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Alcohol: The Facts

New Alcohol Guidelines

The government has recently updated its alcohol guidelines based on new evidence linking alcohol consumption to health risks, particularly cancer. These guidelines include changes in the recommended amount of alcohol men and women can drink regularly, advice for single drinking sessions, and recommendations for drinking during pregnancy.

Key Guidelines

  • For both men and women: It is safest not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. If you do drink 14 units, it is best to spread this evenly across the week.

One-Off Drinking Sessions

Occasional or regular heavy drinking sessions can increase the risk of death from long-term illnesses, accidents, and injuries. To minimise short-term health risks during single drinking occasions, follow these simple rules:

  • Limit the total amount of alcohol you drink on any occasion.

  • Drink slowly, with food, and alternate with water.

Understanding Units of Alcohol

One unit is 10ml of pure alcohol. Because alcoholic drinks vary in strength and size, units help to gauge the strength of your drink. It's not as simple as one drink equals one unit.

Calories in Alcohol

Alcoholic drinks are made by fermenting and distilling natural sugars and starch, resulting in high-calorie content—seven calories per gram, nearly as many as pure fat! These calories are considered "empty calories" as they have no nutritional value. Moreover, alcohol consumption reduces the amount of fat your body burns for energy, as the body prioritises getting rid of alcohol over other processes, including nutrient absorption and fat burning.

Low-Calorie Alcoholic Drinks

To cut back on calories from alcohol, consider the following tips:

  • Choose 'light' or low-alcohol alternatives that contain fewer calories.

  • Opt for low-calorie mixers such as soda water if drinking spirits.

  • Drink water between alcoholic beverages to reduce both calorie and alcohol intake.

Impact on the Body

Your body can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. Drinking a lot in a short space of time increases the alcohol level in the blood, which can impair body functions, such as:

  • Slowing down brain function, which affects balance.

  • Irritating the stomach, causing vomiting and the risk of choking.

  • Affecting the nerves that control breathing and heartbeat, potentially stopping both.

  • Dehydrating you, which can cause permanent brain damage.

  • Lowering body temperature, leading to hypothermia.

  • Lowering blood sugar levels, risking seizures.

Sleep Disruption

Alcohol can interfere with normal sleep patterns. Drinking close to bedtime can cause you to skip the first stage of sleep, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, leading to diminished deep, restorative sleep. This disruption can result in waking up feeling exhausted instead of refreshed.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Regularly drinking to excess increases the risk of serious illnesses, including:

  • Cancer: Liver, bowel, breast, mouth, pharyngeal (upper throat), oesophageal (food pipe), and laryngeal (voice box) cancers.

  • Increased anxiety and stress levels.

  • Mental health issues, such as depression.

  • Cirrhosis of the liver, which can lead to cancer.

  • A weakened immune system, increasing the risk of diseases like pneumonia.

  • Lower levels of folate, an important vitamin for DNA production.

  • Depletion of other vitamins and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, and potassium, leading to health issues over time.

Even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of bowel cancer. An ongoing study of 500,000 people in 10 European countries found that for every two units drunk a day, the risk of bowel cancer increases by 8% (Ferrari et al., 2007).

Tracking Your Drinking

If you need help tracking your drinking and staying within recommended limits, download the free Drinkaware: Track and Calculate Units app from Drinkaware.


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