Dietetic student Kyle Kennedy discusses binge drinking among students, how alcohol affects the body and how to spot the signs of alcohol misuse.
Binge drinking. It is a phrase most will have heard, but could the majority define it? Some may not believe or know that they binge drink and simply place it under an alias: ‘socialising with friends’, ‘casual drinks with friends’, or ‘going on a night out.
From experience, people feel comfortable with self-deception as excessive drinking is considered normal, by the majority, as a component of ‘student life’. According to the NHS, binge drinking usually refers to drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk.12
As binge drinking is so prominent in Scotland, the NHS definition of binge drinking likely aligns with many nights out for a student.12 Further, according to the Scottish Health Survey, one in four people drink at a hazardous or harmful levels (drinking more than 14 units per week). The National Records of Scotland say there were 1,190 deaths due to alcohol in 2020: 69% men, 31% women.10, 15
This article will focus on alcohol’s physiology and effects in conjunction with smoking, the increased risk of weight gain caused by excessive alcohol consumption, the importance of reducing alcohol consumption and the work we as a population can do to help those who misuse alcohol or drink alcohol excessively.
Alcohol absorption begins in the mouth and continues through the stomach to the primary site of absorption: the small intestine.8 Further, the absorption of alcohol can be sped up in the absence of food.
On the lining of the gut, there are commensal bacteria (gram-negative) and when large volumes of ethanol (alcohol) are consumed frequently, this may promote commensal bacterial growth and increased gut permeability.2 Therefore, there is a greater chance that harmful molecules, e.g., lipopolysaccharides, from the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and enter the liver.2, 4 These molecules then interact with cells called Kuppfer cells which release inflammatory markers into the body causing inflammation, which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver (end-stage liver disease) which essentially prevents the liver from functioning correctly. It causes several symptoms, from loss of appetite to oedema and jaundice.2, 13
Additionally, when combined with smoking, alcohol can increase the risk of disease. Alcohol can increase the absorption of carcinogenic chemicals, and as tobacco is highly carcinogenic, this can increase the uptake of carcinogens into the cells, thereby causing diseases such as oesophageal cancer.1
Hangovers, anxiety, depression, pancreatitis, liver disease, diabetes, infertility, weight gain and cancer are only some of the short and long-term diseases and ailments caused by binge drinking.6 Focusing on weight gain, when alcohol is ingested, the body converts the alcohol into energy.9 Per gram of alcohol, this translates to seven kilocalories and in conjunction with alcohol's appetite-stimulating properties, this can lead to a swift and unnoticed weight gain.3 Also, when drinking alcohol, people are more likely to make unhealthy food choices, and therefore consume more energy-dense foods.16
Being aware of the potential disease and health issues associated with alcohol consumption is important. However, it is crucial that some of the advantages of reducing alcohol content, in line with the Chief Medical Officers' recommendations of no more than 14 units per week, are highlighted:5
So, what can we as members of the public, dietetics students, and dietitians do to fight the social norm of binge drinking?
Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter. All are powerful tools for adolescents to empower, express and evolve ideas. They can be used as channels for positive information and potentially life-altering facts.
So, why not take advantage of social media and use it to share factual and important content concerning binge drinking? Creating your dietetic page or account to blog or spread awareness of dietary and nutritional problems such as binge drinking, interacting with interested users and pointing them in the correct direction for further information such as Drinkaware or simply sharing others’ information has the potential to be incredibly beneficial for some people.6 But before sharing any information, it is important that it is sourced credibly and reliably before sharing and adding references where necessary.
Further to the internet stream, it is crucial to recognise the signs of alcohol misuse in those around you such as family, friends and yourself. Some of the symptoms of alcohol misuse include:
If consumed regularly over a period of time alcohol can cause mental, physical and potentially financial issues and ultimately decrease quality of life. Therefore it is important to follow the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines as this will reduce the likelihood of morbidity and mortality.