A new year new look at your alcohol intake

27 December 2018

As the party season comes to a close, you are probably starting to think about New Year resolutions. One of the topical lifestyle improvements is to cut down or give up alcohol, no doubt helped by the launch of Dry January.

Spire Southampton Private GP, Dr Katherine Hodgkinson answered a few questions on alcohol, its effects in more detail and how you can cut down or stop drinking.

What is the recommended alcohol intake per week?

The UK guidelines recommend no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for men and women. This is the equivalent of 7 medium glasses of wine per person or 6 pints of 4% beer per week.

As a guide, the following units are in each drink:

  • Standard glass of wine - 2.1 units
  • Large glass of wine - 3 units
  • Pint of lower strength beer/lager/cider - 2 units
  • Pint of higher strength beer/lager/cider - 3 units
  • Bottle of lager/cider/beer - 1.7 units
  • Single shot of 25ml 40% spirits – 1 unit.

What are the effects of too much alcohol over time?

If you drink less than 14 units of alcohol per week this is considered low risk drinking. The types of illnesses you can develop after 10 to 20 years of regularly drinking more than 14 units per week can be far reaching, they can include but aren’t limited to strokes, heart disease, liver damage.

What is binge drinking?

This usually refers to drinking a lot of alcohol in a short space of time, such as over Christmas! Or drinking to get drunk. UK researchers commonly define binge drinking as having more than 6 units in a single session for men and women. Drinking too much on a single occasion can increase your risk of accidents that might cause you injury, misjudging risky situations or losing self-control.

If I’m drinking over 14 units per week, how do I know if I might be dependent on alcohol?

A screening questionnaire used by health professionals such as GPs is a CAGE questionnaire. It is an acronym of 4 questions:

  • Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people Annoyed you by criticising your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  • Have you ever felt the need for a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

Two yes answers indicate that the possibility of alcoholism needs to be investigated further. There are lots of people who can help, including your GP. As a private GP I offer clinics every week so if your concerned you can be seen quickly.

What are the benefits of cutting down or giving up alcohol?

In the short term your energy levels and sleep should improve. This is because drinking disrupts your sleep cycle. When you drink alcohol before bed you will often go into a deep sleep quicker. As the night goes on however you spend less time in a deep sleep and more in the less restful rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, leaving you feeling lethargic during the day.

Alcohol is full of calories! If your New Year resolution is to lose weight don’t forget to cut out the drink, you may lose weight or slow down weight gain.

Regularly drinking more than 14 units per week can lead to fatty liver. In the early stages of fatty liver you won’t usually get any symptoms and so you wouldn’t necessarily know if you have any liver damage. If the liver is not too damaged it can repair it after about 4 to 6 weeks of stopping drinking. If the liver is too damaged, then it may not be able to repair itself and cirrhosis is very likely to develop. We can carry out a blood test that can detect if you have liver enzyme changes as a result of excess drinking, which may indicate damage and an ultrasound can investigate any liver damage including fatty liver and cirrhosis.

One other benefit is that you will have more cash left in your pocket at the end of the week!

Do you have any tips on cutting down or giving up?

There are loads of things you can do, have a look at Alcohol Change UK for more information and support on alcohol problems and Dry January.

Some of the tips I give are:

  • If you are a regular drinker, have at least 2 alcohol free days per week; then gradually reduce the amount of alcohol, having water or other soft drinks on the days you do have a drink, trying to get down to 2 alcohol days per week.
  • Eat before drinking - your drink will take longer to be absorbed; or have a good wine with your meal!
  • Life can be stressful sometimes but don’t drink to cope with stress. Try exercise, relaxation, meditation or talking to friends as alternative ways of coping.

Dr Katherine Hodgkinson is a private GP practising at the Spire Southampton Hospital.  Call 023 8091 4471 for more information on our private GP service and for bookings.

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