Dr Libby: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

By Dr Libby Weaver
Is it time to call curtain? Photo / Getty Images

In this special series, guest writer Dr Libby Weaver shares her health insights. This week, she asks how much is too much when it comes to alcohol.

Alcohol consumption is deeply embedded in our culture, having become ubiquitous with both socialising and relaxation. It often makes appearances at dinners, celebrations,

So widely available and acceptable, alcohol can quickly spiral into something that people consume every day without really thinking about it. Yet, what starts as a casual drink can sometimes develop into a reliance that many of us might not even recognise.

You may find yourself part of the ‘yo-yo’ drinking pattern indulging heavily some months and cutting back in others. While these breaks do ease the burden on your liver, this pattern may still contribute to significant alcohol consumption over the year, diminishing your daily energy and zest for life. So how much is too much?

What happens when you drink alcohol?

According to the World Health Organisation, which recently updated its stance on alcohol, there is no safe amount of alcohol that does not affect our health. While this may sound drastic, it highlights exactly how toxic alcohol is to the body. The human body cannot excrete alcohol – we consume it but we can’t eliminate it – it must be converted into acetaldehyde by the liver, which is then converted into carbon dioxide and water and excreted. It’s the acetaldehyde that can give us a headache the day after imbibing. If the liver didn’t do its job and allowed alcohol to accumulate in our blood, we could go into a coma and die. Alcohol is that poisonous. And I don’t say that lightly. Thankfully, our liver jumps into action and starts the conversion process and we carry on.

What are the health risks of drinking alcohol?

The trouble is, when we drink daily, or for some just regularly, the liver can be so busy dealing with alcohol as its priority that other substances the liver also has to change so they can be excreted don’t get enough attention and can end up being recycled — not something you want.

Estrogen is one example. It is often its reabsorption that leads to elevated levels (or problematic versions) in our body — and that can lead to health challenges. Physically, alcohol overconsumption may lead to increased body fat, persistent fatigue, mood fluctuations (alcohol is a depressant), sleep disturbances, and exacerbate symptoms related to PMS and menopause.

The link between the consistent over-consumption of alcohol and breast and other types of cancers is undeniable. Research has shown this time and time again, and for many years now. Yet we rarely hear about it. Excessive drinking can reverberate through your life, also affecting your relationships and career. While the temporary joy of drinking might seem worthwhile, the truth is that alcohol could be clouding your clarity and diminishing your potential.

How to reassess your drinking habits

When was the last time you really considered your drinking habits? If you are truly honest with yourself, are you drinking too much for you? Reflecting on this can be uncomfortable but is essential for anyone looking to maintain or improve their health. Consider not just how much or how often alcohol shows up in your life but also why you reach for it. Are you drinking in an attempt to ‘cope’ with stress? Do you feel as though the only time you can let loose and enjoy yourself is with a drink in your hand? Do you tell yourself you deserve it after working so hard? These questions can help you get to the heart of your relationship with alcohol if changing it is something you seek.

Through my years of clinical practice, when I would float the idea of taking a break from alcohol, many of my patients would show significant resistance to the idea. This resistance often illuminates a deeper dependency that might not be immediately apparent. It’s not uncommon for individuals to use alcohol as a means to seek pleasure, avoid discomfort, or mask underlying issues. Recognising this can be the first step towards making a change.

The benefits of giving up alcohol for a month

If you feel that your alcohol consumption is higher than you would like or if you don’t like how you behave after you’ve had a drink, consider the benefits of a four-week hiatus. This short period can significantly impact your mental clarity, energy levels, and overall vitality. More than just a break, this challenge can serve as a powerful tool to reset your habits and tastebuds, and gain insights into how alcohol really affects you.

However, it’s essential to approach this break with the intent to learn about your habits rather than just as a temporary detox because the break is just the beginning. The real work lies in understanding why you drink and addressing those reasons head-on. These insights can lead to a more mindful relationship with alcohol, where you control your intake rather than letting it control you.

How can we have a healthier relationship with alcohol?

It’s important to acknowledge the social component of drinking. Often, we associate alcohol with relaxation and connection. For instance, sitting down for a drink with a loved one might be the first quiet moment you share after a busy day. However, it’s crucial to recognise that the connection is what’s valuable, not the drink itself. Opting for a non-alcoholic beverage during these moments can be equally fulfilling, if not more so, as it allows you to remain fully present. To be clear, I’m not promoting total abstinence — unless that is your choice. Instead, I want to help you to foster an honest dialogue with yourself about how alcohol truly affects your health and wellbeing. Deep down, you know if your drinking habits are supporting or detracting from your quality of life.

What are the recommended guidelines for safer alcohol consumption?

Understanding standard drink sizes can also be enlightening and help you to make more informed choices about your drinking. To give you an idea, a standard drink is however 10 grams of alcohol is delivered. This equates to a 30ml nip of spirits, a 330ml bottle of 4% beer, 170mls of champagne and 100ml of wine. A typical pour at home often exceeds these standards, which means you may be consuming more alcohol than you realise.

To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related diseases, research shows that no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four in any one day is key. These guidelines might help you pick and choose the occasions when you drink, rather than making it part of every day.

Are you curious about how much more alive, energetic, and clear-headed you could feel without alcohol, even just temporarily? Embracing this curiosity can lead to significant changes, not just for your health but for your overall approach to life.

Dr Libby Weaver.
Dr Libby Weaver.

Nutritional biochemist, Dr Libby Weaver PhD, is a 13-times bestselling author and international speaker and founder of the plant-based supplement range, Bio Blends. Drlibby.com

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What to know about hormone imbalances. From sex hormones to stress hormones.

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