A 60 second guide to alcohol and your health

The Slim Down

Nutritionist Rachel Anne Hill lays bare the cold hard facts about booze and your health.

How does alcohol affect appearance?

Alcohol dehydrates the body, particularly the skin which can increase fine lines and wrinkles.  Dehydration often triggers the body to try and hold onto fluids which can be seen as puffiness in the face and bloating of the stomach.  

Even small amounts of alcohol can deprive the skin of certain vital vitamins and nutrients too as it inhibits the body’s ability to absorb them and it can also dilate blood vessels resulting in red bumps, thread veins and spots.  This may eventually lead to a condition called Rosacea, a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and flush easily and can eventually lead to facial disfigurement.

At 7 calories per gram, alcohol is second only in calories per gram to pure fat.  It also automatically lowers blood sugars which increases appetite  - hence the reason why the French invented the aperitif and why kebab houses, Indian restaurants and chip shops have a tendency to fill up as the pubs, bars and clubs start to empty. 

This ‘double whammy’ effect can wreak havoc on the waistline so choose your drinks wisely. 

[Related feature: How drinking, smoking and eating junk food can affect your appearance]

How does alcohol affect my body?

From sober to drunk……

After 1 to 3 units or just 1 large glass of wine you will be more talkative, your heart rate increases and you will experience a warm feeling or flush caused by alcohol in the blood making small blood vessels in the skin expand.  You are likely to feel a little more confident and sociable.

After 4-6 units equal to 2 large glasses of wine you may feel light headed and your co-ordination and reaction times will be impaired.   Your ability to make decisions will also decrease.  All of these effects are caused by alcohol slowing down the nerve cells ability to function. Driving will be illegal and dangerous.

After 7-9 units (3 large glasses of wine) your reaction times are considerably reduced, vision becomes blurry and speech is slurred. Drinking more than eight units at a time seriously overloads the liver.  Staying off the booze for a few days afterwards should help it to repair itself but at this stage a hangover is pretty much guaranteed.

Drinking more than 10 units (3 large glasses of wine or more) will affect cells all over the body.  Memory will become impaired, your behaviour will be considerably altered and frequent visits to the loo will be needed as the body tries to pass the alcohol out by mixing it with water resulting in chronic dehydration which causes headaches, stomach upsets, increased blood pressure and dry, dull skin. 

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What are the health benefits associated with drinking alcohol?
Alcohol consumed in moderation is thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease.  It's still not entirely clear how it does this but it is now known that a large proportion of the risk reduction is due to moderate alcohol intake raising 'good' cholesterol concentrations in the blood and so reducing the risk of blood clots. Red wine, in particular is believed to be of benefit as it also contains flavonoids.  These act as antioxidants which help to reduce the build up of atherosclerosis (when fat builds up on the inner walls of arteries).

How much is it safe to drink?
Current government guidelines state that alcohol consumption should be no more than 21 units a week for men and 14 units a week for women.

It is better for health to spread alcohol units (up to the maximum recommended) throughout the week, than to drink large amounts in a single day or weekend. Therefore women should aim to consume no more than 2 units a day; men 3 units a day.

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What is a unit?
One unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol - the amount of alcohol the average adult can process within an hour.  However, that length of time will vary considerably depending on a number of factors such as a person’s gender, height, weight and the length of time since their last meal.

As a rough guide, one unit of alcohol is equivalent to a small glass of wine, half a pint of beer or one single measure of spirits.  However, keeping track of your intake in this way can be misleading as the alcohol content and/or the size of your drink can soon push the number of units you consumed upwards.

For example, robust wines from countries such as Australia, South America and South Africa are becoming increasingly popular but many of these new world wines can contain as much as 17% ABV* whereas most other wines are between 12% and 14%. Continental lagers can also be considerably higher in alcohol content than other similar beers, sometimes by as much as 50%. 

And don’t forget about size either. Although spirits used to be commonly served in 25ml measures, which are one unit of alcohol, many pubs and bars now serve them in 35ml or 50ml measures.  Wine glasses have also shot up in size from the traditional 125ml glass to the 250ml glasses found today in most wine bars.  These larger glasses can be nearly three units of alcohol or more in just one glass. So if you have just two or three drinks, you could easily consume a whole bottle of wine - and almost three times your guideline daily units of alcohol – without even realising.

What are the risks associated with drinking too much?
There are both short term and long term health risks associated with drinking too much alcohol.

Short term health risks are largely associated with the increased risk of accident brought about by the ability of alcohol to impair judgement and reduce balance, co-ordination and reflexes.  If drunk to excess vomiting, particularly whilst asleep can induce choking which can cause suffocation and death.  This is a risk most commonly found in young adults as a result of binge drinking. 

Longer term health problems include liver, brain and heart damage, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), increased risk of diabetes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and cancers, particularly breast and mouth cancer.  It can also increase anxiety, sleeping problems, mood swings and depression and cause memory loss and dementia.

*N.B. (ABV stands for alcohol by volume, or sometimes just the word “vol” appears on the label so, wine that says “17 ABV” on its label contains 17% pure alcohol.