Ask our doctors: alcohol

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Goodtoknow's resident doctors, Dr Bob and Dr Mash are here to answer all your health questions. Each month they give you the lowdown on an important health topic. This month, they're talking about alcohol. Find out how to drink safely, what a unit actually means and where to go if you need help...

How much alcohol is too much?

Dr. Bob: There has been plenty of press recently about drinking too much alcohol and its effects, especially on women and youngsters. Around ten million people are estimated to drink above the recommended guidelines in England. Men and women respond differently to alcohol. The limits that the government recommend are 3-4 units of alcohol per day for males (equal to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and 2-3 units per day for females (equal to 175ml of wine).

What does a unit of alcohol actually mean?

Dr. Mash: Scientifically one unit is 10ml of pure alcohol - or if you like, the amount of alcohol the average adult can process within an hour.  A rule of thumb commonly used is 2 units for a pint and 1 unit for a spirit or a glass of wine, but that really depends on how strong the pint of lager is. If it's very strong then it will contain more alcohol and have a higher alcohol by volume (ABV) - look out for ABV amount on the side of the bottle.

Also the volume of wine in a single glass of wine can vary dramatically depending on who is serving it! We tend to think that we are pouring less alcohol than we actually are, so what we guess to be one unit of wine could actually be two or even three if not measured accurately.

Equally don't be lulled into thinking that Alcopops are just like soft drinks, they too contain alcohol.

Why are the limits lower for women?

Dr. Mash: Women have less body tissue to absorb the alcohol and as they have higher fat to water ratios in their bodies, so the alcohol doesn't get diluted down as much. Women also have lower levels of the enzymes that break down the alcohol in the liver and so the same amount of alcohol sticks around for longer in them compared to men.

What does binge drinking mean?

Dr. Bob: Drinking heavily in a short space of time to get drunk or feel the effects of alcohol. This usually means drinking in excess of double the daily unit guidelines for alcohol in one session, i.e. more than 6 units for a female and 8 units for a male. This is important as it rapidly raises the amount of alcohol in the blood. So saving all your weekly units for a Friday night blow-out is not really considered to be good for you, plus you'll probably regret that 2am kebab!

Does alcohol really cause harm?

Dr. Bob: Sadly it really does and it's not just drinking and driving. Alcohol carries lots of calories and so weight gain can be a problem. Alcohol can affect your fertility and your baby if you are pregnant, cause serious harm to your liver and pancreas, and is even associated with cancer, including breast, liver and bowel. Alcohol excess and dependence can have devastating effects on mental health, well-being and ultimately this can take its toll on families. Alcohol is thought to be responsible for 33,000 deaths (yes, that is thirty three THOUSAND deaths!) per year.

Please tell me that there are at least some benefits to drinking small amounts of alcohol?

Dr. Bob: Yes it does seem that small amounts of alcohol may have some protective effects on the heart. Also, in moderation it makes us feel good!

I know I am drinking too much - where can I get help?

Dr. Mash: Recognising that you have a drink problem is half the battle. Your GP is always a good start point. DrinkAware is an excellent resource that we both regularly refer to and recommend.

You can also try Drinkline, the national alcohol helpline, on 0800 917 8282. It's free and confidential. Alcoholics Anonymous is a well-known national support group. Call 0845 769 7555.

Dr. Bob and Dr. Mash are our resident doctors. Dr. Bob is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a consultant physician. Dr Mash is a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a senior GP in London.

Where to next?
- Am I drinking too much? Take our alcohol quiz
- Overcoming alcoholism: find out how
- How many calories are in your favourite tipple?

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