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17 September 2014
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Should I Worry About... Drinking?

In the UK, we drink nearly twice as much as we did in the 1950s, according to a report by the Academy of Medical Sciences.

The price of alcohol has fallen and there are more places to buy alcohol, at any time of day, than ever before.

What effect is all this extra booze having on our health?

Government recommendations

Richard Hammond, the presenter of Should I Worry About...?, kept a diary of everything he drank in a week. He was shocked to discover that he fell into the category of a very heavy drinker – getting through more than 50 units in seven days. In fact a third of British men are drinking at or above this level, which can be harmful to health.

Many more drink between 21 and 50 units a week, an amount which experts say is potentially hazardous to health.

For women the recommended limits are even lower.

Current Health Department guidelines say men should drink no more than 3 – 4 units of alcohol a day, and women no more than 2 – 3. However, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and other respected organisations stand by a weekly limit of 21 units a week for men and 14 for women. So to follow both sets of recommendations, you can't drink the maximum daily amount every day.

Experts also say that everyone should have at least one or two completely alcohol free days a week.

APAS, a drink and drugs charity, has more about alcohol limits

If you have questions about your alcohol intake or any other health matter, speak to your GP.

What is a unit?

When units were first created, most wines were only 9% Alcohol by Volume (ABV), and most beers were 3.5%ABV. So a unit is one small glass of 9% wine or half a pint of 3.5% beer.

But today most drinks have a far higher alcohol content. An average glass of today's wine (about 11–12%ABV) is 1.5 units. And a large pub glass (250ml) is 3 units. A pint of premium strength lager, which typically clocks in at around 5%ABV, contains 3 units of alcohol. And many specialist beers can be even stronger.

NHS: See how many units are in your favourite drink.

What does alcohol do to me?

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to liver damage, particularly if you regularly exceed the recommended limits for a number of years.

Alcohol can also have far more subtle effects on our health.

We asked a moderate drinker and a teetotaller to swap lifestyles for a month.

Although the teetotaller was only drinking just over the recommended limits, her sleep patterns were disrupted and she made more mistakes on psychological tests measuring reaction time and accuracy.

The moderate drinker found her sleep pattern improved, with knock-on benefits for her concentration and alertness.

Alcohol as medicine

Some studies suggest alcohol can be good for you in small amounts. Evidence shows that for people more at risk of heart attacks – those in middle age and older – drinking one to two units of alcohol a day can minimise the chances of a heart attack and lower cholesterol.

But drinking over these amounts can lead to high blood pressure and an increased risk of suffering a stroke. In fact, many drinkers with high blood pressure find that if they stop drinking their blood pressure drops such that they no longer need medical treatment for it.

Read more about the risks and potential benefits of alcohol on Alcohol and health

Safer drinking

During the course of the programme Richard met liver experts Dr Jane Collier of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and Dr Ashley Brown of St Mary's Hospital in London. He also had his drink diary analysed by GP Dr Clare Gerada. These are some tips he picked up for safer drinking:

  • Stick to the limits as much as possible. But if you do go over them on the odd occasion, don't panic. Just give your body a couple of drink-free days to recover after your binge.
  • Eat when you drink. The alcohol will be released into your blood stream much more slowly, so you're less likely to damage your heart or brain, and you're less likely to get drunk and have an accident. When Richard drank on an empty stomach he found his blood alcohol levels were ten times higher than someone drinking the same amount of alcohol with food.
  • Don't buy in rounds. If you do, everyone will end up drinking as quickly as the fastest drinker.
  • Drink weaker drinks. It's not rocket science, but if you choose weaker wines and beers, you can have more drinks and still be within the safe limits.

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 TV Programmes - BBC One

Should I Worry About...?

Programmes in the second series shown July 2005:







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 Elsewhere on

The science of alcohol
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 Elsewhere on the web

Alcohol Concern
This is a national charity which aims to reduce alcohol misuse.

Alcohol misuse
The NHS explains alcohol misuse and gives advice.

Down Your Drink
Find out if you should worry about your drinking on this Alcohol Concern website.

Drinking report
Read Calling Time the Academy of Medical Sciences report on alcohol and health.

Institute of Alcohol Studies
This educational charity conducts research into the effects of alcohol misuse and alcohol related public policy.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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