How much is too much alcohol?

16 January 2017

From a celebration to a hard day's work, there are many reasons for opening a bottle of wine or sinking a few cold beers. Not generally a problem if you are drinking responsibly, but what happens if this turns into more of a daily habit? In the long-term, excessive drinking of alcohol can cause many health problems including liver and heart disease.

“Keeping your drinking under control can make a big difference to your health and your happiness,” explains Dr John Burke, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at AXA Health.

In fact, cutting back on booze can reap a whole load of benefits, like feeling better in the mornings, having more energy and feeling less tired, as well as improving your mood and reducing anxiety.


So what are the "safe" limits when it comes to alcohol, and how can we stay within them?

Know your units

Men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, no more than three units in any one day and have at least two alcohol-free days a week.

As a guide, one 175ml glass of wine (12 per cent) or one pint of normal strength lager (3-3.5 per cent) equals two units. One 275ml bottle of alcopop (5.5 per cent) equals 1.5 units, and a single (25ml) measure of spirits (40 per cent) equals one unit.

Independent charity, Drinkaware has a useful calculator on its website to check how many units you consumed on a particular occasion, and to give you an idea of the number of units represented by different types and volumes of alcohol.

“Regularly drinking more that the recommended guidelines can affect your health in many ways,” says Dr Burke. “heavy drinkers increase their risk of developing high blood pressure, cancer (especially breast cancer and cancer of the gullet), liver and heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis. Binge drinkers can also develop unpleasant short-term effects, such as sweating, shaking, bad skin, diarrhoea, blackouts and problems sleeping. And that’s as well as the long-term health problems.”

There are lots of benefits to cutting down on booze.

Tips for reducing alcohol consumption

If you regularly drink more than the recommended alcohol limits, then cutting down may be good for both your mental and physical health. As these tips show, it is possible to relax and enjoy a few drinks safely without overdoing it.

  1. Have a goal
    Set yourself a goal - this could be stopping altogether or aiming to only have alcohol at the weekend. Decide on a start date and stick to it.
  2. Eat something
    Food can slow down the rate that alcohol is absorbed into your system. Before going out eat a healthy meal with a high carbohydrate content to help prepare your stomach.
  3. Downsize the supersize glasses
    Opt for smaller measures. Choose a small (125ml) glass rather than a large (250ml) one for wine. If you're drinking at home, buy smaller glasses for the house.
  4. Stop the top-ups
    Stopping topping up your glass before it's empty can help you to keep track of how much you've had. Beware the over-vigilant host who won’t let your glass empty.
  5. Avoid drinking home alone
    When you pour your own measures rather than paying for measures individually, you may not notice how much you are drinking. Smaller (1/4) wine bottles sizes are available and can help cut down consumption.
  6. Sip your soda from a wine glass
    Drinking a soft drink from a glass you would usually fill with alcohol can be a great way to cut back without feeling like you're missing out. When you're trying to resist the pressure to have alcohol, get a drink that looks like it's an alcoholic one, or try having a shandy instead.
  7. Weave in glasses of water
    Alcohol dehydrates you so it's important to drink water before you begin drinking and in between alcoholic drinks. People often guzzle the first drink because they're thirsty. Alternating alcoholic drinks with water or soft drinks will not only stop you getting too intoxicated, it will help reduce headaches and hangover symptoms the next day.
  8. Know your units and monitor your intake
    Keep a drink diary. Writing this on a regular basis will help you to work out how much you're drinking. Sites like this one by the NHS can help you work out the number of units in your drinks.
  9. Understand your triggers
    If you’re really trying to cut down on your alcohol intake, work out which situations you know will encourage you to drink and then look for alternatives - for example, if you're going out with friends suggest the cinema instead of the pub.
  10. Be cautious
    When going out for a drink, plan how you're going to get home before you leave. Make sure you've got numbers for taxis and keep aside enough money to get home safely. If you’re thinking of driving the next day, be aware that you may still be over the legal limit. Your body breaks down alcohol at a rate of about one unit per hour - and there is no way you can speed up the process. Think about alternative methods of transport, or get a lift if possible.

When not to drink

On certain occasions, the only safe alcohol intake is none at all. Drinkaware warns that even a small amount of alcohol affects our judgement, reactions and co-ordination, and recommends keeping off the drink altogether if you are driving, operating machinery, working at a height, going swimming or playing other sports. Exercise particular caution if you are taking over the counter or prescription medication.

Similarly, if you are trying to conceive, or in the first three months of pregnancy, you should not drink alcohol altogether, according to experts including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG.) The Department of Health recommends that pregnant women, or women trying for a baby, should avoid alcohol altogether – but, if they do choose to drink, to minimise risk to the baby, they advise not to have more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and not to get drunk.

Are you concerned about your alcohol intake? Ask one of our experts a question.

Useful sources:

NHS - Alcohol-related liver disease - factsheet

Alcoholics Anonymous  

Alcohol Concern

Department of Health

Drinkaware calculator

NHS Alcohol guidelines

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Got a health question?

We’re here to help you take care of your health - whenever you need us, wherever you are, whether you're an AXA Health member or not.

Our Ask the Expert service allows you to ask our team of friendly and experienced nurses, midwives, counsellors and pharmacists about any health topic. So if there's something on your mind, why not get in touch now.