What are the weekly alcohol unit recommendations?

Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK
02 June 2021
Next review due June 2024

As restrictions lift, many of us are heading back to pubs and restaurants. And, while we all know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us, you could be clocking up more units than you think. Here I’ll talk through the current alcohol guidelines, the risks of regular drinking, and give some tips on limiting the amount of alcohol you drink.

Friends drinking wine

What does ‘regular drinking’ mean?

You might be wondering what ‘regular drinking’ means. After all, one person’s ‘regular’ might be another person’s ‘occasional’. The current national guidelines for low-risk drinking says we should all have ‘several drink-free days each week’. Using those guidelines, I’d define ‘regular drinking’ as drinking alcohol on four or more days per week.

Am I drinking too much?

The risk of regular drinking is that you can easily end up drinking too much. The current advice is that we shouldn’t drink more than 14 units per week on a regular basis. The number of units a drink contains depends on how large it is and how strong it is. The stronger a drink is, the higher its ‘alcohol by volume’ (ABV) percentage will be.

It can be hard to know what 14 units looks like, and to keep track of how many units you’re drinking. Here’s an example of how easy it is to go over the weekly limit:

  • Tuesday: lunch out with work
    1 small bottle of 5% ABV lager (1.7 units)

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

  • Friday: drinks at home with dinner
    1 gin (40% ABV) and tonic, 2 medium glasses of 13% ABV red wine (5.6 units)

  • Sunday: a couple more glasses with Sunday lunch
    2 medium glasses of 13% ABV red wine (4.6 units)

This comes to a total of 18.7 units of alcohol which is a lot more than the recommended limit of 14 units per week.

Bupa's units of alcohol in a drink PDF opens in a new window (1.3 MB)

Bupa's units of alcohol in a drink

As you can see, it can be easy for a ‘couple of drinks’ to add up. You don’t need to be getting drunk or waking up with a hangover to be drinking too much.

How does regular drinking affect your body?

Any amount of regular drinking can have an affect on your body. Even if you’re not drinking too much, it’s still good to keep an eye on your drinking habits. There’s no ‘safe’ level of alcohol.

Increased risk of certain health problems

If you’re regularly drinking more than the recommended limit of 14 units per week, you’re putting yourself at an increased risk of problems with your heart, liver, and digestive system. It also increases your risk of cancer and can cause problems with your mental health.

Not getting a good night’s sleep

You may feel as though you get off to sleep easily after a couple of drinks in the evening. But, having alcohol can mean you experience more disrupted sleep, intense dreams and even nightmares. This is because alcohol effects your sleep quality. Disturbed sleep can have an impact on how you function the next day, making you less alert.

Developing into problem drinking

As well as the harm of regularly drinking more than you should, there’s also the risk that your relationship with alcohol could change. You may feel you’re in control of your drinking, but drinking often might mean that you need alcohol more than you realise. This is true even if you don’t feel drunk or you can ‘hold your drink’. In fact, people with a high tolerance might be more likely to drink too much because they don’t feel the effects as strongly.

Six tips for cutting down on alcohol

If reading this has made you want to rethink your regular drinking, here are six tips on how you can do it.

1 Keep track.

Take the time to note down exactly what you’re drinking, measured in units, over a few weeks. This means measuring out your glasses properly – including top-ups! You can find apps that help you to do this too.

2 Remove temptation.

A well-stocked drinks cupboard can be very tempting. Try not to buy or replace alcohol just to keep your shelves ‘well-stocked’.

3 Buy a drink preserver.

It can be tempting to finish the last half glass at the end of a bottle, but this still counts towards the units you’re drinking. There are now lots of gadgets that you can use to keep wine or beer fresh, and lots of them are fairly cheap.

4 Change your routine.

Sometimes it can be easy to fall into the habit of drinking. So, if you enjoy a glass of wine before dinner, why not try to find a soft drink you like instead? You can even find non-alcoholic versions of spirits, wines and beers in most supermarkets.

5 Alternate with non-alcoholic drinks.

Get into the habit of switching between alcoholic drinks and soft drinks like fruit juice or water. This way you can cut back on how much alcohol you’re having while still enjoying your favourite tipple in moderation.

6 Choose the weakest options.

Make a habit of choosing the lowest-ABV options of whatever you’re drinking. And, watch out for ‘export strength’ versions of spirits, which in some cases can be more than 10% ABV stronger!

Support and advice

If you think you might need help to reduce your drinking speak to your GP. There are also organisations that can help.


A national alcohol helpline for people concerned about their drinking, or someone else’s.

  • Call the helpline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm)

Alcoholics Anonymous

A national network of self-help groups for people who want to stop drinking.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Dr Luke Powles
Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK

    • UK Chief Medical Officers’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines. Department of Health., August 2016
    • What is an alcohol unit?. Drink Aware., accessed 01 June 2021
    • Unit and Calorie Calculator. Drink Aware., accessed 28 May 2021
    • Alcohol and cancer. Alcohol Change., accessed 28 May 2021
    • Alcohol and mental health. Alcohol Change., accessed 28 May 2021
    • Alcohol and sleep. Drink Aware., accessed 28 May 2021
    • Sleep–wake disorders. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry. Oxford Medicine Online.
    • Alcohol and sleep. Drink Aware., accessed 28 May 2021
    • How to take a break and reset your alcohol tolerance. Drink Aware., accessed 28 May 2021
    • How to cut down on alcohol at home. Drink Aware., accessed 28 May 2021
    • Substance misuse. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry. Oxford Medicine Online., published June 2019

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