s much as no one wants to admit it, there’s no hiding the huge damage that alcohol inflicts on our health and on society.
And it’s not just alcoholics with liver damage and daily dependency who need to be concerned. Alcohol has wide ranging impacts on the health of anyone who drinks it, from ageing our skin and promoting weight gain to increasing our risk of cancer.
In fact, one review by David Nutt, former government drugs adviser, ranked alcohol as the most dangerous drug in the United Kingdom. The review, published by the Lancet, concluded that if drugs were classified on the basis of the harm they cause (both to the user and to others), alcohol would be class A. Overall, alcohol scored 72 compared with 55 for heroin and 54 for crack.
The cost of alcohol
The Department for Health estimates that the NHS spends £3.5 billion a year on alcohol-related problems. A 2016 Public Health England evidence review estimates the economic burden of alcohol as between £21-£52 billion annually. But we aren’t doing anything about this. Instead, drinking too much has become increasingly normalised, and even celebrated. Walk into any high street greeting card store and you’ll see cards declaring statements like ‘hand me prosecco and watch me get fabulous’ and ‘wine goes in, fun comes out’. Words like fabulous and fun are so commonly associated with booze and yet, have you ever met a drunk person you’d describe as fabulous? And how fun are hangovers? The wasted hours spent curled up in bed with ‘hangxiety’, agonising over the ridiculous things we said or did. The reality of the chaos alcohol causes is a far cry from the social tonic we are misleadingly sold.
We know that alcohol causes harm to health (even the previously reported benefits of moderate drinking on heart health are now understood to have been overhyped) but it’s easy to believe that the warnings don’t apply to us. Drinking quality drinks in nice bars and restaurants seems somehow less damaging compared with swigging White Lightening out of a brown paper bag on a park bench at 9am. But alcohol is alcohol, regardless of how much you spend on it or where you’re consuming it.
Health risks of alcohol
Need more convincing? Alcohol is a known carcinogen, clinically proven to cause cancer. One review of the evidence put the increased risk of breast cancer at between 30-50 per cent from consuming 15-30 grams (about 1-2 drinks) alcohol per day. Even consuming less than one drink a day can increase your risk – just three alcoholic drinks per week is associated with a 15 per cent higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who don't drink at all, according to Breastcancer.org.
While these are effects going on internally that we may not see or feel immediately, (and in some cases until it’s too late to repair the damage,) there are also visual impacts to consider.
Alcohol and ageing
Alcohol has numerous negative impacts on the health of our skin and how quickly it ages. Drinking causes generation of free radicals (unstable molecules that cause damage to cells) and low-level inflammation, both of which speed up skin ageing. While it’s unlikely to directly cause skin conditions, alcohol has been linked to triggering flare-ups of inflammatory skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis. Due to its hormone disrupting effects, alcohol can increase production of sebum which has the potential to aggravate acne.
Alcohol causes weight gain
If you’re trying to lose weight, drinking alcohol won’t do you any favours, either. One study found that alcohol temporarily reduces fat burning by 73 per cent meaning that your weight loss is likely to be stalled if you drink. Drinking also increases levels of your stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is known for promoting weight gain around the abdomen so if you want a flat stomach, keeping your cortisol level in check is key. According to Alcohol Change UK’s website, 58 per cent of people who did Dry January last year lost weight.
Alcohol and mental health
It’s all too easy to think of alcohol as the relaxant that gets a party off to a good start. People tend to associate alcohol with relaxing, and there is some truth in this, since alcohol is a mild sedative. However, it is also a depressant that affects the central nervous system. As your blood alcohol level rises, you experience temporary feelings of excitement, but as this falls again, you’re likely to experience feelings of depression, which can leave you feeling more anxious than you were before you had a drink in the first place. This is where ‘hangxiety’ comes into play; this alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours or even days. While it might seem like a good idea at the time, using alcohol to overcome conditions such as social anxiety is unfortunately totally counterintuitive.
The symptoms of being drunk can be explained by the impact of ethanol on our brains which reduces communication between brain cells. Binge drinking can lead to blackouts, memory loss or amnesia, and while these effects are temporary, chronic abuse may cause permanent changes in your brain and impaired brain function.
In 2018 global study published in the Lancet concluded that there is ‘no safe limit’ when it comes to alcohol consumption, stating that any potential benefits of moderate drinking are outweighed by the risks. Despite all this, alcohol misuse remains the biggest risk factor of death, ill-health and disability amongst 15-49 year-olds in the UK, according to alcoholchange.org.uk. The irony is, we know that alcohol is a dangerous and addictive substance and yet we are expected (and frequently encouraged) to consume it regularly and in moderation. And if we fail to keep our intake in check, which many of us do, we are made to feel like we are the problem.
If you’re keen to keep an eye on your alcohol intake beyond Dry January, check out our guide to cutting down, or tap into the growing number of sober and sober-curious communities online, including @sobergirlsociety. Craig Beck’s Book, Alcohol Lied to Me also makes for an enlightening read.
Kim Pearson is a qualified nutritionist and weight loss specialist based on London’s Harley Street. She consults clients in London and internationally via her virtual consulting room. For more information about Kim and the services she offers, visit her website kim-pearson.com