December is on the horizon, marking the arrival of panicked present buying, Bublé classics on repeat and drinking more than your annual allocation of alcohol in just one month.
It quite simply wouldn’t be Christmas without Bucks Fizz for breakfast, long boozy lunches, a Baileys nightcap and, of course, the office party.
Although the festive period comes but once a year, how much damage can this prolonged bender do to our bodies? And should we not be trying to mitigate these effects rather than ignoring them?
Am I really drinking that much at Christmas?
Before you begin to tackle a problem, you first have to understand the scale of the beast. And make no mistake, most of the drinking that is being done around the festive season would definitely be defined as ‘binging’.
The NHS says more than six units of alcohol in a single session as a binge. This is equivalent to drinking 2 to 3 standard glasses (175ml) of 13% strength wine or between 2 and 3 pints of 4% strength beer.
So although you might only be drinking as much as everyone else around you, the fact remains that we are consuming a lot of alcohol in a short space of time.
Does this spike in alcohol have an impact on my body?
Dr Patrick Kennedy, consultant hepatologist and gastroenterologist at King Edward VII’s hospital, London, says: “There is no question that excess alcohol consumption and any increased drinking pattern – typical of the pre-Christmas spike – has a major impact on our health.
“Too often, we also overlook the negative impact alcohol has on our general health affecting the brain, the heart, our skin, in addition to it’s association with many cancers. My concern is around liver damage and potential for repeated spikes to cause liver injury, which ultimately can lead to chronic liver disease.”
But can’t our livers tolerate these short-term binges?
“Generally speaking the liver has the ability to tolerate short-term binges,” says Kennedy, but he warns that this is in way no way a license to misuse alcohol.
“Short term big binges cannot be considered harmless, the analogy that I would use is chopping a tree, if we continue to binge drink, eventually the tree falls over.”
He adds: “Liver disease is likely to become the leading cause of premature death in the UK within a few years because of current drinking patterns.”
Do doctors worry about this time of the year?
Kennedy says: “Of course health professionals worry about this time of year as it is synonymous with excess. Increased drinking patterns above the ‘normal’ background level of alcohol consumption can be enough to precipitate liver related problems or symptoms.”
In addition, many people in the UK have advanced liver damage or cirrhosis and are unaware of this diagnosis, so anything which can exacerbate this condition is of grave concern to medical professionals.
But what if we go back to normal in January?
If you’re not feeling too confident about your chances right now then perhaps you’re comforting yourself with the idea that normality will resume in 2018 and you will cut back the alcohol, so this doesn’t apply to you.
But Kennedy explained: “In my experience, the just ‘one month a year’ is quite similar ‘to the just one more drink’ culture. The effects of alcohol are cumulative, the more you drink, the greater the risk.”
“This is why I don’t accept you can trade one month for another, we are dealing with our health; increased alcohol consumption irrespective of the month is damaging our health.”
So what can we actually do to make it better?
In an ideal world we’d all agree to go T-total until Boxing Day, but as much as that might be what is best for our bodies, it seems a little unrealistic.
Instead, there are changes you can make to really help yourself: “The most simple intervention that I recommend is consecutive alcohol-free days. I usually recommend 3-4 consecutive alcohol-free days per week.”
The Department of Health says men and women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, and Kennedy agrees we should all be aiming for below that upper limit, even at Christmas.
“This allows the liver to recover to a degree and removes the repeated unrelenting liver damage associated with daily alcohol consumption. Even the ancient.”
If you need help with a drinking problem, call the Alcoholics Anonymous national helpline for free on 0800 9177 650 or email email@example.com. For advice on how to reduce drinking, visit Drinkaware’s website or Alcohol Concern. Find alcohol addiction services near you using this NHS tool.