Alcohol Awareness Week 2020 takes place from 16 – 22 November 2020 on the theme of ‘Alcohol and Mental Health, led by Alcohol Change UK.
In times of stress we can find ourselves drinking more often or more heavily. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have highlighted that while drinking alcohol might seem like a way of relaxing or taking your mind off the constant stream of news about COVID-19, it can negatively affect your health and make you more at risk from the effects of COVID-19. In England and Scotland 24% of adults regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines. It is important to raise awareness of the impact of alcohol on our health as it is a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions, including: mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers; high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver; and depression.
Why cut down on alcohol?
There are lots of benefits associated with cutting back on your alcohol intake. It can have some positive effects on the way you look and feel – often within just a few days. And while you enjoy them, you’ll be reducing your longer term risk of some serious illnesses such as cancer and liver and heart disease. You might also notice the following:
- you’ll get a better night’s sleep – when you drink too much, you spend less of the night in a deep, restorative slumber. You’re also more likely to wake early and find it hard to drop off again.
- your skin will be brighter – alcohol dehydrates your skin, making it appear dull and grey. Add some dark circles and bags under your eyes from a lack of decent sleep and you’ll look less than your best. Thankfully, skin is quick to react to changes so it could be looking better after just a couple of days of drinking less.
- more time and energy – alcohol can interfere with your immune system making it harder to fight off bugs. And with its negative effects on your sleep and mood, drinking too much can make you feel tired, sluggish and generally a bit under the weather.
Reducing alcohol can also give you a slimmer waistline. Alcohol is high in empty calories, around seven calories per gram, almost as much as a gram of fat! The typical calories found in popular alcoholic drinks can be seen in the table below.
According to the NHS, the average wine drinker in England consumes around 2,000 calories of alcohol every month. While an individual who drinks five pints of lager a week consumes around 44,200kcal over a year. That’s the equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts!
Alcoholic drinks, such as Cider and Alcopops, can also contain high levels of sugar. A pint of cider can contain as many as five teaspoons of sugar, almost as much as the maximum recommended intake for an adult per day.
Having too much sugar in our diet can increase the risk of obesity and obesity related health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey the sugar in alcoholic drinks accounts for around 9% of adults daily sugar intake. Despite their high sugar levels, many people don’t factor in what they drink when calculating daily sugar intakes.
Health risks associated with drinking too much alcohol
- Drinking too much can cause hangovers. This varies from person to person but can include symptoms such as headache, nausea, tiredness, dehydration, trouble concentrating and feeling irritable
- Increased blood pressure meaning an increased risk of heart disease
- Fatty liver, inflammation of the liver and scarring of the liver
- Inflammation of the stomach lining and stomach ulcers. Increased risk of reflux
- Overweight and obesity
- Cancer of the mouth, larynx, pharynx and oesophagus
How much can I drink?
If you drink alcohol it’s best to enjoy it in moderation. The Chief Medical Officer advises that ‘to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, it is safest not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week ’.
Note: It is recommended to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy.
The infographic seen here (right) provides examples of what 14 units of different alcoholic drinks looks like.
Drink Aware have created a fantastic feature on their website to calculate the units, and calories in the alcohol you drink.
Top tips on cutting down
- Set a limit for yourself and keep track of how many units you have had across the week
- Measure how much you drink – it’s easy to underestimate how much you fill up your glass. When outside the home pick smaller sizes e.g. half a pint of beer/cider, a small glass of wine, a single measure of spirit and mixer
- Set a budget – decide on a fixed amount of money that can be spent on alcoholic drinks
- Tell friends and family you are cutting down so they can support you, arrange alternative catch-ups that don’t involve alcohol
- Opt for alcohol free or low alcohol drinks. For example many pubs and restaurants now stock non-alcoholic beers. When out drinking try to alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks
- Have a glass of water between each alcoholic drink you consume
There are also lots of mocktails to create instead of having an alcoholic drink
Alcohol and Mental Health
While the effects of alcohol can sometimes have a short term positive impact on our mood, in the long term it can cause problems for mental health. Drinking alcohol is linked to a range of mental health issues from depression and memory loss, to suicide.
The brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt that balance, affecting our thoughts, feelings and a
ctions – and sometimes our long-term mental health. This is partly down to neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that help to transmit signals from one nerve (or neuron) in the brain to another.
For example, the relaxed feeling we can experience if we have a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol has caused in the brain. A drink can make some people feel more confident and less anxious, as the alcohol begins to suppress the part of the brain associated with inhibition.
As we drink more, the impact on the our brain function increases. And regardless of the mood we’re in, with increasing alcohol consumption, it’s possible that negative emotions will take over, leading to a negative impact on mental health. Alcohol can be linked to aggression and some people report becoming angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed when they drink.
Make small changes for a healthier, happier you!
Help and Support
Wherever you live, there will be a service in your area which supports people with alcohol problems. You can access these services in a few key ways:
- Your GP is your first port of call for alcohol problems. They will be able to provide confidential advice and refer you for extra support.
- Check on your local authority website to see how you can access your local provider.
- There are a number of NHS services directories you can use to find support and treatment services near you: NHS England
You can also find support remotely:
- Drinkline, a free, confidential helpline for people who are concerned about their drinking, or someone else’s. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm)
- Alcoholics Anonymous, whose helpline is open 24/7 on 0800 9177 650. If you would prefer, you can also email them at email@example.com or live chat via their website
- You can join a SMART Recovery meeting online here.
- Al-Anon which offers support and understanding to the families and friends of dependent drinkers. You can call their confidential helpline on 0800 0086 811 (open 10am-10pm). There are lots more resources for families and friends here.
- Nacoa support anyone affected by their parent(s) drinking, including adults. Here are some of the questions that children often ask about alcohol and the effects on them and their family. For more information, visit nacoa.org.uk, call 0800 358 3456 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.
If you are looking for urgent support please contact the Samaritans, who are available 24/7 on 116 123 or email@example.com.