Man holding 2 bottles of wine to read the labels

Alcohol – how much is too much?

There’s nothing wrong with the odd tipple, but do you know exactly how much you’re drinking? Or what alcohol can do to your body?

We all know it’s important to keep tabs on how much alcohol we drink. From tomorrow’s hangover to chronic long-term health conditions, too much booze can have a serious effect on our health.

What’s the recommended amount?

Both men and women should drink no more than 14 alcohol units a week regularly. That’s just six medium glasses of wine or six pints of beer.1,2 The UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommend spreading out these units over three or more days, with several alcohol-free days a week and no binge-drinking. But if you’re pregnant or trying for a baby, the advice is to steer clear of alcohol completely.3,4

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Women v men and alcohol

Women’s bodies contain less water than men so drinking a unit of alcohol will lead to a higher blood alcohol content than for a man of the same weight.5 A 2010 study published in Alcohol Research Current Reviews found that women may also have lower levels of the enzyme needed to break down alcohol – which means they end up with a higher concentration of alcohol in their blood. However, scientists say that more research needs to be done in this area.6

How many units in a glass of wine?

It’s easy to get confused by alcohol units but remember it’s not just about the number of drinks – the size of your glass and strength of the alcohol counts, too.7 For example, a bottle of wine that is ABV (‘alcohol by volume’) 14% contains more alcohol – and so more units – than one that is ABV 12%.8 So one glass of wine does not equal one unit! Some typical drinks include:9,10
  • 125ml glass of wine (ABV 12%) - 1.5 units
  • 175ml glass of wine (ABV 12%) - 2.1 units
  • 250ml glass of wine (ABV 12%) - 3 units
  • 250ml glass of wine (ABV 14%) – 3.5 units
  • pint of high-strength beer, lager or cider (ABV 5.2%) – 3 units
  • pint lower-strength lager, beer or cider (ABV 3.6%) – 2 units
  • 330ml bottle of lager, beer or cider (ABV 5%) – 1.7 units
  • single shot of spirits (ABV 40%) – 1 unit

That means that just five large glasses of wine takes you over your 14-unit limit!

How alcohol affects the liver

The process of breaking down excess alcohol units takes its toll on the liver, destroying cells and triggering inflammation. In the long-term, this can lead to a condition called hepatic steatosis, or alcoholic fatty liver disease – the first stage of alcohol-related liver disease.11

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Drinking and nutrition – what happens?

When you drink alcohol, your body makes it priority number one to get rid of it. This is because, unlike fat, carbohydrates and protein, we can’t store alcohol in our bodies. It takes a whole hour for an adult to process just one unit of alcohol.12,13 While your body is processing alcohol, it stops all normal digestion and absorption of nutrients, including:14
  • vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • folate
  • vitamin B12
  • vitamin A
  • calcium
  • protein
Over time, this poor absorption of vital nutrients can lead to a deficiency in heavy drinkers and trigger serious illnesses.15

More health risks from excess drinking

Regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week increases your risk of developing certain conditions, including:16
  • strokes
  • heart disease
  • damage to the brain and nervous system
And remember, the more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of harm.17 If you’d like to cut down on drinking, try making one of these delicious alcohol-free drinks, like ginger lime fizz.

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Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
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Sources

1. Department of Health. UK Chief Medical Officers’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/545937/UK_CMOs__report.pdf
2. Drinkaware. Units and calories in wine. Available from: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/alcoholic-drinks-units/wine/
3. As Source 1
4. NHS Choices. Your pregnancy and baby guide. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/alcohol-medicines-drugs-pregnant/
5. US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Alert. Available from: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa46.htm
6. Szabo G, Mandrekar P. Focus on: Alcohol and the Liver. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860520/
7. NHS Choices. Alcohol units. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/alcohol-units.aspx
8. As Source 8
9. As Source 8
10. Drinkaware. Units and calories in wine. Available from: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/alcoholic-drinks-units/wine/
11. MedlinePlus. Fatty Liver Disease. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/fattyliverdisease.html
12. MedicineNet.com. Alcohol and Nutrition. Available from: https://www.medicinenet.com/alcohol_and_nutrition/article.htm#what_is_alcohol
13. NHS Choices. Alcohol units. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/alcohol-units.aspx
14. As Source 13
15. As Source 13
16. As Source 1
17. As Source 1

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