Defining alcohol

The term alcohol in this instance means alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine and spirits like whisky and vodka.

The scientific term for the alcohol found in drinks such as these is ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Other forms of alcohol such as methanol are far too toxic to be consumed by humans.

Understanding alcohol

Even though many of us drink to be social or even have a good time with friends and family, alcohol is in fact a depressant. So, although it can make you feel depressed, alcohol also slows your body’s responses.

A small amount can make you feel jolly, a heavy session can give you a pretty mean hangover, while drinking too much can damage your organs, even put you in a coma and at worse be fatal.

Some of the immediate and long-term effects of alcohol can include:

Feeling sociable

  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety

Can exaggerate the mood you were in before you started drinking

  • If you were happy can make you feel happier
  • But if you were upset it can make you feel worse

Physical health problems

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Stroke

The health implications of alcohol can vary greatly from a mild hangover and nausea to long term effects such alcoholic liver disease and cancer.

This is not to say however, that you shouldn’t drink at all, we all enjoy a social night out with friends or a glass of wine with our dinner, but everything in moderation is best.

Alcohol is packed full of empty calories and the average person takes on around 2000 calories from alcohol every month.

Drinking a pint of 5% beer is the equivalent to eating a packet of salted crisp, while a standard glass of wine is the same as eating a chocolate mini roll.

Alcohol is made from sugar, and natural starch and the alcohol content is produced through fermentation and distillation. Therefore, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can have serious implications for your waistline, hence the term beer belly.

Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcohol and mental health are the 2 leading modern public health issues. Mixing drink with your mental health can exaggerate how you are already feeling. So, drowning your sorrows can actually make you feel a whole a lot worse.

One major issue associated with alcohol is the hangover. For most of us, the film version is a pretty good depiction of how we feel when the dreaded hangover hits.

Symptoms of a hangover can include:

Sleep deprivation

Alcohol can seriously deprive you of your sleep, making it hard to concentrate.

Feeling stressed

Alcohol can interfere with how we carry out everyday tasks, particularly if we have a drink after a hard day at work. Plus, remember alcohol is a depressant so can disrupt your motivation.

Relationships

Along with feeling more stressed, alcohol can also impact on your relationships. You may find you argue more with your partner, your children or your friends.

Other symptoms

  • Headache
  • Light-headedness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light

Why do we get hangovers?

The simple answer is dehydration. Ethanol is toxic and in our body, it acts as a diuretic. A diuretic is a substance which increases urination, in turn this can increase the risk of dehydration and loss of vital salts.

We can reduce the risk of developing a hangover by drinking plenty of water before going to bed after a drinking session. You should also avoid drinking on an empty stomach as food can help slow down how quickly the body absorbs alcohol.

How many units can I drink?

Alcohol units were first introduced in the UK in 1987 to help the public keep track of their alcohol consumption. Simply, units explain the amount of pure alcohol that is present in a drink. The size of the drink and the strength of the alcohol can affect the number of units.

Some tips to follow include:

  • Men and women shouldn’t consume more than 14 units in a week
  • You should spread your drinking across the week – preferably over 3 days or more
  • Cut down your alcohol consumption by having a few drink-free days in the week

How many units in my drink?

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking can be defined as drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time. Drinking over 8 units for men and 6 units for women in a single session has been classified as binging by the Office of National Statistics.

The problem with binge drinking is the risks it poses on your health and safety. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can make you more susceptible to accidents and harm. Particularly as our bodies are only able to process one unit of alcohol per hour.

When we binge on alcohol our balance and coordination are affected, making us more likely to fall over, plus we lose our judgement, so may do things we wouldn’t normally do when we’re sober.

Alcohol and your liver

The liver is the largest liver in the human body and is responsible for helping the body to get rid of waste products (detoxification), fight infection and break down food into an energy source. However, alcohol can damage the liver and reduce its function. Normally you won’t know too much about it until the damage has progressed.

Liver disease resulting from alcohol consumption is responsible for over a third of liver disease associated deaths every year. What’s scarier is younger people are being affected, 1 in 10 of these deaths are people aged in their 40’s.

There are 2 types of liver disease:

  • Acute
    • Develops over a period of months
  • Chronic
    • Develops over several years

Drinking too much alcohol can make your liver turn glucose (the body’s energy source) into fat, causing fatty liver disease.

You may be aware of this as you may feel discomfort in your abdominal area, a result of your liver being swollen.

Stopping drinking for 2 weeks can eradicate this problem and allow the liver to breakdown the excess fat.

Initial symptoms of liver disease can include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach pains
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Late stage symptoms can include:

  • Bleeding in the gut
  • Jaundice
  • Bruising easily
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting blood
  • Itchy skin
  • Swollen ankles
  • Weakness

These symptoms can take anything up to 20 years to develop but the later stage symptoms are more serious. If you develop liver cirrhosis, it is essential you give up alcohol to prevent death from liver failure.

However, the good news is the effects can be reversible as the liver is the only organ in our body which is able to regenerate itself. So, giving up drink can have a healing effect on the body’s largest organ.

We all enjoy alcohol at some point in our lives, but we should do so in moderation. Drinking too much or binging can have a serious impact on your health.

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Having always been intrigued by how body’s work, both in their day to day functions and also when things go wrong, Leanne is pursuing her passion for health. By combining her undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science and a Masters in Science communication with her love for writing, she is passing on her knowledge to Health Hub readers. Leanne strongly believes that science and health are something that should be talked about more and she hopes her articles will enable such conversations.