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Alcohol and the festive season

With Christmas parties, end of year celebrations and upcoming new years, people’s alcohol consumption is likely to increase – some more than others. Recent research indicates that surprisingly, the baby boomer generation are likely to be the biggest drinkers. Data from the recently published Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey showed that very frequent drinking and binge drinking among young people had decreased over the past 10 years but had remained stable among baby boomers. Up to 8% of male baby boomers (aged between 46-64) were found to binge drink at least weekly. Furthermore, among young people about twice as many men as women engaged in binge-drinking, but among baby boomers four times as many men as women binged. This statistic is scary it in itself, however, when you factor in potential medication interactions and an ageing body, these baby boomers are at an increased risk of alcohol related harm.

I can easily sit here and say that everyone should cease drinking entirely (easy for me as I don’t drink alcohol), but it is more realistic to accept that people will drink alcohol from time to time. Alcohol has many positive benefits – least of which relaxation and stress relief – however, it is the frequency and quantity that one drinks that can cause the most harm.

In the spirit of the festive season, let’s review some of the reasons why alcohol can be problematic and most importantly, strategies to curb the negative side effects whilst you enjoy this time of the year.

Health effects

Whilst I can’t imagine anyone would think that I would suggest that alcohol is a health promoting substance (regardless of all of those studies relating antioxidants and red wine….), I do think it is important to summarise why we may want to reduce our intake and be more conscious when choosing what to drink.

Short term effects.

If you’re planning on having a big night, a few things to watch out for in the short term:

  • The obvious – a nasty hangover and sedentary behaviour the morning after
  • If you drink and drive, you are indeed a bloody idiot – approximately 1/3 of fatal accidents involve drink driving and this increases over the festive season
  • Increased risk of unnecessary injuries, violence, risqué sexual behaviour (potentially lethal when protection is not used), accidents, falls and others
  • Physical symptoms such as liver swelling and discomfort (commonly felt under your ribs on the right hand side); dehydration; headaches; diarrhoea, vomiting, fatigue, dark circles under the eyes, weight gain
  • Emotional symptoms including depression; anger; grief or sadness; relationship problems

Long term effects

When you recover from a big night, the long-term effects can get even more problematic:

  • Increased risk of cancer – especially breast, throat/mouth, oesophageal, liver, stomach
  • Increased risk of other diseases including cirrhosis, cognitive problems, obesity, hypertension, dementia, psychological conditions, damage to reproductive organs and others
  • Correlating concerns such as smoking and poor dietary behaviour
  • Nutritional deficiencies and related health concerns
  • Financial and legal implications
  • Occupational effects
  • Breakdown of family structures
  • And many, many others

Now what?

Imagine if you will that your xmas gathering is upon you and you’re trying to enjoy the festivities and also care for your health and wellbeing. A few simple tips can make a world of difference.

Make conscious alcohol choices

There are big differences in the types of alcohol you consume. For example, a cocktail can often contain between 2-5 standard drinks. A healthier option is to monitor and limit your amount of standard drinks throughout an event.

What is a standard drink?

From NSW Government Health

A ‘standard drink’ is the measure of alcohol used to work out safe drinking levels. All these drinks are different sizes but each of them has approximately 10 grams of alcohol. NB: each drink = each other with respect to effects on the body and alcohol content (10g/serve)

Light beerOrdinary BeerWineSpiritsPort/Sherry
1 schooner
2.7% alcohol
1 middie
4.9% alcohol
1 glass
12% alcohol
1 nip
40% alcohol
1 glass
20% alcohol

Not all types of alcohol are equal

For example:

  • Clear spirits such as gin or vodka contain 64 calories per shot
  • A schooner of beer (full strength) contains 210 calories
  • A glass of red (100ml) contains 68 calories
  • Whereas one shot of Baileys contains 68 calories per 30ml

As such, the humble cocktail can often contain between 68-340 calories per drink just for the alcohol. Now imagine if it contained lemonade, cream and other goodies….

Sensible drinking guidelines

From National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

Level of RiskWomen [Standard drinks a day]Men [Standard drinks a day]
Low riskup to 2up to 4
Medium risk2-44-6
Harmfulmore than 4more than 6

NB: Everyone should have at least 2 alcohol-free days a week.

It’s not just the alcohol but also what you mix with it

This one is obvious but if you choose a low calorie drink, this kind of defeats the purpose if you combine it with a full calorie soft drink or better yet drink it with coffee and ice-cream (aka affogato). Similarly, the low calorie alcohol choice shouldn’t mean you should have an extra serving of tiramisu (even more alcohol) or an extra helping of deep fried treats.

Hydrate, hydrate and then hydrate some more

We all know this one, but how many of us practice what is necessary? Hydration is calculated based on a person’s weight – i.e. 30ml per kg body weight. Then, additional re-hydration is required for every glass of coffee, tea, alcohol or soft drink drunk. When you add this all together some time people need to drink as much as 3.5L per day, which can seem an impossibility. The old rule of one alcoholic drink followed by a glass of water in between is a good general recommendation. Remember – most hangovers are often simply caused by dehydration.

Replenish what is lost

Alcohol depletes our reserves of key vitamins and minerals. The most important group that are lost are B vitamins. These brilliant nutrients enable a number of bodily processes to occur. A quick tip (and certainly not one to be taken advantage of) is to take a B complex before you head out and then an additional one during the night. Please note that this can increase wakefulness but the benefits far outweigh this potential negative. It reduces the incidence of hangovers markedly, provides valuable nutrients for your liver so it can process the alcohol and keeps your mood (and your wits) positive so helps you have a better night. Food sources are tricky as the alcohol is likely to destroy them through digestion so supplementation is the most realistic.

Protect your liver

Another important prescription is the wonderful herbal medicine called St Mary’s Thistle (Silybum marianum). Taking this herb before the big night can make a huge impact on your recovery and your enjoyment of the evening – well worth investing! Additionally, it helps to protect your liver in the long term so reduces long term effects and damage.

It’s too late, the big night is over already…

If you’ve already had the big night and have woken up feeling awful the best approach is to hydrate with pure water, take it easy with food and obviously be gentle with your body. Expecting it to run a marathon is simply stupid; expecting your poor and overworked liver to process a ‘fry up’ is also a bad idea. Instead, be holistic and provide an easily digestible meal full of nutrients to replace what has been lost. A good example would be a green smoothie with spirulina, yoghurt, LSA and fresh berries and a 1-2 litres of spring water.


Most importantly, the festive season is a time to reflect on the year passed, a time to enjoy the company of friends and family and a time to recuperate from the year passed. I trust you will all enjoy some wonderful, healthy and wholesome meals with your loved ones.