British drinking culture and its effects on the body
Across the world, the UK is famed for our appreciation and overindulgence in alcohol and it’s true! The UK has one of the world’s highest levels of alcohol consumption per capita. Brits drink an average of 9.7 litres of alcohol per year, per person, which equates to 108 bottles of wine. That’s a lot of wine!
A study by ‘Drink Aware’ found that 27% of Brits who drink alcohol can be classed ‘binge drinkers’ based on their heaviest drinking day of the week. So why does the British population drink so much?
‘It’s just our culture’ you might hear as a quick-tongued rebuttal. Yet night after night, as work draws to a close the pubs spill onto the streets and beers foam. Students group and ready themselves for another night of chaos, swallowing down astringent liquids until their eyes glaze and heads dizzy. Walk through central London any night of the week and you’ll be faced with characters from all walks of life indulging in a drink.
Yet science is beginning to unveil the truth of why Brits are heavy drinkers and what this means for our health.
A US study found a possible explanation for high drinking levels throughout certain areas of the world including the UK. By collecting and studying data from 193 countries, it was seen that colder climates had higher levels of alcohol consumption as well as alcohol-related diseases such as alcoholic cirrhosis - a liver disease. The research showed that the temperature and sunlight hours could have a direct impact on how much alcohol we consume. However, this research does conflict with other evidence such as the low alcohol consumption in Northern countries like Norway and Sweden.
So while there may not be a direct answer, research expands our knowledge of alcohol consumption every day. Many other factors could play key roles in our ‘drinking culture’ like socioeconomic factors, mental health and age group.
You may be acquainted with the term ‘everything in moderation' - and, indeed, drinking certain alcoholic beverages in small quantities can be beneficial to health, such as red wine which contains high levels of antioxidants. However, the problem with the UK is the lack of moderation. From 2020 to 2021, there were 814,595 alcohol-related hospital admissions under the Broad definition in England alone. This was reported by the NHS and UK Government, with the comment that hospital admissions were lower than usual due to the ongoing lockdown and COVID19 measures.
So why is alcohol so bad for us when drunk in excess? Well, alcohol contains toxins that kill cells and microorganisms - we use it every day to clean and wash our hands. We often also drink alcohol in a diluted form, however, it is still toxic to the body.
After drinking an alcoholic beverage, the alcohol isn’t digested and instead enters the bloodstream and then travels around the body, including to the brain, kidneys, stomach and liver. How quickly this process takes is dependent on factors such as your weight, gender, age, how much you’ve eaten that day and how quickly your body metabolises food. It then metabolises at a slow rate, meaning the more you drink the longer your body will take to get rid of the alcohol and the stronger you will feel its effects.
When alcohol enters the bloodstream, you may have a sudden temperature change. You may find your skin blushing, feeling suddenly hot or sweaty. But this is a temporary feeling and soon after, the body temperature drops along with blood pressure.
The first point of metabolising alcohol is the stomach. Alcohol is abrasive on the stomach lining as the stomach tries to oxidise the liquid. However, only a small amount can be oxidised in the stomach and creates acetaldehyde - a toxic compound which can be to blame for stomach aches and hangovers the day after drinking.
As alcohol reaches your brain, it affects your concentration and inhibits the part of your brain that controls how your body works. This is what causes an inebriated person to slur their words, have blurred vision, loss of coordination and lowered inhibitions.
When your kidneys are reached by the alcohol, you may need to use the bathroom more as alcohol is a diuretic. This can result in dehydration and it’s important to continue drinking water even while consuming alcoholic drinks.
As for your liver, this organ is put under stress as it oxidises around 95% of the alcohol. This happens at a very slow rate of around one alcohol unit per hour. Regularly drinking alcohol can cause irreparable damage to the liver and result in various liver diseases.
Alcohol has an intense effect on the body. Short term use may result in anything from a bad hangover to injuries or accidents, dehydration, hypothermia and possible alcohol poisoning. Long term alcohol consumption is far more sinister.
High blood pressure, heart problems, stroke, liver diseases, cancer, digestive problems, addiction and more. Regularly putting the body under the stress of metabolising alcohol can be incredibly harmful.
That’s why it’s important to make healthy choices and consider if engaging in British ‘alcohol culture’ is worth the risk and side effects. ‘Everything in moderation’ really is a great way to look at drinking alcohol.
- Lucy Shaw. The average Brit drinks 108 bottles of wine a year. The Drink Business. 2019.
- Drink Aware. Alcohol Consumption UK. 2019.
- BBC. Living in a cold, dark climate linked to heavy drinking. BBC News. 2018.
- Ventura-Cots, Meritxell et al. Colder Weather and Fewer Sunlight Hours Increase Alcohol Consumption and Alcoholic Cirrhosis Worldwide. Hepatology (Baltimore, Md.) vol. 69,5. 2019.
- Lucy Middleton. Science has finally worked out why British people drink so much. Metro. 2018.
- Gov UK. Local Alcohol Profiles for England: short statistical commentary. 2022.
- Jamie Smith. Is red wine good for you? Medical News Today. 2020.
- Gov UK. What happens when you drink alcohol? NI Direct.