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  • Writer's pictureMelanie

Pass me a beer (alcohol-free)!

This month I am considering the long and short-term effects of alcohol on the body and looking at why our tolerance falls as we get older. The overall trend for drinking is reducing, particularly among younger people, with the heaviest drinkers being those over 40, for whom a half to a full bottle of wine a night is not an uncommon experience. The supermarkets are now bursting with a growing number of alcohol-free beers and ciders, while the bars are still tempting us in with the promise of as much drink as we can manage in the 90 minutes of a bottomless brunch. With a growing cocktail and mocktail list to choose from; what should you reach for? After reading this, you may well be saying ‘Pass me a beer, alcohol-free!’

pints of beer

Although we may not realise it, the impact of alcohol starts with those first sips. That first glass is the one that brings feelings of relaxation, that warm buzz and the seeming ability to be more comfortable in social situations. If you drink, you will know what this is like, and also probably be well aware of what happens after this: the lack of knowledge of how much is enough, the impending hangover, the 3am thirst, the poor sleep and upset digestion. Even drinking small quantities influences us.

According to the NHS, drinking 1-2 units of alcohol, equivalent of a single shot, half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine, causes your heart rate to increase and your blood vessels to expand. This is what gives us the warm feeling. It is here that our inhibitions start to reduce, allowing us to become more sociable and talkative. As our inhibitions lower, a second drink becomes appealing.

Once we get to 4 to 6 units of alcohol, i.e., just 2 pints of beer, two double shots or a large glass of wine, the brain and nervous system starts to be affected. The impact of this is becoming uninhibited and being unable to assess risk. Our reaction time and coordination become affected at this point.

warm blurry lights

After 3-4 pints/ doubles or 2-3 large glasses of wine, (8-9 units), reaction times are much slower, speech becomes slurred, and vision becomes blurrier. At this point the liver becomes overwhelmed, so a hangover is very likely.

Once you have drunk 10-12 units, (4 pints of beer, 3-4 large glasses of wine, 5 doubles), the alcohol has a depressant effect, turning us into maudlin drunks. Co-ordination is severely impaired, and the level of alcohol has reached toxic levels. Our bodies try to compensate for this by making us need to urinate it out, this in turn leads to dehydration and a morning headache. We may also experience upset digestions such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Digestive symptoms can remain for some time as the alcohol causes an imbalance in the gut bacteria.

In addition to the affects mentioned above, sleep becomes disturbed after just 1-2 drinks. It is likely that you will wake up feeling too hot, thirsty, and needing a wee, then struggle to get back to sleep. Studies have shown that even if you don’t wake up, the quality of sleep is significantly affected, leaving us feeling sluggish the next day.

woman with stomach ache

As we get older, the body’s ability to detoxify alcohol reduces due to falling levels of enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenase and cytochrome P-4502E1 which are used in the liver to break down alcohol into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a known toxin and carcinogen, which our bodies then need to break down into water and carbon dioxide to eliminate more easily. Females have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase than males, hence a lower tolerance to alcohol, however the levels in men do drop significantly over time.

Alcohol not only has the short-term effects described above, but it also has significant longer-term impacts, even at low levels. Here is a quick rundown of the effect of alcohol on your internal organs and body processes:

Pancreatitis: inflamed pancreas, leading to abdominal pain.

Alcohol-related liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver, causing liver damage and a build-up of toxins.

Diabetes due to the inability to regulate insulin production.

Central nervous system damage leading to numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.

Damage to the frontal lobe of the brain affecting the ability to create long-term memories, think clearly, make rational decisions, and regulate emotions.

Damage to the digestive system preventing effective digestion, reducing nutrient absorption with the possibility of causing malnutrition. Digestive symptoms such as bloating, fullness, diarrhoea and ulcers are also common.

Cardiovascular system complications: high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, stroke, heart attack, heart disease, heart failure.

Reproductive health issues such as reduced libido, prevention of hormone production, increased risk of infertility

Reduced bone density, increasing the risk of fractures, and reduced muscle strength.

Lowered immunity.

Increased risk of several cancers including mouth, throat, breast, oesophagus, colon and liver cancer.

There is no safe level of drinking, previous studies that indicated a small amount of red wine is beneficial have been disproved. Having read the implications of drinking, you may be wondering what you can do to reduce or stop drinking to improve your health both in the short and longer term.


Becoming a non-drinker can be difficult, alcohol is addictive and specialist support may be needed. Even for mild to moderate drinkers it is a challenge in a society where socialising mainly revolves around going to pubs, restaurants and clubs. A trip to the cinema or theatre isn’t without temptation and drinking is ironically heavily associated with watching sports.

It is always important to eat well to provide enough nutrients as your body withdraws from alcohol, and those who drink a lot should seek advice about supplementing as thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency is common amongst alcoholics.

There are apps such as Reframe, Quit Drinking and I am Sober, to name but a few, that may be useful. Hypnotherapy can be helpful. It is always helpful to have the support of those around you. Explain why you are stopping/ reducing your alcohol intake and ask them to help you keep on track.

If you live with others who drink, it may be a good idea to see if they can join you on your mission to reduce as putting temptation in front of you on a daily basis can sabotage your efforts. It is also worth having a plan for how to deal with social situations. Checking out the non-alcoholic drinks range of bars online before your visit so that you can pre-plan what to ask for can be really helpful. If you are heading to a party or a barbecue, take your own alcohol-free drinks. Being the designated driver is always a good reason not to be drinking, so use this excuse if you need to.

man reading a book

At home, try finding something else that you can do at the time you would normally reach for an alcoholic drink – go for a walk, do some yoga, read a book with a cup of tea. It is also worth finding alternatives that you can drink at home, for instance a ginger cordial, kombucha or kefir.

Always seek professional support if you need to.

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