The Life Doctor
Sunday 30 August 1998
For years, experts have argued about the number of units it is safe to drink in a week. But whether the answer is 14, 21 or 28 is only part of the issue. What may be just as important is how we spread those units across the week.
New research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine looks at the evidence that the French and the Russians drink roughly the same amount, yet while alcohol seems to protect the French from heart disease it puts the Russians at greater risk - particularly at weekends. The difference is, the French glug a little wine at every meal. The Russians save it up for a huge Vodka-fest. The Russians have far worse incidence of cardiovascular disease.
"A binge counts for most people as the equivalent of more than five pints in one go," says the report's author, Martin McGee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "If you are drinking six bottles of beer in one go you are at significantly greater risk of sudden cardiac death."
Britain, too, has a binge culture. Swapping gory "where I've vommed" stories is a national pastime. We think Ulrika downing a pint in one is cool. We drink to get drunk. And why not? Life is miserable enough without being deprived the pleasure of waking up on a strange sofa with a pneumatic drill in your head.
According to the Health Education Authority, most teenagers believe that going out to get completely plastered occasionally is all right, whereas anyone who drinks every day has a problem. A million British men and 190,000 women get drunk at least once a week. Six out of ten men have drunk eight units or more at one sitting in the past year.
Bingeing doesn't mean you're an alcoholic - just cutting down your life expectancy. The good news, according to Professor Nick Heather, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Northern Regional Alcohol and Drug Service, is that a lot of the risk factors of being a heavy binge drinkers are very straightforward. "One of the big predicators could literally be how far you live from the nearest pub and the attitudes of people around you. Changing a bingeing attitude can be about taking away the opportunity." Martin McKee agrees that bingeing would decrease if alcohol was taken out of the macho pub environment and put into family-friendly bars.
You can, of course, remove yourself from temptation. And it doesn't mean joining the Quakers. Just start thinking like a Mediterranean glugger. Sit down in restaurants rather than standing in bars. After two glasses of wine Glugger thinks: "I feel pleasantly relaxed. I ought to drink some water now or I will get unpleasantly drunk."
Binge drinker thinks: "I haven't had much for two weeks I can drink 28 units in one go. Hurrah!"
Yes, getting drunk is fun. But at least you won't be so embarrassing at 50 and there are so many bad associations. 50 per cent of adults admitted to hospital with head injuries are obviously drunk. Much violence is alcohol- fuelled. And we don't need a figure for the percentage of regrettable sex that was alcohol-fuelled.
One of the biggest blocks to giving up bingeing is denial, thinking: "getting drunk never did my Uncle Albert any harm. He was really healthy right up until he died of that sudden heart attack at 43!" This is a major Russian issue. Some accept that the Vodka-binge culture is unhealthy and that something needs to be done - others insist that the cardiac crisis is due to the collapse of Communism. Oh well.
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