The effects of alcohol

Although we drink to feel good, alcohol can actually end up making you feel worse.

You might think of alcohol as a stimulant that can increase your heart rate, give you energy, and decrease your inhibitions. However, this is not the whole story. Alcohol has some initial stimulant effects, but it’s primarily a depressant — meaning it slows your body down.

How it affects you depends on your body chemistry, how much alcohol you ingest at once, how much you’ve eaten and your alcohol tolerance.

While it can reduce feelings of anxiety and inhibitions, which can help you feel more sociable, it can also exaggerate whatever mood you're in when you start drinking.

Even after drinking 4 to 6 units of alcohol (as little as a couple of drinks) your brain and nervous system starts to be affected. Drinking a lot of alcohol (more than 6 to 8 units) will make you intoxicated which will show itself as increasingly slurred speech, lack of co-ordination and blurred vision.

Alcohol also raises testosterone levels in males and females, which affects both sexual drive and aggression.

Health professionals often talk about alcohol units and risk when discussing drinking – but what does ‘low risk’ or ‘higher risk’ actually mean? Compared to what? Driving a car carries a risk. Cycling without a helmet carries a risk - but so does not exercising at all.

The revised guidelines from the Chief Medical Officers have defined ‘low risk drinking’ as up to 14 units per week (around 6 small glasses of wine or 6 pints of beer). At 14 units a week, the risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition is around 1 in 100. Drinking above this amount may be described as ‘increasing risk’ or ‘hazardous drinking’. 

This does not mean that all risk above 14 units a week is equal – or that any consumption above this level is dangerous. It means 14 units is where the risk is lowest.

Did you know a standard glass of wine can contain as many calories as a piece of chocolate, and a pint of lager has about the same number of calories as a packet of crisps? So, if losing weight is one of your motivations for cutting down on your drinking, think about what you are drinking.

Drinking four bottles of wine a month adds up to a yearly consumption of around 27,000kcal, which is equivalent to eating 48 Big Macs per year. Drinking five pints of lager each week adds up to 44,200kcal over a year, equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts.




Estimated food equivalent
Standard 175ml glass of 12% wine 133kcal 3 Jaffa Cake biscuits
pint of 5% strength beer 239kcal 1 standard size Mars Bar
50ml glass of 17% cream liqueur 153kcal 1 standard size Wagon Wheel
standard 330ml bottle of 4% alcopop 172kcal 2 chocolate digestive biscuits
double measure (50ml) of 17.5% fortified wine 77kcal 10 jelly babies
double measure (50ml) of 40% gin 95kcal 1 standard size Milky Bar

You can find out the calorie content of many more drinks using the Drinkaware unit and calorie calculator.

Covid-19 has meant new and often stressful challenges for all of us. We know that many people have been drinking more alcohol than usual during the pandemic. We also know that many of those people want to cut down on their drinking.

Research published by Alcohol Change UK in July 2020 asked all current and former drinkers to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘overall, I have drunk more alcohol than usual during lockdown’. More than a quarter (28%) of people agreed:

  • Men and women were pretty evenly matched
  • Younger people were more likely to agree than older people, and working people were more likely to agree than non-working people

One in six (16%) current or former drinkers said they have felt concerned about their drinking in lockdown. And more than one in three (37%) of the sample said they have taken active steps to manage their drinking.

Drinkaware research carried out in December 2020 found almost four in 10 drinkers (39%) were either actively trying to change their drinking habits (13%) or thought they should (26%). 

So, if you feel as if your drinking has increased and you’d like to get it back under control, you’re not alone.