Struggling with hangxiety? Dr Luke Powles, Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics examines the physical effect of alcohol consumption in the immediate, short and long-term, and in each instance what are the signs to look out for?
Over the last 90 days, Google Trends shows there’s been a huge 4,550% increase in searches for ‘recommended alcohol intake per week’.
If you’re concerned that you might be drinking more than you should be, assessing your intake before seasonal festivities start can be a great place to start.
Your body’s reaction to drinking alcohol depends on a number of factors, including how much you’ve drank, the strength of the drink, your size, how well your liver functions and whether you’ve eaten.
Drinking alcohol causes short-term changes to the way your brain functions, impacting your judgement and self-control, which may lead to an increased chance of injuries or making decisions that you wouldn’t usually.
Around an hour after an alcoholic drink, you may notice your speech slurring, your reaction times feel delayed and you’re less steady on your feet. Alongside these changes, and depending on the amount of alcohol you’ve consumed, you may feel sleepier than usual or even pass out.
Drinking alcohol over a long period of time can lead to serious damage to your body – both physically and mentally.
Though alcohol can be enjoyed by many, for those with mental health issues alcohol can become a coping mechanism, which can lead to an addiction. As alcohol leads to changes in brain chemistry, if you’re already feeling down or anxious, it’s better to avoid alcohol completely.
Drinking too much and frequently, can affect you physically in many areas; harming your liver, fertility, heart, digestive and nervous systems. It can also increase your chances of developing various cancers, including mouth, bowel and liver.
Additionally, if your body becomes dependent on alcohol, trying to stop or cut down on your drinking can result in withdrawal symptoms, of which include sweating, a fast heartbeat, hallucinations and seizures that can be life-threatening.
If you’re struggling with the amount you’re drinking, always speak to your GP or local alcohol support service first as they’ll be able to give you advice and help put together a safe plan to reduce your intake gradually.
How reducing your alcohol intake improves you physically (internally and externally)
We all know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us, with the government recommending no more than 14 units each week. This should be spread out across different days, with some alcohol-free days.
Embracing alcohol-free time has lots of benefits, both to your physical and mental health. Below I’ve outlined the benefits you’ll likely see:
Claim back the calories
Many alcoholic drinks have a higher calorie count than we realise. For example, a glass of wine can contain roughly the same amount of calories as an ice cream, while a typical pint of cider is the same as a doughnut. Bearing in mind that people often have several drinks in one sitting, and the calories do very soon start to tally up.
Giving up alcohol for a month means you may well be reducing the number of calories you’re consuming. Just be careful not to replace the drinks with things like sugary or unhealthy snacks and drinks.
Catch more zzzz’s
Whilst alcohol often makes many feel lethargic and sleepy, it’s been proven to negatively impact how well you sleep. This is because your body doesn’t experience as much of the ‘deep sleep state’ it needs to rest and recover, ready for the following day.
Giving up alcohol takes that away, meaning you’re more likely to get the sleep your body needs to wake up on top form, ready to tackle whatever the day throws at you.
Your liver will thank you
Your liver helps your body to function by breaking down food for energy, defending you from infection and getting rid of waste. But if you drink too much, your liver can get a build up of fat which can lead to problems. Fortunately, the liver is able to repair itself, so within a few weeks of being tee-total, it’ll start getting rid of any excess fat built up.
When you drink alcohol, your body becomes dehydrated. This can cause headaches, fatigue, and nausea – which we know as a hangover.
Giving up alcohol can help you keep well-hydrated which has lots of benefits, including improved concentration and motivation. Your skin may look and feel more refreshed, too.
Your mood may improve
Giving up alcohol could also improve your mental health. Alcohol is a depressant and it can disrupt the delicate balance of chemicals and processes in the brain, affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions. It can also make mental health conditions worse.
Taking some time off alcohol allows your brain to level out, and you may find you’re able to deal with any mental health worries (such as stress and anxiety) in a far more positive way. You might find your concentration also improves.
And/Or do you think the greater impact is how it can help people break bad drinking habits?
Cutting out alcohol for a month can work as a way for people to break a bad habit. What we do know that doing an alcohol-free month and then binge drinking next month again undoes all the benefits.
If you can take it further than just one month and try to stick to this new approach for the whole year, it will have huge benefits for your physical health and wellbeing.
Stopping drinking altogether is great if you can keep this up, but it’s always easier to start slowly and ease yourself into the routine.
Is there ever a safe amount or way to drink?
Government guidelines and the NHS recommend not drinking anymore than 14 units a week. These units should be spread out over 3 or more days if you regularly drink 14 units a week. If you want to cut down, try to have drink free days each week.
What are your tips for taking a more sensible approach to going alcohol-free for a month?
Try alcohol-free days
A helpful way to cut back on your intake is to have some alcohol-free days each week. Try to spread any consumption evenly over at least three days of the week, rather than drinking it all in one go. Pick the days where you are going to make sure you don’t have any alcohol, for example Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are alcohol-free every week and make this a rule.
Set small, meaningful goals
If you’re trying to drink less, set yourself small but achievable goals to reduce your alcohol consumption. If you find you’re drinking more with your evening meal or when you socialise, why not opt for an alcohol-free alternative? Or limit yourself to one alcoholic drink while socialising and make sure the rest of your drinks are soft drinks?
Don’t punish yourself for a slip-up, instead, view it with self-compassion. Rather than be critical or frustrated if you’ve drank more than you wanted to, understand that you’ve had a set-back and treat yourself with kindness. Focus on moving forward and continuing to reduce your alcohol intake.
Remember – it’s important to seek support if your relationship with alcohol is affecting your health. Reach out to your GP or local support service who will be able to advise on next steps.