Christmas is around the corner, which means that most of us soon will be indulging on too many mince pies and too many Baileys. While that sounds like most of our ideas of heaven, if drawn out over the whole month of December - or “the Festive” season - our bodies can begin to struggle to cope with the calories and units of alcohol consumed.
Last year, The Drinks Business predicted that in Christmas 2018 the average Briton would consume an average of 26 units per day, with the nation collectively expected to drink almost six billions units of alcohol between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day that year.
They explained that that equated to “an average of 156 units each over the course of six days – nearly 10 times more than the average 16 units consumed on a regular night out.” They said that overall, the great British public were expected to consume as much as 5.7bn units of alcohol over that festive break.
So if that was last year, what’s in store for Christmas 2019? A lot more alcohol…probably.
If we are braced and ready for a lot of binge drinking shortly, what measures can we take to ensure we stay safe and healthy this Christmas, and how much exactly should we be drinking at this time of year?
Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean the risk to the body when consuming alcohol is any different. When drinking alcohol in vast quantities, this can have some devastating effects both in the short and long term.
Appropriately for Christmas time, The NHS explains that “binge drinking usually refers to drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk”. In the UK, the NHS adds that binge drinking is drinking more than 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men and 6 units of alcohol in a single session for women. “Six units is 2 pints of 5% strength beer or 2 large (250ml) glasses of 12% wine, for example. However, this is not an exact definition for binge drinking that applies to everyone, as tolerance to alcohol can vary from person to person.”
The NHS adds that “drinking too much, too quickly on a single occasion can increase your risk of accidents resulting in injury, causing death in some cases, misjudging risky situations and losing self-control, like having unprotected sex”.
Drink Aware says that getting drunk can affect both your physical and mental health. “In extreme cases, you could die. Overdosing on alcohol can stop you breathing or stop your heart, or you could choke on your vomit. Binge drinking can affect your mood and your memory and, in the longer term, can lead to serious mental health problems.” According to NI Direct, if you're hungover you can feel anxious and low. “Some people may feel down over Christmas and drinking can make this worse.”
The Healthline explains that binge drinking can also negatively affect your heart, kidneys, lungs and pancreas. If you’re only drinking over Christmas, you don’t need to worry about this too much, but it’s worth knowing that the long-term effects of consistent binge drinking are more likely to lead to long-term damage. Their website says that “one recent study by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that 21 binge drinking sessions over seven weeks was enough to cause symptoms of early-stage liver disease in mice.”
The answer to the question “how much should you drink over Christmas” isn’t that straight forward. Sure we can look at the NHS’s recommendations for how many units to consume, but that isn’t realistic. Most of us overindulge over Christmas, and once a year that is fine to do and should be enjoyed.
If you’re concerned about the excess, here are a couple of tips to help make sure this indulgence is as safe and healthy as can be.
In a Q&A with Alcohol Change UK's Director for Wales, published on their website, they suggest that over Christmas “it may be wise to lay off the booze until later in the day. Think about how you're feeling and whether you want a pause, and don't let people top you up just because they're drinking.
“Taking some time off can also help remind you that you don't need alcohol to have fun, and give you some practice saying no, which will come in handy when you don't fancy a drink in future.”
The NHS advise that if you want to reduce your health risks when drinking, drink more slowly, drink with food, alternate with water or non-alcoholic drinks and plan ahead to avoid problems, such as making sure you can get home safely or having people you trust with you.
Drink aware say that if you’re worried about your long-term drinking habits beyond Christmas, contact your GP. They will be able to suggest ways to help you cut down your drinking, and can also refer you for counselling or support services. You can also call Drinkline, the national alcohol helpline, on 0300 123 1110. It’s free and confidential.