How does alcohol affect your health?
The effect of alcohol is different for each person, and between men and women. The amount you drink, how often you drink and how long you’ve been drinking all make a difference. Most of the harm caused can’t be seen or felt until it’s too late. Regular drinking above the recommended limits over a long period can lead to:
- cancer of the mouth, throat, cancer of the oesophagus or larynx, and breast cancer in women
- increased risk of heart disease and stroke
- liver damage, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer
- depression, memory loss, brain damage or dementia
- stomach damage
- potentially fatal alcohol poisoning
Download Alcohol - A guide to better health fact sheet (size 143kb)
What are the recommended limits for drinking alcohol?
No amount of alcohol is completely safe. The recommended limits are the levels of regular drinking that pose only a low risk of developing future health problems. Drinking above these levels on a regular basis is associated with an increasing risk of disease, and these risks increase the more you drink.
The recommended limits are:
- men should not exceed 3 to 4 units per day on a regular basis
- women should not exceed 2 to 3 units per day on a regular basis
The limits are given as ranges because the same amount of alcohol can affect different people in different ways, depending on your sex, weight, height and many other factors. This means that there is no exact threshold where your drinking will become particularly risky or low risk.
They are lower for women because women process and tolerate alcohol differently. For example, women have a higher ratio of fat to water, so they generally cannot process alcohol as easily.
The figures given are for daily consumption not weekly intake. It is not advisable to consume all the number of weekly units in one session. This form of drinking is harder on your body and adds other risks from accident or injury. Daily limits are not intended to suggest you should never drink more than the recommended units in a single day, for example on a special occasion.
How can I work out how much alcohol is in a drink?
We describe the pure alcohol content of a drink in units. One UK unit is 10ml (8g) of pre alcohol.
The strength of any drink is described as the proportion of the drink’s volume that is pure alcohol, using ‘alcohol by volume’ (ABV).
One unit is the amount of pure alcohol in a 25ml single measure of spirits (ABV 40%), a third of a pint of beer (ABV 5 to 6%) or half a 175ml ‘standard glass’ of red wine (ABV 12%).
You can work out how many units there are in any drink by multiplying the total volume of the drink (ml) by its strength (ABV %) and dividing the result by 1,000.
You’ll need to know a drinks exact ABV, because different brands of the same volume may be stronger or weaker. You can find this information on the labels of cans and bottles, or you can ask bar staff. That way you can easily keep count and know your units when you’re out drinking.
Are there times when I shouldn’t drink at all?
If on certain occasions you do drink heavily, give your body a chance to recover: at least 48 hours with no alcohol. Otherwise you are just adding to the damage.
You should not drink before strenuous exercise, operating machinery, or driving. You also should not drink if you are on certain medicines – your doctor or pharmacist can give you advice if you are not sure. If your doctor has advised you to cut down, or stop drinking, you should follow their recommendations.
What about drinking limits during pregnancy?
Our staying healthy during pregnancy pages contain guidance on drinking in pregnancy.
Staying healthy during pregnancy
Am I putting my health at risk?
Your chances of suffering one of the following diseases increase if you regularly exceed the recommended alcohol limits (men 3-4 units per day and women over 2-3 per day):
- high blood pressure
- mouth and throat cancer
- heart attacks
Most people who have health problems from drinking aren’t alcoholics – they are just people who’ve regularly been drinking more than the recommended daily limits for years.
Some examples of the relative risks of certain diseases you face if you are a higher risk drinker include:
- men could be 4 times more likely to have high blood pressure
- women could be 3 times more likely to suffer stroke
- men and women are 2 to 5 times more likely to develop cancers of the mouth and throat
Most people who are drinking too much don’t see any harmful effects at first, but alcohol’s hidden effects emerge later in life – by then they can be a serious problem.
Common questions about alcohol
Can drinking a little be good for you?
