The graph also only focuses on death, and does not account for alcohol’s risk of sickness, injury and other health harms, but Conigrave says it’s a useful tool to show how risks increase with more concentrated drinking.
Binge-drinking puts pressure across your body’s systems, from your heart through to your brain.
If you knock back 10 drinks between Friday and Saturday, your body then has to work much harder to recover, Miller says.
“That’s a lot more damaged cells in your liver and in your brain, increasing the impact drinking will have,” he says. “There’s an increased risk of a range of cancers and harmful outcomes.”
A common risk is blackout, Miller says. “You might seem reasonably conscious but if you wake up and don’t remember parts of the night before, you’ve literally damaged your brain.”
He says the long-term consequences are still being understood but early evidence suggests there may be substantial effects on memory and decision-making.
Blackout aside, Conigrave says evidence shows we must be wary of the cognitive consequences of heavy weekend drinking. Research on university students found that they were less able to handle complex tasks even days after binge-drinking.
Conigrave adds that consuming three drinks or more can also affect sleep quality by triggering a “rebound” of wakefulness in the middle of the night. Alcohol is a sedative, so your body fights against it by increasing natural stimulants, affecting your slumber after the booze largely leaves your system. There can be similar effects on mood and anxiety.
Alcohol affects your cardiovascular system, with heavier drinkers at higher risk of heart disease, hypertension and stroke. Conigrave says that a single episode of binge-drinking can lead to heart rhythm disorder, atrial fibrillation. A recent study showed that people were more likely to suffer from it the more they drank on one occasion.
Then there are behavioural effects. People are more vulnerable to falls and injury when lots of alcohol is involved. Miller says that falling over drunk is as common a reason as assault for going to hospital emergency. Conigrave explains that alcohol removes your inhibitions, so your judgment is impaired and you’re more likely to take risks, but you’re also less coordinated. And, yes, there’s the matter of junk food becoming much more tempting.
Effects of daily moderate drinking
We know that binge-drinking has many unwanted health outcomes, Conigrave says, so spreading your drinks through the week (say, 1-2 standard drinks a night) is a better option than squashing them all between Friday and Saturday – however it’s still wise to avoid drinking every day of the week. Even light drinkers are at increased risk of high blood pressure, cognitive decline and cancer.
While you may not notice any downsides to moderate daily drinking, Miller says it’s important to give your body a break from booze. Keep in mind that for the toxin to be cleared from the body, it must be processed into an even more toxic substance, acetaldehyde (a cousin of formaldehyde).
“If you drink night after night, your liver in particular but all other organs, including the brain, don’t get a break,” Miller says.
Miller says it’s a “good rule of thumb” to liken a standard drink to a cheeseburger. “If you have two glasses of wine with dinner, it’s like having a healthy meal and two cheeseburgers on top. They’re not healthy, good calories.”
The bottom line? The best option is to follow the guidelines of no more than four standard drinks a day, and a maximum 10 over a week. And try to take at least a couple of nights off through the week. “It can encourage you to drink mindfully and helps prevent it becoming automatic,” Conigrave says.
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