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The government’s alcohol guidelines changed in January this year after over 21 years of remaining the same, to reflect new evidence about the link between alcohol and health harms, particularly cancer.

The alcohol limit for men has been lowered to be the same as for women. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) guideline for both men and women is that:

  • You are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week. This is to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level

  • If you do drink as much as 14 units week it is best to spread this evenly across the week

How the advice has changed

  • Previous government guidance set out daily drinking limits of three to four units for men and two to three for women. The new guidance moves to weekly limits to get away from the idea that drinking every day is fine.

One-off drinking (Binge Drinking)

You may not class yourself as a binge drinker but if you are one of these people who save it all up for the weekend, that is exactly what you are

If you have one or two heavy drinking sessions you increase the risks of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries. When it comes to single drinking occasions you can keep the short term health risks at a low level by sticking to a few simple rules:

  • Limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any occasion;

  • Drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water.

Brain: Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behaviour, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.

Heart: Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:

  • Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle

  • Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat

  • Stroke

  • High blood pressure

Research also shows that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may protect healthy adults from developing coronary heart disease. The benefits of alcohol for heart health only apply for women aged 55 and over. The greatest benefit is seen when these women limit their intake to around 5 units a week, the equivalent of around 2 standard glasses of wine. The group concluded that there is no justification for drinking for health reasons

Liver: Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:

  • Steatosis, or fatty liver

  • Alcoholic hepatitis

  • Fibrosis

  • Cirrhosis

Pancreas: Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.

Cancer: Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the:

  • Mouth

  • Esophagus

  • Throat

  • Liver

  • Breast

Immune System: Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

Alcohol is a poison

Your body can only process one unit of alcohol an hour. Drink a lot in a short space of time and the amount of alcohol in the blood can stop the body from working properly.

It can:

  • Slow down your brain functions so you lose your sense of balance.

  • Irritate the stomach which causes vomiting and it stops your gag reflex from working properly – you can choke on, or inhale, your own vomit into your lungs.

  • Affect the nerves that control your breathing and heartbeat, it can stop both.

  • Dehydrate you, which can cause permanent brain damage.

  • Lower the body’s temperature, which can lead to hypothermia.

  • Lower your blood sugar levels, so you could suffer seizures.

Alcohol is full of sugar

The fact that alcoholic drinks are full of empty calories and have no nutritional value is bad news for your waistline, but what many people don’t consider is that they're also full of sugar.

A pint of cider can contain as many as five teaspoons of sugar – almost as much as the World Health Organisation recommends that you do not exceed per day!

What’s more, alcohol can negatively alter blood sugar levels, putting heavy drinkers at increased risk of diabetes.

Sugar in alcohol

According to the NHS, alcoholic drinks account for 11% of the UK population’s daily intake of added sugar. Despite this, many people forget to factor in what they drink when calculating daily sugar intake. All alcoholic beverages contain some sugar, but Dr Sarah Jarvis, a member of Drinkaware’s medical panel, identifies fortified wines, Sherries, liqueurs and cider as being particular causes of excessive consumption. It’s also important to consider what you’re mixing your drinks with, as the carbonated drinks popular with spirits are often very high in sugar.

Alcohol and blood sugar

However, it’s not only the high sugar content of alcohol that can affect your body – drinking to excess has also been shown to have a negative effective on blood sugar. When a person drinks alcohol, the body reacts to it as a toxin, and channels all energy into expelling it. This means that other processes are interrupted – including the production of glucose and the hormones needed to regulate it. This is most noticeable in heavy drinkers, as over time drinking too much alcohol decreases the effectiveness of insulin, which leads to high blood sugar levels.

Alcohol also affects blood sugar levels each time it’s consumed, which means occasional drinkers can also be negatively impacted. Alcohol consumption causes an increase in insulin secretion, which leads to low blood sugar (otherwise known as hypoglycaemia). This causes light headedness and fatigue, and is also responsible for a host of longer term health problems.

Alcohol and diabetes

The effects of alcohol on blood sugar, in particular hypoglycaemia, can make excessive drinking very dangerous for anyone with diabetes. Alcohol can also make hypoglycaemic medications less effective, meaning those with diabetes need to take extra care when drinking.

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