In the UK, almost 60% of those over the age of 16 consume alcohol. In France, the average adult drinks 2.7 glasses of pure alcohol on a daily basis. In the USA, since 2017, one eighth of the population have alcohol use disorders.
For many, alcohol not only plays a role in our social lives but also in our professional lives, for example those whose jobs involve entertaining clients. Some also drink to help alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety and low mood.
Alcoholism is also thought to be widespread in the finance industry. Many investment bankers work day and night, under great pressure – whether it be from their bosses, their peers, or the nature of the work – and can turn to alcohol for a sense of relief.
It has even become a running joke that alcohol keeps Wall Street “well-oiled”. In the investment banking sector, drinking can often be considered a way to get ahead: the heavier the drinking during client meetings, the better the partnership is forecasted to be.
According to Public Health England guidelines published in 2016, however, the national recommendation for alcohol consumption is a maximum 14 units per week. This equates to approximately 7 pints of beer or just over a bottle of wine per week. Drinking over 8 units daily for men and 6 units for women is considered binge drinking.
Although alcohol consumption habits differ between countries for religious, cultural or economic reasons, these health guidelines and drinking recommendations are largely the same globally.
Alcohol and Lockdown
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, most of the population were instructed to work from home. We were no longer able to meet friends and colleagues for drinks after work or entertain clients in restaurants, pubs or bars.
And, while some people reduced their alcohol intake during the lockdown, we have seen an increased consumption in others. In our practice, we have seen more people drink daily after they finish work from home. Others found themselves drinking more as there was little else to do. Many drank to cope with the anxiety of lockdown.
Studies have shown that 17% were drinking on more days than they would have done pre lockdown. 12% were drinking to cope with the day, while 9% found it difficult to stop at one drink. 38% of those on furlough were also found to be drinking more.
And these are only just some of the statistics that highlight how our relationship with alcohol changed during lockdown.
How does alcohol affect us?
In the short term, alcohol can help us feel relaxed and perhaps even overcome some of our social anxieties. It can give us a false sense of confidence by reducing our inhibitions. However, it can also dull our other senses, cause drowsiness, affect our judgement, cause nausea and memory impairment.
Alcohol also reduces our sleep quality. While it may help us fall asleep quicker, it reduces our ability to sleep deeply. Poor sleep after alcohol consumption can trigger or worsen feelings of anxiety, guilt and also cause physical symptoms such as hand tremors, cold sweats, palpitations, headache and nausea. These symptoms are commonly known as a hangover.
Alcohol is known to worsen pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression. Studies have shown that alcohol problems are more common in those with depression. You can either drink heavily, causing depression or drink more alcohol to temporarily relieve the symptoms of depression, risking the development of alcohol dependence. Many people have found their depressive symptoms improve after they stop drinking for several weeks.
As well as our mental health, alcohol can harm our physical health, causing damage to our liver, heart and brain. It also affects our immune system and reduces our body’s ability to fight infections.
How much is too much?
Ask yourself these questions:
1. Do you feel that you need to cut down on your drinking?
2. Do you feel annoyed when people criticise or comment on how much you’re
3. Do you feel guilty when you drink?
4. Do you ever feel like you need a drink first thing in the morning (also called an eyeopener) to calm your nerves/ shaky hands or get rid of a hangover?
If you answered yes to at least 2 of these questions, you may be at risk of alcohol dependence and I would advise speaking to your GP to get help.
Other signs of excessive drinking include your work and relationships becoming affected, finding reasons to need a drink and neglecting other parts of your life.
Tips on healthier drinking
- Drink slowly. Don’t ‘down’ drinks
- Alternate with non-alcoholic drinks and stay hydrated
- Have at least two consecutive alcohol-free day
- Try non-alcoholic spirits. This is becoming more popular and can help overcome the social pressures of drinking.
- Avoid binge drinking
- Choose a smaller glass of wine or bottled beer instead of a pint
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach
Since coming out of lockdown, you may notice further changes to your alcohol consumption habits. If you have any concerns about your alcohol consumption, please contact your GP for help and support.
More information can be found on:
Dr Ruby Chu, MRCGP MBBS BSc