New guidelines on alcohol

January 27, 2016 15:51

The government’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) changed the guidelines on drinking earlier this month. This led to a lot of media coverage, but the message from the CMO was quite simple: we now have more evidence on the harms from drinking alcohol and we now need to change the guidelines to reduce the risk.

The new evidence comes from a better understanding of the relationship between alcohol and cancer – as well as the long-term harms from regular drinking. So the new guidelines are:

  • Men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week

  • if you do drink as much as 14 units in a week, don't 'save up' your units for 1-2 days

  • Spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week


 If you want to cut down on your drinking, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.

What are the risks

One in three of us will get cancer at some point in our lives and we now know that even drinking 1.5 units of alcohol a day increase the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, bowel and in women, breast. Drinking 6 units a day increases the risk of liver and pancreatic cancer.

This is because the carcinogenic nature of alcohol (be it wine, beer, spirits or cider) causes damage to cells, making them more likely to become cancerous. The more you drink, the greater the risk: 

  • Women regularly drinking 2 units a day increase the risk of breast cancer by 16%
  • Women regularly drinking 5 units a day increase the risk of breast cancer by 40%
  • Men regularly drinking 2 units a day increase the risk of liver cirrhosis by 57%
  • Men regularly drinking 5 units a day increase the risk of liver cirrhosis by 207%

Source: Alcohol Guidelines Review: Report from Guidelines Review Group to the UK Chief Medical Officers (2016)

So how much can I drink? 

If you do drink, and you want to stay within the new guidelines - you should spread your maximum 14 units out over 3 days or more. You could drink 2 pints of 4% lager, or 2 medium glasses of 13% wine (4.6 units each) on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and you’d be within the guidelines.

A simple way to express this would be to stick to 2-3 drinks (equalling 4 units) up to 2-3 times per week.

Drinking over 5-7 units on one occasion increases the risk of injury and accidents two to five-fold.

The guidelines also advise that it's a good idea to have several days a week where you don't drink, especially if you’ve overdone it the night before.

What about pregnancy? 

The guidelines now recommend that if you’re pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, you should avoid alcohol altogether to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk.

If you have just discovered you are pregnant and you have been drinking then you shouldn't automatically panic as it is unlikely in most cases that your baby has been affected; though it is important to avoid further drinking.

If you are worried about how much you have been drinking when pregnant, talk to your doctor or midwife.