MENTION the phrase binge drinking and chances are the images conjured up will be those of youngish revellers consuming large amounts of alcohol for the sole purpose of becoming rapidly inebriated.

Indeed, the NHS describes binge drinking as “drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time, or drinking to get drunk”.

To nail down a more concrete definition, the same organisation would define this as “more than eight units of alcohol in a single session for men, and six units of alcohol in a single session for women”.

Although this may seem an awful lot, it may come as a greater surprise that many brands of beer or lager contain almost three units per pint, and a bottle of wine between eight to ten units, which many would see as three large glasses.

Though the amounts may not seem that much, having that third pint or glass of wine would essentially be classified as binge drinking.

Trying to label patterns of alcohol consumption are perhaps less useful than an understanding of what is a unit, what excess alcohol consumption does in both the short, medium and long term, and if there are actually any health benefits to alcohol in the first place.

Thankfully the majority if not all alcoholic beverages now have the number of units on the container, be this etched onto the side of a pint glass or as a printed label on a bottle.

The effects of binge drinking can be likened to those of brief but excess sun exposure, for example while on holiday. They are as harmful, if not more so, than chronic lower-level drinking above the recommended limits.

The rapid rise in blood alcohol levels results in significant impairment of judgement, made worse by lack of insight into this due to increased levels of confidence.

Even two units will alter reaction times, so although the you may be under the drink drive limit, you will not be as safe as if you had no alcohol on board.

Although greater numbers of units may promote relaxation and a feeling of wellbeing, your speech, hand eye coordination, gait and ability to judge a situation will be increasingly affected.

Binge drinking is a leading cause of accidents and death by misadventure. You would be less likely to walk home in the freezing cold without a coat if you were sober, or get into a car with a driver who had also been drinking.

Heavy alcohol consumption is also linked to the catchily phrased “Holiday Heart Syndrome”, or Alcohol induced Atrial Fibrillation. This irregular heart beat is due to the direct effect of excess alcohol or its breakdown products on the heart muscle and the adrenal glands.

At first intermittent, atrial fibrillation can become permanent with chronic alcohol abuse, and is a risk factor for stroke.

While for many years there was a notion that moderate alcohol consumption had health benefits and reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, much of this was gained from observational studies of a limited number of subjects in their forties and fifties. It could in no way demonstrate that drinking actually reduced your cardiovascular risk.

With certainty it can now be said that any minor purported health benefits are not enough to advise those who are teetotal to commence drinking. Indeed, the evidence points more strongly that there is an increased risk of many diseases even consuming one unit of alcohol per day regularly, which is far under the Government’s recommended 14 units per week.

Again, this was previously 21 units for men, and with increasing knowledge of the effects of alcohol, it is entirely possible that this number will be again revised in future.

Up to 18 the brain is still developing so exposure to alcohol as a teenager may have long lasting effects. Similarly in the older age group, ability to breakdown alcohol may not be as efficient as when the same person was younger.

While I hope this article does not seek to demonise alcohol, a lot needs to be done to redress its glamourisation. Although advertisement of tobacco products has quite rightly been banned, the portrayal of alcohol in all forms of media is still very much linked to beautiful, successful individuals.

If you feel you or a loved one have an alcohol problem, please do not ignore. Help is available in many ways. Please see useful websites:;;

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