Great Britain is an alcohol-loving nation. Britons spend no less than £30 billion on alcohol per year. A disproportionate amount of this is spent at weekends when people like to go out and celebrate/commiserate by getting completely trashed. Binge drinking is almost a law for some. It has become a part of our culture and heritage.
Of course reasons for binge drinking are manifold. Maybe you work in a stressful, highly pressurised environment and need to let off steam when you can. Maybe you’re young, out with all your friends, with a lot of energy to burn and a need to drink and show off. Perhaps you’re unemployed, have just been dumped or are just generally depressed and you have frustrations to vent, sorrows to immolate. Perhaps you are simply shy and feel more comfortable in society with a little “dutch courage”. Whatever, it is a simple fact that alcohol is addictive. When one drinks it initially creates a kind of inner hubris. We feel better about ourselves and want to feel better still. This feeling must be fuelled. The more one drinks the more and the faster one wants to drink. To make matters worse, we live in a culture which actively encourages this. People don’t go out to enjoy a quiet drink. People go out to get pissed.
A recent government report revealed some alarming figures. The study by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit stated that Britain’s binge drinking trend costs the nation £20 billion a year. 17 million working days are lost to hangovers and alcohol related illnesses caused by binge drinking, the annual cost to employers being estimated at £6.4 billion. The cost to the NHS is thought to be in the region of £1.7 billion. Around 40% of A&E admissions are alcohol related. Between midnight and 5AM that figure rises to 70%. Every year around 150,000 people find themselves in hospital as a result of accidents or illnesses caused by alcohol misuse. In addition there are 22,000 premature deaths per year directly attributable to alcohol. Billions of pounds are spent cleaning up alcohol related crime and social problems. In this country there are no less than 1.2 million incidents of alcohol related violence a year. 1.3 million children are affected by parents with drink problems and the demographic for young binge drinkers, once confined to late teens now often runs from 16 to 24.
Sobering statistics – and yet the authors of this report have said that even these figures may be a conservative estimate.
So much for the damage alcohol does to the economy. What about the personal cost? How could binge drinking directly affect you?
Some of the more serious short-term affects of heavy drinking include vomiting, loss of sensory perception and blackouts. A blackout is a period of intoxication during which the individual is unable to form or store new memories despite appearing to be awake and alert. A person experiencing a blackout is very vulnerable. They could fall into a river, stumble onto railway tracks or into the path of a fast moving car. An obviously intoxicated person is also a prime target for a mugging or a sexual assault.
Inevitably, there are more long-term risks connected to binge drinking. A person who binge drinks over a period of years could be increasing the risk of heart disease by affecting the accumulation of abdominal fat, a body characteristic shown to be an important risk factor in cardiovascular diseases. Heart attacks and other forms of coronary heart disease (CHD) result in approximately 500,000 deaths per year accounting for 25% of the nation’s mortality.
It may be surprising to learn that epidemiological research from across the globe has revealed that moderate alcohol consumption actually lowers the risk of CHD by approximately 30%. Moderate drinkers exhibit lower rates of CHD related mortality than both heavy drinkers and abstainers.
To function normally, the heart muscle requires a constant supply of oxygen containing blood. This is delivered to the heart muscle through the coronary arteries. Cholesterol and other fatty substances can accumulate within the arteries, partially impeding the blood flow. Heart attacks are generally triggered by a blood clot restricting the flow and depriving a portion of the heart muscle of oxygen. Alcohol in moderation can protect the heart by preventing the constriction of the arteries.
Unsurprisingly, excessive alcohol consumption can cause rapid or irregular heartbeat and impair pumping ability. It may also interact harmfully with medications. In addition to heart disease, the long-term binge drinker is leaving themselves susceptible to cancer or cirrhosis of the liver: binge drink for long enough and one of these fatal diseases could be yours. Also alcohol’s anticlotting ability, potentially protective against heart attacks, may increase the risk of a haemorrhagic stroke, or bleeding within the brain.
Excessive alcoholic consumption is very dangerous while moderate consumption is actually quite healthy. So what exactly is a safe amount to drink? Men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week, women no more than 14. A unit is the equivalent of half a pint of beer, a small glass of wine or a measure of spirits. Naturally it is much healthier to spread these units out across the week rather than try to drink them all in one night.
As for driving, the legal limit is 80 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. The amount of alcohol it takes each person to get to this level is almost impossible to measure. If one has to drive it is safest not to drink at all. After a heavy night’s drinking, one’s driving ability could still be adversely affected the following lunchtime. It is impossible to get alcohol out of the system quickly. Coffee and showers may make you feel more alert but will not speed the process up.
While there is much here for the seasoned binge drinker to mull over, it is very difficult to change one’s lifestyle overnight. There are support groups one can go to and counselling, which might help. Ultimately though, it is entirely up to you how long you want to live.
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