Impacts of Alcohol Consumption on the Body

This month marks Alcohol Awareness Week (15th-21st November), so what better time to remind ourselves of the alcohol guidelines and health implications. 

The negative effects of alcohol on the human body have been well studied. Alcohol consumption has effects on a multitude of systems within the body, including greatly influences the nervous system, brain function, metabolism, heart physiology, temperature regulation and muscle movement. The impact of alcohol consumption on health is largely determined by two aspects of drinking:

  • the total volume of alcohol consumed, and
  • the pattern of drinking.

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, liver disease and digestive problems.

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What counts as ‘excessive’ alcohol consumption?

With all the different size glasses, and alcohol strengths in different drinks, its easy to get confused about how many units you are drinking. The number of units in a drink is based on the size of the drink, as well as its alcohol strength. For both men and women, it’s recommended to consume no more than 14 units per week spread over 3 or more days. 

 

See the table below, supplied by the NHS, to find out how many units are in your favourite alcoholic beverage:

Type of drink

Number of alcohol units

single small shot of spirits * (25ml, abv 40%)

1 unit

alcopop (275ml, abv 5.5%)

1.5 units

small glass of red/white/rosé wine (125ml, abv 12%)

1.5 units

bottle of lager/beer/cider (330ml, abv 5%)

1.7 units

can of lager/beer/cider (440ml, abv 5.5%)

2 units

pint of lower-strength lager/beer/cider (abv 3.6%)

2 units

standard glass of red/white/rosé wine (175ml, abv 12%)

2.1 units

pint of higher-strength lager/beer/cider (abv 5.2%)

3 units

large glass of red/white/rosé wine (250ml, abv 12%)

3 units

a 750ml bottle of red, white, or rosé wine (abv 13.5%)

10 units 

*Gin, rum, vodka, whisky, tequila, sambuca. Large (35ml) single measures of spirits are 1.4 units.

 

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How does alcohol affect our body?

  1. Hydration – alcohol is a diuretic, which is a substance that as increases urination. Alcohol also increases the sodium content of your urine and reduces the amount of urine our kidneys absorb, which affects your body’s electrolyte balance and, therefore, your overall hydration (1).
  2. Brain – alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, affecting the way the brain works which can disrupt mood and behaviours and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination (think slurring words and unable to walk in a straight line).
  3. Organs – heavy drinking takes a toll on your heart, liver, and pancreas. It can increase your risk of heart attack and strokes as well as increasing blood pressure. Alcohol also increases your chances of fatty liver disease.
  4. Immune system –drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk! This makes your body an easier target for disease, and thus chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. 
  5. Exercise performance - alcohol compromises our motor skills, balance, hand-eye coordination, hypersensitivity to outside stimuli, such as light and sound (2) and reaction time, which negatively affect our performance and increases the risk of injury (3).
  6. Sleep - alcohol has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness (4), so although you may fall asleep quickly it also suppresses REM sleep, your deep sleep thought to play an important role in memory consolidation (5).  This decreases overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.

 

FBF Collective Top Drinking Tips: 

  1. Avoid salty snacks whilst drinking alcohol as it will make you want to drink more.
  2. Drink water to quench your thirst before you start drinking, and between each glass to help flush out the toxins from alcohol (acetaldehyde, a carcinogen metabolised from ethanol).
  3. Increase the time you drink over by taking little sips, so over a period of time you will essentially drink less - alcohol is metabolised by the liver and in general the liver can process approximately one standard drink (one unit of alcohol) per hour.
  4. Watch out for the mixers you add to your spirits, as they are often high in calories and sugar too – opt for diet or no added sugar mixers.
  5. Choose lower calorie alcoholic drinks such as dry wines, soda water over sweetened tonic water, and be mindful of the cocktails ladened with sugar.
  6. Try drinks with a lower alcohol content e.g., opt for a shandy or spritz, or wine with an alcoholic strength by volume’ (ABV) of 5.5%, which is a reduced alcohol wine – a lot of wines today are normally between 12-14% ABV!
  7. Avoid mixing alcohol with sugary or energy drinks, as the caffeine can give you a false sense of sobriety.
  8. Try not to drink on an empty stomach as the alcohol will enter your bloodstream more quickly.
  9. Remember you can just say “NO” if you don’t feel like it! 

 

Remember there are several factors that must be considered when trying to gauge how alcohol may affect you, such as age and gender, how much is drunk in a particular setting, how often over a course of time, how quickly, the individual’s body size and composition, and their tolerance to alcohol.

If you know you are going to consume a lot of alcohol, try to strategise your pre-drinking meal by consuming food rich in vitamin B and antioxidants. For example, salmon or beef fillet, with green leafy vegetables like spinach or collard greens. This will help combat oxidative stress, which contributes to a hangover. In contrast to popular opinion, hangovers are not actually caused by dehydration, but from oxidative stress and inflammation i.e., that awful headache and nausea feeling you get - dehydration just worsens these symptoms! 

 

By Abigail Attenborough (ANutr) 


1) Paton, A. (2005). Alcohol in the body. Bmj, 330(7482), 85-87.

2) Van SchrojensteinLantman, M., Mackus, M., van de Loo, A.J. and Verster, J.C. (2017). The impact of alcohol hangover symptoms on cognitive and physical functioning, and mood. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 32(5), e2623.

3) Vella, L.D. and Cameron-Smith, D. (2010). Alcohol, athletic performance, and recovery. Nutrients, 2(8), 781-789.

4) Park, Soon-Yeob et al, (2015). “The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep.” Korean journal of family medicine vol. 36,6: 294-9. 

5) Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep's role in memory. Physiological reviews, 93(2), 681–766. 

 

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