You and Your Health: Alcohol

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Think Before You Drink

With Andrew Watson of Goodmeasure Pharmacy, Rotherham

Drinking alcohol plays a part in many people’s lives; whether to celebrate a happy event – or drown sorrows – have a glass of wine with a meal among friends, or even just a sociable chat over a pint in our local.

It is prevalent in TV shows, especially soaps, and is widely advertised and cheap to buy in supermarkets leading to a rise in people drinking more at home.

For most people, alcohol is enjoyable and manageable but for others there is a darker side. In 2016/17, there were 1.1 million hospital admissions in England where the main reason or secondary diagnosis was linked to alcohol consumption, according to the NHS.

So how do we know that we are drinking too much and putting our health at risk?

The safe guidelines are well published but many of us don’t know what a unit of alcohol is or equates to.

Units indicate the quantity of pure alcohol in a drink based on the amount the average adult can process in an hour. The number of units in a drink depends on the size and strength of the drink. One pint of beer or lager is 2.8 units, one 175ml glass of wine is 2.4 units and one 25ml measure of spirits is one unit.

Men and women are advised to drink no more than 14 units a week which should be spread over a minimum of three days in the week. It is wise to adhere to these guidelines to prevent damaging your health and you can add up the units – and calories – in your typical weekly beverages on the Drinkaware website.

At home, minor changes can help you reduce your intake such as buying small wine glasses rather than large, measuring spirits instead of guessing, and drinking with food to slow down alcohol absorption. While out socially, politely turning down buying in ‘rounds’ or alternating between low-alcohol or ‘mocktails’ could also help you stay within the low-risk bracket.

However, some people still find this impossible and, according to Alcohol Change UK, an estimated 589,101 people in England were dependent on alcohol in 2016/17.

But how do you know if you or a family member is an alcoholic?

Alcoholism is not the same as harmful or binge drinking. Alcoholics have an uncontrollable compulsion to drink even though they know it is harmful. Sadly, they put drinking above all other things in life.

They lie to themselves and others about how much they are drinking, hide bottles or drink in secret. They lose interest in things previously enjoyed, become irritated and unreasonable and can have problems with work, finances or the law. Of course, constant intoxication means their health will suffer and they may have blackouts or forget what has happened.

There is some evidence to suggest that family history and attitudes towards drinking plays a part in some people becoming alcoholics, particularly if you start drinking at an early age and live amongst heavy drinkers. Low self-esteem as well as mental health issues such as depression and chronic anxiety may lead to excess drinking eventually alcoholism.

It is difficult for an alcoholic to recognise they have a problem and will often refuse to admit it. However, alcoholism is now viewed as a disease and the shame and stigma associated with it is lessening thanks in part to celebrities who publicly admit to suffering.

Your GP is often the first person to ask for advice and they should be able to tell you what support is available in your area whether it be medication, rehabilitation centres, counselling or self-help groups.

When an alcoholic tries to stop drinking they will have withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, nausea, shaking and even seizures. Severe symptoms sometimes require medication from special centres or your GP. Usually a sedative drug such as chlordiazepoxide is used however this does not solve the problem completely and support is often needed.

Medication can be used to help prevent relapses. Antabuse (disulfiram) may be taken daily but it causes very unpleasant reactions when alcohol is taken with it such as flushing, nausea and severe headache and acts as a deterrent.

Newer medicines help prevent cravings for alcohol by acting on chemicals or receptors in the brain. They are acamprosate (Campral), naltrexone and nalmefene and are prescribed under specialist supervision with essential ongoing counselling.

Of course, this is in extreme cases of alcohol misuse but regular alcohol consumption can also contribute to many health issues other than just a stinking hangover. Stomach inflammation due to excess acid, reduced sleep quality and weight gain or increased blood pressure from all the empty calories and sugars are just a few common side effects. As too are bloated or dehydrated looking skin and rosacea.

Alcohol can also have more serious long-term effects and is not just linked to the liver. It can be linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, stomach, colon and pancreas.