Cold Turkey

How many times have you woken, head throbbing, and sworn ‘never again’? A hangover, after a boozy night out, is just one of many potential side effects of drinking too much alcohol.

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Time to abstain? The impact of alcohol and health benefits of reducing intake

How many times have you woken, head throbbing, and sworn ‘never again’? A hangover, after a boozy night out, is just one of many potential side effects of drinking too much alcohol. “Most people who drink will have suffered a hangover. It affects your judgement, the quality of your sleep, your ability to concentrate the next day and your productivity,” says Colin Shevills, director of Balance, an organisation based in North East England and funded by 12 local authorities.

Balance has been established to help reduce the harm caused by alcohol abuse. Around 45 percent of adults in the area covered by the organisation, including the cities of Sunderland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, drink at a level that’s harmful to their health. Last year alcohol was a factor in 67,278 people being admitted to hospital in the region, which has the highest level of alcohol consumption in England. Men have a tendency to laugh off over-indulgence and the after-effects of consuming alcohol to excess.

However, recent research indicates that the potential long-term impact of drinking is no joke. “Alcohol causes over 60 different medical conditions, including heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure. It causes seven different types of cancer, including mouth and throat cancer. We’re only, in the past 20 years, really beginning to understand how it harms our health,” says Shevills.

“There is an absolute causal link between alcohol and an increased link of the onset of cancer. There’s no doubt whatsoever about that. If the alcohol industry tried to deny that it would be behaving like the tobacco industry in denying the link between tobacco and cancer,” he adds. That comes as sobering news for many Britons.

The vast majority of people do not associate alcohol with cancer. A survey of 2,100 people, conducted by Cancer Research UK and published at the beginning of April, reveals that just 13 percent of people do so. That’s despite the International Agency for Research into Cancer classifying alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen back in 1988. Along with smoking and obesity, alcohol is now one of the three biggest risk factors to people’s health in the UK and many other developed countries. Cirrhosis of the liver is another potential ramification of excessive drinking.

Mental health can also be affected. Depression can be triggered by alcohol impacting the chemistry of the brain. Some people readily admit they drink to relieve anxiety and de-stress after a busy week. Worryingly, there’s evidence that too much alcohol really can cause people to forget, by inducing memory loss through dementia. The Royal College of Psychiatrists also warns that regular heavy drinking can cause psychosis, a condition in which sufferers ‘hear’ voices when nobody else is present.

According to Alcohol Concern, a charity promoting health and awareness of the impact of alcohol, as many as 7.5 million British citizens are unaware of the potential damage caused by drinking excessively. Close to 11 million of the country’s people drink at levels that pose a risk to health.

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During 2012, 6,490 of deaths in England were classified as ‘alcohol-related’, a rise of 19 percent on 2001. In addition to the cost to people’s wellbeing, there’s a significant economic impact. Lost productivity, healthcare and alcoholrelated crime costs the UK around £21 billion a year; that’s the equivalent of more than £327 per person. Offsetting that are excise duties and taxes, which rise between £9 and £10 billion a year.

Statistics published by the World Health Organisation reveal male drinkers consumed the equivalent of 18.9 litres of pure alcohol in the UK during 2010. That compares to just 4.7 litres in Singapore. Only 38.3 percent of the world’s population drinks alcohol but, grimly, it was a factor in 3.3 million global deaths in 2012. In January, advice from Professor Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, resulted in the country’s government to reducing alcohol consumption guidelines to 14 units a week for both men and women.

One unit is the equivalent of 10 millilitres of pure alcohol; the equivalent of 14 shots of spirit, six pints of standard strength beer or six 175ml glasses of wine. If people do drink it’s now recommended that they spread consumption through the week and have alcohol-free recovery days. Many drinkers believe moderate consumption has health benefits.

However, new evidence suggests that only the hearts of women aged 55 and above benefit from alcohol. Snippets from conflicting reports are published regularly, confusing many people. Over the past couple of years increasing numbers of people have participated in Dry January, a campaign encouraging people to abstain from alcohol for 31 days.

“The benefits people report during Dry January are a better complexion, sleeping better and more energy. It’s only when you stop drinking that you realise some of the downsides are down to drink and not just getting older,” says Shevills about the campaign which drew around 50,000 participants in 2015 and 60,000 this year. “Thirty-one days is long enough for people to reconsider their consumption, to change it and cut down,” he adds, referencing a study by the University of Sussex in 2014.

It found, six months after completing a dry month, 72 percent of participants were able to maintain less drinking. Completing Dry January resulted in 49 percent of people losing weight and 79 percent saving money. Whether they spend those savings on a spa break is unclear. What is abundantly clear is that men need to be more aware of the potential health risks posed by drinking too much.

“The benefits people report during Dry January are a better complexion, sleeping better and more energy” ~ Colin Shevills

Assessing how much you drink

Concerned or intrigued about how much you drink? Drinkaware is an organisation established to raise awareness about alcohol and health issues. It has developed an app bearing its name that people can utilise to track how much they drink. It can be downloaded, free-of-charge, via the App Store and from Google Play.