Evidence suggests that a regular pattern of drinking small amounts of alcohol can reduce the risk of heart disease in men over the age of 40 and post-menopausal women. No more than 1 to 2 units a day is needed. Scientists don’t yet understand how alcohol is able to produce this particular protective effect, but there are number of possible mechanisms.
As alcohol also has harmful effects, it isn’t recommended that non-drinkers should start drinking for their health. Eating more healthily and exercising reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as having other benefits that you wouldn’t get from drinking alcohol. They also have fewer risks.
What is binge drinking?
'Binge drinking' is not a new phenomena, it has just been labelled as such recently to describe ‘drinking heavily in one go’ usually meaning enough to get drunk or to be substantially impaired.
Researchers refer to drinking more than 8 units of alcohol for men and more than 6 for women, on any one day or any one episode, as binge drinking. This is a useful marker for binge drinker levels but doesn’t define the problem. Everyone varies in their tolerance for alcohol. The important thing is to stop drinking once you feel drunk.
Binge drinking is part of the drinking culture for some people in Jersey, including many young people. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have a drink problem, but it is a major factor in accidents, violence and anti-social behaviour.
Can I overdose on alcohol?
As we all know, drinking too much in one session can make you sleep very heavily, which can be risky in itself. But it can also lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal due to suppression of breathing or inhaling vomit.
Can drinking cause sexual problems?
Men may suffer from temporary impotence (brewers' droop) after drinking. Long term heavy drinkers might also suffer from:
- loss of libido and impotence
- shrinking of the testicles
- reduction in penis size
- reduced sperm production
- loss of pubic and body hair
- enlargement of the breasts (as a complication of cirrhosis)
Can drinking cause mental health problems?
There is a strong link between heavy drinking, depression and suicide. Alcohol works as a depressant drug on your nervous system. This effect (feeling sleepy etc) grows as you drink more but the initial disinhibiting effects of alcohol can accentuate pre-existing mood problems.
Long-term excessive drinking can lead to problems with mood. While problem drinking may not cause depression, its effect on your personal circumstances (relationship problems etc) can make it more likely. Both depression and problem drinking are common problems, so they can just coincide.
Heavy drinking can be associated with anxiety, and this can be a feature of early or worsening dependence, particularly in the mornings. Heavy drinking may accelerate or uncover an existing psychiatric illness like psychosis because of its widespread effect on the brain.
Is it dangerous to mix alcohol with other drugs?
Alcohol can be very dangerous when taken with other drugs, especially other nervous system depressants ( barbiturates, minor tranquillisers such as Valium etc) or with recreational drugs, such as ecstasy and cocaine. It is an important factor in drug-related deaths.
If I have a drink problem, does that make me an alcoholic?
Not everyone who has a drink problem is an alcoholic. Some people may not drink all the time, but when they do, they get very drunk. You (or someone you know) could have a problem if:
- you get drunk regularly
- you can’t stop once you’ve started
- you’re drinking more than before
- you are losing interest in other things because of drink
- you’re drinking alone
- you’re making excuses to drink
- you’re letting people down as result of drinking
- you smell of alcohol during the day
- you feel guilty about drinking
- you get the shakes in the morning
What are the treatments available?
This depends on the type of problem. Options range from:
- providing simple information to help recognition of a problem, which may be all that is needed
- brief advice on possible options
- help in completely stopping (achieving abstinence)
- help in cutting down
Heavy drinking may mean there you have an underlying problem, such as financial or relationship difficulties, so help with those issues may be needed
Where can I go for guidance?
If you are worried about drinking, finding it difficult to cope on your own or getting withdrawal symptoms, there is plenty of help and support, including:
- making an appointment with the Alcohol and Drug service
- visiting your GP
- attending Alcoholics Anonymous, a voluntary fellowship of men and women who help each other achieve and maintain sobriety by sharing experiences and giving mutual support
- taking part in AL-Anon Jersey Family Groups, a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who provide support for people affected by someone else’s drinking
Websites you may useful
Alcohol Concern websiteNHS Choices websiteDrink Aware website