Drinking – is it really that bad for me?


Drinking in moderation can be a part of a healthy lifestyle. But what does ‘moderate’ actually mean? Cromwell Hospital surgeon Mr Wayel Jassem discusses knowing your limits.

For many of us, a great deal of our time socialising with family, friends, and colleagues centres around having a drink together. A bottle of wine with dinner or a couple of pints in the pub after work – drinking alcohol is a part of our culture.

A survey by the Office of National Statistics in 2009 found 69 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women in England drank alcohol at least one day of the week prior to being interviewed. In the same survey, 10 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women reported drinking every day of the week.

Drinking as part of a healthy lifestyle

The Department of Health recommends men drink no more than three or four units of alcohol a day, and women no more than two or three. 

Mr Jassem, who specialises in liver transplants and hepato-biliary surgery, explains: “Women’s bodies handle alcohol differently than men. Because they have different levels of fat, muscle and water than men, women are more likely to develop health problems from lower levels of drinking.”

It’s important to understand what exactly a ‘unit’ of alcohol consists of. For example, one unit of alcohol is roughly equal to:

  • a 25ml measure of spirit
  • half a 175ml glass of wine
  • a third of a pint of strong beer

Alcoholic drinks vary in strength, for example, a pint of strong lager contains three units of alcohol, while a pint of regular strength lager has only two. So if you want to check exactly how many units of alcohol you’re getting in that glass of bubbly, check out Bupa’s alcohol unit calculator (opens in a new window).

When drinking isn't healthy

Most people know drinking too much alcohol is bad for your liver, but if you regularly drink more than the recommended limit you put yourself at risk for a number of other health problems.

Drinking as few as three units of alcohol a day increases your risk of developing many types of cancer including mouth, throat, oesophageal, liver, breast, and bowel. Every year in the UK, alcohol is responsible for 9,000 cancer deaths.

“Many people don’t realise that drinking too much alcohol also damages your heart, increasing your risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke. It also harms your pancreas, potentially leading to chronic pancreatitis and as a further result, diabetes,” Mr Jassem says.

One in three people in the UK drink enough alcohol to be at risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease. As the liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol as it cleans and filters your blood, drinking harms your liver. Too much alcohol and you put yourself at risk of fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. A proportion of patients with alcohol-related cirrhosis also go on to develop liver cancer.

Mr Jassem advises if you follow the recommended guidelines, your chances of developing an alcohol-related illness will be lower. “You can still enjoy a nice time out with family and friends. Just make sure you’re not drinking too much, too often.”

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