Dr Luke Powles, clinical director at Bupa Health Clinics, commented: What is 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?
Your body’s reaction to drinking alcohol depends on several factors, including how much you’ve drank, the strength of the drink, size, liver function, and whether you’ve eaten.
Drinking alcohol causes short-term changes to how 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 alcohol you’ve consumed, you may feel sleepier than usual or even pass out.
Drinking alcohol over a long period can severely damage 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, leading 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 altogether.
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 the 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, 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 safety plan to reduce your intake gradually.
How does reducing your alcohol intake improve you physically?
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 many benefits for 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 calories as an ice cream, while a typical pint of cider is the same as a doughnut. However, considering that people often have several drinks in one sitting, the calories soon start to tally up.
Giving up alcohol for a month means reducing the calories you’re consuming. Just be careful not to replace the drinks with things like sugary or unhealthy snacks and drinks.
Catch more zzz’s
While alcohol often makes many feel lethargic and sleepy, and it’s been proven to affect how well you sleep negatively. 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 function by breaking down food for energy, defending you from infection, and eliminating waste. But if you drink too much, your liver can get a build-up of fat which can lead to problems. Fortunately, the liver can 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 many 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 that 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 can deal with any mental health worries (such as stress and anxiety) in a far more positive way. You might find your concentration also improves.
How it can help people break lousy drinking habits?
Cutting out alcohol for a month can work as a way for people to break a bad habit. However, we know that doing an alcohol-free month and then binge drinking the next month again undoes all the benefits.
If you can take it further than just one month and stick to this new approach for the whole year, it will significantly benefit your physical health and well-being.
Stopping drinking altogether is excellent 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 any more than 14 units a week. These units should be spread out over three 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.
Tips for an alcohol-free month
Try alcohol-free days
A helpful way to reduce 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 will make sure you don’t have any alcohol; for example, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are alcohol-free every week and make this a rule.
Set small and meaningful goals
Suppose you’re trying to drink less; set small achievable goals to reduce alcohol consumption. If 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 ensure the rest of your drinks are soft drinks?
Don’t punish yourself for a slip-up; 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 setback and treat yourself with kindness. Then, focus on moving forward and continuing to reduce your alcohol intake.
Remember, seeking support is important if your relationship with alcohol affects your health. Reach out to your GP or local support service, who will be able to advise on the next steps.