Most Brits admit to the odd tipple (or binge) to celebrate an occasion or a Friday night.
But with headlines swinging between red wine being a heart-boosting source of antioxidants and alcohol being a life-threatening toxin, it can be difficult to know if you can safely have a bevvie with your besties.
So we put it to some of British leading health experts to find out once and for all whether alcohol is something we should embrace or shun.
The doctor says ‘be careful’
Kate Conigrave, professor of addiction medicine at the Royal London Hospital, said that the dangers of heavy drinking can’t be underestimated.
“Alcohol does have some affects on hormonal systems and it’s a proven carcinogen,” she explains.
The Cancer Council estimates that up to 5.8 percent of cancers (particularly breast, liver, colon, mouth and throat cancers) diagnosed in the UK are attributable to long-term, chronic drinking.
Plus there are short-term dangers of binge drinking, such as increasing your risk of an accident or having unprotected sex.
“Alcohol has a place in many cultures but we have got into thinking that you can have as much as you want and it’s fun,” Professor Conigrave points out.
“But people aren’t taking into the equation the potential risks and harms.”
While some past studies have suggested small amounts of alcohol could boost our health, Professor Conigrave says that recent, more sophisticated studies have found that people who drink such small amounts are more likely to live carefully controlled healthy lifestyles, with lots of exercise and vegetables – which is probably where the real health benefits are coming from.
If you like drinking, Professor Conigrave doesn’t say you need to abstain completely – she just recommends taking it easy.
“Research suggests the government guidelines [recommending people have no more than two drinks per day or four drinks in one sitting] are on the money,” Professor Conigrave says.
“Most of us balance risks in our lives. Look at what you want and what you enjoy, but if you have a strong family history of cancer, watching your alcohol would be a good idea.”
The dietitian says ‘abstaining is best’
Nutrition and wellbeing specialist Melanie McGrice says that despite the odd headline suggesting alcohol could have health benefits, comprehensive studies in the past 12 months suggest that’s not the case.
“We have a huge issue with binge drinking in the United Kingdom,” she says.
“I often work in intensive care and I see so many people with alcohol-related accidents or strokes or liver disease. We accept it as such a social thing in the UK but you see the other side of it when working in a hospital.”
McGrice says regular drinkers wouldn’t want to drink more than two standard drinks a day, while pregnant women should abstain completely.
“I don’t think abstaining is a bad thing for your health,” she says.
“A lot of people quote the benefits of polyphenols in red wine but polyphenols are found in vegetables and we are much better off increasing our vegetable intake than our red wine.”
The public health expert says ‘stay classy’
We often hear that too many Brits overdo the alcohol, but Drinkwise CEO John Scott said that 82 percent of Brits actually drink within the British guidelines.
“The reality is that over the last couple of decades as a nation we are drinking a lot more maturely, drinking in moderation and by and large sticking to the national guidelines,” he says.
“Per capita consumption has come down dramatically in the national statistics.”
Of course, that still leaves 18 percent with cause for concern – which tends to be those aged 18 to 24 – but if you’re sticking to the guidelines then Scott says you’re probably doing the right thing by your health.
“Having a couple of drinks can be great in terms of socialising, stress relief and enjoying a meal,” he says.
“Rather than wagging the finger and saying ‘Don’t drink’, we’re saying ‘Drink in more classy ways’ so we can continue to move our culture towards one where we drink moderately.”
The naturopaths say ‘listen to your own body’
Philip Watkins, naturopath from London health retreats, says different people’s bodies respond differently to alcohol, so people need to take an active role in their health management and find what works best for them.
For Watkins himself, that means abstaining completely, however he says that some people find alcohol allows them to relax and open up emotionally.
“People need to take their health in their own hands and take more responsibility rather than being spoon fed [information],” he says.
“While the alcohol might be putting the liver under a bit of pressure or throwing out the microbiome or suffocating the brain of oxygen, the pseudo therapy session you had with your family and friends may be more beneficial because you have decreased your stress levels and got something off your chest.”
Naturopath Emma Tippett from Empowered Health agrees that drinkers need to pay attention to how their own body reacts.
“There may be certain people that may not ever suffer detrimental effects from moderate intake,” she points out.
“It comes down to self awareness of your own health and what you are taking on.”
However Tippett says it’s worth noting some of the physiological elements at play.
“Alcohol can impair the liver’s ability to release stored glucose into the bloodstream to lower our blood sugar, so if people have over-indulged often they have more cravings for sugar and carbohydrates the next day,” she said.
“Alcohol also inhibits the quality of REM sleep, which is our most restorative sleep, and could decrease daytime alertness and concentration. Excess alcohol can also lead to inflammation and interfere with how the liver is emulsifying fats, which means more fat will be stored in the liver cells.”
The final verdict: Not guilty — with one or two caveats
If you’re on a mission to avoid cancer at all costs, then you’d probably choose to abstain from alcohol completely.
But if your social life and mental health depends on the odd drink then you really can’t go past government guidelines – even if they do sound boring.
If you’re a daily drinker, that means capping yourself at two standard drinks a day, which means no more than 200ml wine or two 375ml mid-strength beers.
If you’re more of a weekend or special occasion drinker, then cap it at four standard drinks – 400ml of wine, three stubbies or four mid-strength beers.
If that sounds like too little, take comfort in the fact Professor Conigrave says that when you reduce how much you drink, the effects of booze are stronger.
“If you’re hitting it every weekend, your body builds tolerance,” she points out.
“If you don’t drink as much regularly, you won’t need as much to feel a bit relaxed and disinhibited.”