposing the brain to alcohol can cause long-term changes that mean that you need to keep drinking regularly to feel ‘normal’. So you may in fact have a level of dependence on alcohol that you don’t realise. Or if not, there’s a chance you could develop this dependence if you continue to drink regularly. Problematic alcohol use can develop later in life, so just because you’re in control now, it doesn’t mean you can afford to be complacent.

If you do drink regularly, it may be partly because you have a high tolerance for alcohol (ie you can ‘hold your drink’). But it’s worth noting that those with a high tolerance are actually at slightly higher risk of problem drinking. Again, just because you can’t feel it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.

Cutting back on regular drinking

If reading this has made you want to cut back on your regular drinking, here are some tips on how you could go about this.

Keep track

Over a number of weeks, take the time to note down exactly what you’re drinking, measured in units. This will mean measuring out glasses properly, which will feel a bit odd, but it’s the only way you’ll keep track properly ... no more cheeky top-ups!

This will give you a clear picture of how you’re doing compared with the recommended limits. You may find an app like ‘Drink Free Days’ helps you to do this.

Remove temptation

A readily-stocked drinks cupboard provides a temptation towards habitual drinking. When you finish something from the cupboard, don’t replace it just for the sake of being well stocked.

Invest in a wine preserver

Whoever thought 75cl was a sensible size for a bottle of wine? How many times have you had that extra half glass just to finish off the bottle before it turns? Fortunately there are a range of gadgets on the market that can keep your wine fresh after you’ve uncorked it. A must-have if you like your wine, but don’t like necking it under duress!

Change your routine

If you’re in the habit of drinking with dinner, you may need to break this association. If there’s a particular dish you always have a drink with, see if you can phase this out. Introduce a new dish in its place, and enjoy it with a soft drink.

Alternate with soft drinks

If you’re out with friends or colleagues, get into the habit of alternating your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks. This way you’ll cut back on your intake without completely excluding yourself socially.

Choose the weakest options

Every little helps, so make a habit of choosing the lowest-ABV options of whatever you’re drinking. See if you can sniff out wines at 11% (these will probably be white wines) and lighter beers at around 3%. Watch out for ‘export strength’ versions of spirits, which in some cases can be stronger by 10% ABV!

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics

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