What does relaxing with a wine in hand do for our health? Dietitian Angela Berrill explores ways to keep your alcohol consumption low risk.
You’ve just walked through the door after a tough day at the office and you head straight to the fridge to pour yourself a cold one. Or, it’s been a tough day at home with the kids and, come dinner time, you’re looking forward to having a glass of wine, to help you get through the next few hours of chaos.
Many of us enjoy the odd glass of our favourite tipple every now and then, or even a drink or two most nights. We know binge and heavy drinking can cause harm to health and relationships, but what are the effects of moderate drinking?
Let’s take a closer look at some common claims about the impact of alcohol on our health.
Alcohol: The myths
Alcohol is full of sugar
While many believe it is the sugar they need to be wary of when it comes to alcohol, it is actually the alcohol content itself that packs a punch from an energy perspective. Alcohol is high in kilojoules – it has almost twice the kilojoules of sugar per gram. Alcohol is often called ‘empty kilojoules’, meaning it provides no useful nutrients for your body. See also How many kilojoules are in that alcoholic drink?
There is actually only a very small amount of sugar found in a glass of wine, nip of spirits or bottle of beer. But if you mix your alcohol with a sugary drink, such as soft drink or cordial, the sugar content can bump up considerably. For example, a glass of sparkling wine may have less than half a teaspoon of sugar, whereas a standard gin and tonic contains about three teaspoons, with nearly all the sugar coming from the tonic water. Therefore, if you’re watching your weight, pay close attention to how much and what you’re drinking. And, because alcohol also stimulates your appetite, remember to be mindful about what you’re eating when you’re drinking too.
A glass of red wine each night is good for my heart
While scientific research suggests there may be some benefits to drinking alcohol by reducing cardiovascular risk for some people, this is not true for everyone, even when consumption is low or moderate. As there is no safe drinking threshold for many of the effects, there is no potential ‘window of benefit’, where benefits can be gained without risk of harm. Therefore, the Heart Foundation ‘does not advise drinking to improve your heart health’.
Beer is good for recover post exercise
Nothing beats finishing a mountain-bike session with your mates and grabbing a beer afterwards. Surely the carbohydrates and fluid help replenish your energy stores? Actually, drinking alcohol after exercise can slow muscle growth and repair, thereby delaying recovery. Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning it causes water to be lost from your body, which can lead to dehydration. This is less than ideal after completing strenuous activity.
A nightcap will help me sleep
While a drink before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep, alcohol typically disrupts sleep during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, leading to a decreased amount of time spent in this crucial sleep stage.
Alcohol can help relieve my stress
Many people use low doses of alcohol for relaxation and to relieve tension, nervousness and stress. However, while it can apparently help us feel better, using alcohol in this way increases the risk of relying on it as a coping mechanism, potentially leading to dependency issues.
If you drink to help alleviate stress, perhaps look at other ways of doing so, such as doing some exercise, or setting aside some ‘you’ time.
Safe drinking recommendations
Alcohol is a known carcinogen, meaning that it is known to increase the risk of several different types of cancer, even at levels of moderate drinking. Therefore, when it comes to drinking alcohol, low risk does not mean no risk, and not drinking alcohol is a healthy option. However, if you do choose to drink alcohol, then you can reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than:
- two standard drinks a day for women (and no more than 10 standard drinks a week)
- three standard drinks a day for men (and no more than 15 standard drinks a week)
and having at least two alcohol-free days every week.
Reduce your risk of injury on a single occasion by drinking no more than:
- four standard drinks for women on any single occasion
- five standard drinks for men on any single occasion.
It is also recommended that you do not drink if you:
- could be pregnant, are pregnant or trying to get pregnant
- are on medication that interacts with alcohol
- have a condition made worse by drinking alcohol
- feel unwell, depressed, tired or cold as alcohol could make things worse
- are about to operate machinery or a vehicle or do anything that is risky or requires skill.
What is a standard drink?
The Health Promotion Agency advises that a standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. Depending on the alcohol percentage, that is equivalent to 100ml (one small glass) of wine, 30ml of spirits or 330ml (can) of beer.
While drinking alcohol does come with some risks to health, these risks can be minimised by keeping your drinking to within the recommended safe limits and by following the tips for healthier drinking below. Remember, if you don’t drink alcohol, there is no reason to start, especially for any perceived health benefits.
Warning signs your drinking may be problematic for your health
- You’re regularly drinking more than health guidelines recommend across the week and per session
- Being unable to remember the day or night before
- Hiding your drinking
- Needing a drink in the morning after a heavy night
- Being unable to stop drinking
- Failing to do what is expected of you
- Feelings of guilt or remorse about your drinking
- Injuring someone else as a result of your drinking
- People have voiced their concerns about your drinking to you.
The Health Promotion Agency has released a booklet, DrinkCheck: Is your drinking OK?, which helps people make a more accurate drinking self-assessment.
If you or someone you know needs support and treatment to reduce their alcohol intake, call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, visit their website, or free text 8681 for confidential advice.
Tips for healthier drinking
There are things you can do to make sure you and others stay within low-risk levels.
- Knowing what a standard drink is
- Keeping track of how much you drink – daily and weekly
- Setting limits for yourself and sticking to them
- Starting with non-alcoholic drinks and alternating with alcoholic drinks
- Drinking slowly
- Substituting standard drinks with drinks with a lower alcohol content
- Eating something before or while you are drinking
- Never drinking and driving
- Being a responsible host
- Having a conversation with your children about alcohol.