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Alcohol. What is it really doing to us? 

group drinking

As we approach the fun and festivities of December, many of us are looking forward to spending more quality time with the people we cherish. It seems almost hard to believe that this time last year we were facing our very first COVID Christmas, navigating our way through the unknown.

Making plans

This year, things appear a little more ‘normal’ and getting out and about seems a very real possibility. For many, a boozy drink goes hand in hand with the festive season. Maybe you have a few more trips to the pub planned. An office party, perhaps? Let’s not forget the quick catch-up with a friend, here and there. Popping that bottle of wine / beer / whatever your alcoholic beverage of choice is, just seems to happen a little more often.


How much do we really know about the effects of all of those drinks on our body’s, though?
Alcohol is the active ingredient in drinks like wine, beer and spirits. It’s one of the most common and oldest recreational substances and is actually classed as a sedative drug. When enjoyed regularly and in excess, it can start to take its toll.

How, you ask?

It raises our risk of cardiovascular disease

Long-term drinking can raise our risk of heart problems. We all know that our heart has a pretty important job. It keeps blood pumping around our bodies, delivering nutrients and oxygen to the organs and muscles that need it. It also takes away unwanted waste products and carbon dioxide. When we consume too much alcohol, our blood pressure rises. This puts us at greater risk of things like heart attacks and strokes.

Heavy drinking also weakens our heart muscle. What this means is that our heart can’t pump blood around our body quite as efficiently as it should. Over time, this can lead to heart failure and death.

Have you ever experienced an irregular heartbeat? Well, excess alcohol can cause this, too! An irregular heartbeat makes us feel breathless and may even cause chest pain, like angina.

We don’t sleep as well as we should

This is a bit of a controversial topic because alcohol has sedative properties that induce relaxation. If we dig a bit deeper though, research suggests that alcohol is linked to poor sleep quality and duration. Drinking even just 6 units of alcohol over the course of an evening can lead to insufficient deep sleep and cause us to spend more time in lighter, less restorative sleep.

If we don’t get enough deep sleep, our bodies and minds can’t rest and restore themselves after a long day. This can leave us feeling a little flat.

It raises our risk of diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where our bodies can’t regulate our blood sugar levels properly. One reason for this is that the pancreas can’t produce any insulin, the other reason is that it doesn’t produce enough and doesn’t work all that efficiently.

Drinking too much alcohol can reduce our body’s sensitivity to insulin, further interfering with blood sugar levels and causing extreme highs and lows. Add to that all the calories and sugar found in many alcoholic drinks, and the result might be weight gain. Weight gain, especially abdominal weight gain is a major risk factor for diabetes.

Our physical activity and exercise levels drop

Alcohol consumption interferes with our body’s metabolism. We need normal levels of blood sugar to give us energy when we exercise. As alcohol causes more insulin to be secreted, we experience low blood sugar levels and when our blood sugar falls, our exercise performance isn’t that great.

Alcohol is also a diuretic. This means that we excrete more than we take in, which can lead to dehydration. We need to stay properly hydrated when we exercise to maintain good blood flow around the body for oxygen to reach the muscles. When hungover, many experience headaches and sensitivity to light and sound. Naturally, these factors also impact sports performance.

Combine all of these factors with a lack of quality sleep and chances are you aren’t going to be at your best when you head out to exercise.

It raises the risk of mental health conditions

Sometimes we think alcohol is having a positive effect on our mood but long-term, regular alcohol use can lead to mental health problems. Alcohol interferes with the chemicals in our brain and can make dealing with stress that much harder. It’s also a depressant. This means that even though we feel more at ease and happy-go-lucky initially, as we drink more, our emotions begin to shift. Our brain function increases and those initial feelings of relaxation may be replaced by more negative emotions, leading to depression, anger and anxiety.

It increases our risk of cancer

Alcohol raises our risk of 7 types of cancer, including breast, bowel, mouth, liver and throat cancers. How?

It damages our cells. Our body’s turn alcohol into a chemical called ‘acetaldehyde’. This chemical causes damage and stops our cells from repairing.

It changes our hormones. Oestrogen and insulin rise, making our cells divide more often. This gives cancer cells an opportunity to develop (specifically breast cancer).

It causes changes to the cells in our mouth and throat. Basically, alcohol makes these cells more likely to absorb harmful chemicals, such as those found in cigarette smoke (raising the risk of mouth and throat cancers).

It changes the composition of our microbiome There are trillions of ‘good bacteria’ in our digestive system. These bacteria are essential for helping our body’s properly digest our food and absorb vitamins. Alcohol interferes with their function and composition, causing imbalances in the intestine and bacterial overgrowth. This can lead to constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain and bloating.

It affects our long-term memory. Alcohol consumption can lead to long-term issues with our brain function. Heavy drinkers are especially at risk of their brain’s hard-wired systems changing. This is pretty scary, as it can lead to various problems with cognition and erosion of our brain tissue.

It causes hormonal changes. Heavy alcohol use can wreak havoc on our body’s endocrine system! This collection of hormone producing glands has an important role in regulating our mood, metabolism, development and growth, tissue function and sexual function. Excess alcohol can disrupt communications between our endocrine system and other biological systems, including the immune and nervous systems. The consequences of this can be rather serious and range from growth defects to reproductive deficits, stress abnormalities and immune dysfunction.

To end off, as your enter the festive season and your calendar starts filling up with some (potentially) boozy nights, spare a thought for what’s happening to your body.

Even if you have your perfect hangover cure at the ready, it’s not going to be enough to cancel out the damage done by excess alcohol.

What can you do?

Enjoy at least 3 alcohol-free days a week to give your body a break and stick to the UK government guidelines of 14 units per week. For more information, facts and support visit www.drinkaware.co.uk.