Come Friday, weekend warriors prepare for battle and no, we don’t mean Tough Mudder. We’re talking about the army of post-work drinkers heading to the bar with little on their minds but Tinder and booze. Lots and lots of booze.
These forces seem to be on a recruitment drive too, with up to 7.8 million people admitting to a weekly binge in a report by the Office for National Statistics. But how dangerous is our propensity for getting paralytic, and what actually constitutes binge drinking in the first place? Well, not all that much, according to Billy Henderson, addiction unit manager at The Priory hospital group.
“Binge drinking is described by the NHS as ‘drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time to get drunk’ – around 8 units, or four to five pints, for men in a single sitting,” he says.
Which is but a drop of the usual bar tab. So, in a bid to break down the boozy effects on the body, we’ve plotted the science behind your Friday (and Saturday, and Sunday) night session. You might want to get a glass of water.
Stage 1 – The First Round
It’s 5.30pm, and you’ve left work half an hour early. The end of the working week however, marks the beginning of your liver’s night shift.
“Once you’ve had your first drink, it only takes an hour for alcohol to enter your bloodstream,” says Dr Adam Simon, chief medical officer at online GP service Push Doctor. “Your brain is the first organ to be noticeably affected, with a louder voice and reduced attention span.” Yeah, you’re that guy.
Fortunately, these effects can be minimised, depending on your dinner plans. “Most people know that drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea, so eat foods that slow alcohol’s progress to the bloodstream,” says Simon. Protein-rich foods like chicken keep your stomach full for longer, while ‘good fats’ such as salmon and avocado provide a great lining for the night ahead.”
Stage 2 – Warming Up
You’re a few pints deep. The tie’s loose, the conversation looser. Onto the next pub, and a possible switch-up in poison.
“There are a lot of myths about the effects of mixing drinks, particularly beer with spirits,” says Simon. “The truth is that the speed you’re drinking is the biggest factor in how drunk you are. Every alcoholic drink contains ‘empty calories’ – you can’t use them, so stick to diet options to limit the calorie intake should you move onto, say, a gin and tonic.”
Despite the slimline option, your body is still working overtime to keep up. “Alcohol is a toxin, so your body prioritises getting rid of it above all other tasks. This includes blood sugar regulation, decreasing insulin’s effectiveness and leaving you with high levels.”
Stage 3 – “Shots?”
It’s getting late, and there are several options ahead: moving onto the top shelf at the bar, back to your mate’s to continue the night, or inviting your ex over for a ‘quick drink’ (all of which are terrible ideas, by the way, not that you’re listening any more).
“Drinking more than one unit of alcohol per hour gives your body more than it can handle, so by this stage, you’re well on the road to drunkenness,” says Simon. “Your powers of risk assessment, brain function, balance and self-awareness are all depleted to disastrous levels.”
And it isn’t just your grey matter that’s struggling. “Your body knows that alcohol isn’t good, so all other tasks are placed on the back-burner while it flushes the system. The more you drink, the tougher this gets.” As if spelling ‘Come round’ correctly wasn’t hard enough at this point.
Stage 4 – Last Orders
You’ve lost your wallet, your mates and your mind. What’s worse, your insides might soon be going the same way.
“Aside from the obvious, such as slurred speech, sleepiness and decreased motor function, there may be potential alcoholic poisoning,” says Simon. “Symptoms include confusion, unconsciousness or very slow breathing, and if you’re suffering a seizure or vomiting, medical help is strongly advised.”
If you do manage to swerve A&E though, give the kebab shop a miss, too. “Some studies show that alcohol triggers the brain’s hunger function, which may explain why we pursue food. Booze also causes weight gain, and a tonne of greasy food won’t help this.”
Stage 5 – The Morning After
As if your sent messages weren’t enough of a sore point, you’ve got a head to match and a hangover from the ninth circle of hell.
“There are lots of processes at play the morning after,” says Simon. “Firstly, even if you’ve slept for hours, the quality of sleep is very poor when you’re drunk – this is due to extended REM sleep, which is unrestful and explains why you’re so tired the next day.”
Your exhaustion is compacted by acute dehydration. “Your organs look to wherever they can for water, with your brain taking the biggest hit as it loses moisture to function other parts of the body. This causes your brain to shrink and pull at the surrounding membrane – that’s where the headache comes from.” Your best solution: drink through it. And yes, we mean H2O, not hair of the dog.