Alcohol and disease – the bad news and the good!

We know we shouldn’t drink too much. But what is too much – and why exactly is it bad for us? Might some alcohol actually be good for our health? Where should we draw the line?

'Safe' Drinking

In January 2016 the Chief Medical Officers in the UK revised their guidelines on alcohol consumption

To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level they advise that both men and women should:

  • Drink a maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week
  • Spread consumption over a number of days, rather than concentrated into one or two days  
  • Have a number of alcohol free days per week

14 units a week is about a bottle and half of wine or five pints of export type lager. 

Fortunately food slows down alcohol absorption, so it is safer to drink alcohol with meals. 

If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. So you need to consume more alcohol to get the same effects. This can lead to drinking harmful levels. The Department of Health recommends at least 2 alcohol free days per week. 

If you’re alcohol intolerant (for example your skin flushes after drinking) the only way to prevent this is to avoid alcohol altogether. 

What happens when we drink more than is safe? 

If we drink more than a ‘safe’ amount there seem to be three main health risks: 

Drink related accidents and injuries 

This includes road accidents involving illegal alcohol levelsUp to 70% of A&E hospital admissions at peak times are estimated to be alcohol related   

Liver disease: 

One of the best known examples is probably the footballer George Best, who died aged just 59. One problem with liver disease is that it can take many years for symptoms to appear. By which time your liver may be so badly damaged it may be too late. So better safe than sorry. 

The risk threshold for developing liver disease is 30g ethanol/day, almost 4 units per day. So drinking half a bottle of wine in an evening, for instance, means you’re already drinking above the risk threshold for developing liver disease. And the harmful effects of alcohol can increase as you get older.

Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) is another condition frequently associated with alcohol consumption. Symptoms include serious stomach pains and vomiting. A recent analysis of six different studies showed the threshold for this condition was more than four units per day.

Cancer - Drinking more than the safe level increases your risk of developing six types of cancer – each associated with a different part of the body the alcohol passes through. 

The most significant risk is for the following, compared with drinking a safe level: 

Mouth (and throat) cancers: Light drinking (1–2 units per day) increases the risk of these cancers slightly. However, much larger intakes (of 6 units per day) increases the risk over three fold. 

Laryngeal (voice box) cancer: Light drinking (around 1 unit per day) did not show any effect. Moderate drinking (1-4 units per day) was associated with an increased risk. Heavier drinking (more than 4 units per day) showed a 2.5 fold increased risk.  

Alcohol consumption also increases the risk of breast cancer.

So drinking more than a recommended safe level increases your risk of accident, liver disease and cancer. Alcohol is also a diuretic which can lead to dehydration and associated medical problems. It can interfere with your sleep patterns.  And the sugar content of alcohol can lead to weight problems and increase the risk of diabetes. 

But are there any possible health benefits if you stick to the recommended safe levels? 

Beneficial effects of alcohol: 

Cardiovascular disease: A review of 84 studies showed that light to moderate alcohol consumption (2-4 units per day) was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.  

Diabetes Type 2: Moderate alcohol consumption (roughly 3 – 4 units) is associated with a 36% reduction in the risk of Type 2 Diabetes among older women.

Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (a less common type of cancer): A review of 29 studies involving nearly 19,000 patents showed that in light to moderate drinkers there was a small reduction in the relative risk of NHL.

Dementia and cognitive decline: Low to moderate use of alcohol in earlier adult life is associated with a reduced risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s later in life.  

Conclusions: 

  • The recommended safe levels of alcohol consumption in the UK seem to be broadly supported by scientific studies – with relatively low levels of health risk.  
  • To limit the harmful effects drink your alcohol with meals and avoid consuming all your alcohol in one or two days, while also aiming to have at least 2 alcohol free days per week. 
  • Higher levels of alcohol consumption materially increase the risk of accident, liver disease and cancer – and other health risks. 
  • Conversely, low levels of alcohol consumption are associated with reduced cardiovascular risk, a lower risk of type-2 diabetes and even a reduced risk of dementia. 

 

Richard Franklin

Published 10 August 14, Updated February 2016, Review date January 2019

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