Alcohol became a coping mechanism for many Britons during the pandemic, and it seems that many of us are still enjoying those extra tipples as restrictions ease.
Research from life insurance company Reassured found UK drinkers consumed an average of 14 units of alcohol per week during the third lockdown, an increase of 5 units per week compared to before the pandemic.
The extra units are the equivalent of almost two more pints of lager or an extra half a bottle of wine each week and the company predicted these increases will cost drinkers an additional £512 per year – with Brits maintaining their habits now pubs have reopened.
With this in mind, Dr Luke Pratsides, lead GP at Numan, revealed the signs that you’re drinking too much and the dangers of alcohol dependence – including an increased risk of cancer and neurological problems.
Dr Sanjay Mehta, GP at The London General Practice, also shed light on the tell-tale signs of alcohol dependency – including weight changes, changes in the skin, repeated bacterial infections and bruising easily.
Research from life insurance company Reassured found UK drinkers consumed an average of 14 units of alcohol per week during the third lockdown. Stock image
Changes in the skin
Dr Pratsides says booze can lead to dull and tired skin, but that long-term alcohol abuse can dampen the immune system and eventually lead to chronic skin infections or yellow skin as a result of liver damage.
‘These can vary in severity,’ he explained. Early signs include dry skin and darkening of the skin around the eyes due to dehydration and lack of sleep with heavy alcohol drinking.’
‘Prolonged heavy alcohol use can lead to dilation of blood vessels caused by acetaldehyde, the main breakdown chemical product of alcohol. This can lead to red facial flushing particularly around the nose and cheeks.’
He went on to explain that in other parts of the body, small blood vessels can permanently dilate, which is known as spider naevi.
‘Long term alcohol abuse can dampen the immune system and reduce the body’s ability to heal and fight infection, which can lead to chronic skin ulceration and skin infections,’ he continued.
‘In advanced alcoholic liver damage due to alcohol, known as cirrhosis, the liver can no longer function as normal and the skin can turn yellow due to the build up of a yellow pigment called bilirubin in the blood that is usually filtered out of the blood by a healthy functioning liver.’
What are the risks of being dependent on alcohol?
Increased cancer risk: Alcoholics are at a much higher risk of a number of cancers.
Neurological problems: Alcoholism leads to a lack of nutrients such as vitamins B12 and folate which are particularly important in the maintenance of healthy nerves. Damage to peripheral nerves due to alcohol can lead to numbness in the hands or feet. Damage to the central nervous system in the brain, which controls balance and coordination, leads to unsteadiness on feet, falls and subsequent increased risk of physical injuries. In extreme cases of vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency due to alcohol symptoms can include memory loss, confusion and hallucinations.
Alcohol withdrawal: If alcoholics do not drink regularly to top up their blood alcohol levels they can start to exhibit physical symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. These symptoms include shaking, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting and seizures.
Dr Pratsides says unexplained bruising may also be a sign you’re drinking too much.
‘The damage that alcohol inflicts on the liver means that the liver is no longer able to perform its functions,’ he explained.
‘One of the major functions of the liver is to produce chemicals known as clotting factors that promote normal blood coagulation.
He continued: ‘Alcoholics are therefore not able to stop bleeding easily which can lead to large bruising from relatively small knocks and bumps.’
Numbness or tingling
Dr Mehta notes a sign of alcohol dependence can be numbness or tingling in the feet or hands.
‘This is known as alcoholic neuropathy and is when certain types of nerves are damaged due to alcohol excess, resulting in decreased sensation of the hands and feet, as well as unsteadiness,’ he explained.
‘It occurs due to the peripheral nerves that transmit signals between the body and the brain via the spinal cord being damaged by sustained alcohol excess.’
Dr Pratsides also goes on to say that excess alcohol consumption can lead to the overproduction of stomach acid.
‘Initial symptoms can be acid reflux or heartburn as the excess acid travels up the oesophagus causing a burning discomfort in the chest or throat,’ he said. ‘Over time the acid can irritate and erode the lining of the stomach leading to stomach ulcers.
‘Stomach ulcers can lead to stomach pain, vomiting and in the worse cases catastrophic life-threatening bleeding, that manifests as vomiting blood.’
Dr Pratsides says that alcoholism can lead to either weight loss or weight gain.
‘In the early stages of alcoholism, some people might gain weight because alcohol contains a large number of calories, which are often metabolised in the body as sugar,’ he explained.
‘These calories from alcohol are ’empty calories’, meaning they have no nutritional value and are stored as fat. Alcohol can stimulate hunger and people can crave high-fat foods, putting on weight as excess body fat.’
Dr Mehta agreed: ‘Drinking excess alcohol can often cause weight gain, although this extends beyond just the high intake of calories, particularly associated with cocktails and spirits taken with calorific sugary mixers.
‘Alcohol also affects the body’s metabolism, including slowing down the process of breaking down body fat, as the body, particularly the liver, focusses on breaking down the alcohol instead.
‘The production of the hormone ‘gelanin’ that results from drinking alcohol may also increase the desire for fatty foods, which can compound these effects to lead to a gain in weight.’
Dr Mehta says weight loss can also occur, when excess drinking has affected the hormones involved in hunger: ‘Drinking too much alcohol on a more regular basis can trick the stomach and mind into the sensation of feeling full through the tampering of certain hormones that are involved in appetite.
‘As a result, individuals may end up consuming less food, which results in lower calorie and poorer nutrient intake.’
Dr Pratsides added: ‘In extremes of alcoholism where the main driver in the alcoholic’s life becomes getting the next drink, weight loss can happen as they lose interest in food completely or develop liver cirrhosis and gut damage and become less able to absorb and process nutrients.’
Dr Mehta says heartburn can be triggered when excess alcohol damages the inner surfaces of the stomach.
‘This is the painful, burning sensation that can radiate from the stomach into the chest or even the throat,’ he explained.
‘Alcohol can trigger heartburn or exacerbate the condition in those that already suffer from it, as alcohol leads to more stomach acid being produced, which in turn can erode the inner surfaces of the stomach.
He continued: ‘The food-pipe (oesophagus) is also often affected, as the sphincter between the stomach and the oesophagus relaxes when we drink alcohol, allowing the stomach acid to flow upwards from the stomach into the oesophagus, where the lining is not as well built to tolerate such acidity. ‘
Repeated bacterial infections
Dr Mehta goes on to say that due to the negative impact alcohol has on the immune system you may be more likely to pick up bacterial infections.
‘Alcohol impairs the immune system’s ability to defend the body against certain harmful bacteria and viruses, thereby affecting an individual’s susceptibility to bacterial infections,’ he explained. ‘This can give rise to more colds, flu or other types of infections.’