29 June 2019
Debbie Thorpe of Spire Norwich Hospital talks to Consultant Gastroenterologist Dr Martin Phillips about the hazards of excessive drinking, and how to be safe during long and lazy summer days.
OK, so at the time of going to press we haven’t quite had the summer weather we’d like. But thoughts of summer holidays, barbeques and warmer weather are definitely forming in my mind, and alcohol does seem to go hand-in-hand with those thoughts. The summer generates far more opportunities for people to over-indulge and consume more than the recommended daily alcohol limits. With the summer heat creating an already dehydrated body, the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption may be greater. So it is essential to enjoy alcohol in moderation. Remember too that it’s not just a hangover you should worry about after drinking; the long-term affects on your health can be significant.
Dr Martin Phillips begins, “There is no doubt we have a major problem with alcohol in this country. An NHS Digital report in 2017 showed that 1 in 14 inpatient admissions to hospital were alcohol-related. And that alcohol-related deaths are the highest since records began. Patients are younger than before and more commonly female. Sadly, within the recent past I have treated a 24 year old woman who died from alcohol-related health problems and a 19 year old woman with advanced liver disease”.
Fortunately, the vast majority of us are able to drink both in moderation and a socially acceptable manner. New national guidelines recommend no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for men and women (one unit is equivalent to one third of a pint of ordinary strength beer, or one half a standard-sized glass of red wine). However the many people who drink more than these guidelines suggest are potentially putting their health at risk. This can result in a wide range of health problems such as high blood pressure, depression and anxiety disorders, through to heart, pancreas or liver disease. There’s also an increased risk of cancer, including breast, stomach and bowel.
For many of our European counterparts alcohol is taken in small amounts throughout the day. Indeed, alcohol consumption in conjunction with high intakes of fruit and vegetables, may well explain the so-called 'French paradox'. The French diet is considered to be very high in fat, especially saturated fat, yet the death rate from coronary heart disease remains relatively low. This is thought to be partly due to people's consumption of red wine. Sadly, in the UK binge drinking is more common. Binge drinking is a concept largely created by the popular press and is difficult to define, but is usually taken to mean very heavy drinking sessions on a Friday and Saturday night by young men and women.
Dr Phillips continues, “The level of alcohol consumption in a population is closely linked to its availability and affordability. In this country, alcohol is now more widely available than ever before with 24 hour shopping and extended licensing hours. Although the price of alcohol increases with each year, our incomes are generally rising faster, meaning alcohol is relatively cheaper and more affordable than ever. As a result alcohol consumption is increasing rapidly in Britain”.
“Drinking brings with it special problems associated with acute severe intoxication. Most of us will recognise the various stages of drunkenness – from happy and talkative, to slurred speech, poor co-ordination and vomiting. At higher blood alcohol levels the usual self-protective reflexes (such as the gag reflex) are lost and a person can drifts into unconsciousness. At this point the individual is at risk of death, particularly from inhaling their own vomit, or hypothermia if they are outside. There are many other hazards including heart palpitations, head injuries and broken bones due to accidents or fighting. In addition, in a large proportion of sexual assaults and serious crimes at least one individual involved is drunk”.
So how do we stay in control when we’re at the long-awaited summer barbeque? Dr Phillips concludes, “If you start drinking too early and at a fast pace, you are putting yourself at risk. The barbeque refusing to light and food taking a little longer to cook is a customary hazard of our summer gatherings. Make sure you tackle the obligatory barbeque burger before you start with the alcohol. Eating before or during drinking reduces the rate of alcohol absorption from the stomach. Try accepting soft drinks or water in-between your alcoholic beverages, and remember that the effect of alcohol on a dehydrated body is greater. Also, avoid drinking in rounds as this may speed up the frequency of your drinking pattern. It’s probably worth thinking about how much you intend to drink before going out too, and stop drinking when you reach the number of drinks you have allowed yourself. Lastly, if you are worried that you may have a drink problem, go and talk to your GP or the community alcohol services available throughout the region… Enjoy your summer safely!”
View Consultant Gastroenterologist Dr Martin Phillips' profile.
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