How much alcohol is safe to drink, according to science?

The pubs and bars are poised to reopen, but should we be careful about our alcohol intake?

How much alcohol is safe to drink?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Alcohol is everywhere we go and look. Now coronavirus restrictions are finally starting to ease – ending an era in which drinking from home was more prevalent than ever before – people's first reactions are to go to a bar or pub to celebrate our reunion. 

Alcohol punctuates every celebration and commiseration, which is why it's important now bars and pubs are opening up again to remind ourselves (and in some cases, discover) what constitutes safe drinking.

The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting our intake to two drinks or less in a day for men, or one drink or less in a day for women. Any drinker will tell you that's not very much. 

Looking across the pond, the UK is more flexible with its definitions, recommending adults drink up to, and not exceeding, 14 "units" of alcohol each week. 

What is a unit of alcohol?

A unit of alcohol is a measure invented in the UK to allow drinkers to more successfully keep track of how much alcohol they consume. The American-style measurement of "one drink", for example, might be a light beer, or it could be a dry martini, which are obviously two examples with very different amounts of alcohol.

The UK National Health Service defines one unit of alcohol as "10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, which is around the amount of alcohol the average adult can process in an hour". A pint of medium-strength lager contains around 2.5 units of alcohol, while a bottle of wine contains around 10 units.


(Image credit: Getty Images)

How much is really safe to drink?

There are a few studies around, and we've all seen the headlines, claiming a small glass of red wine or somesuch is good for your heart health. However, one study published in the medical journal The Lancet analysed 195 countries and territories across 26 years, finding alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor of death and disability. The study concludes "no amount" of alcohol is truly safe to drink.

Alcohol can affect much more than just the bowel and liver. As a diuretic, alcohol dehydrates us, damaging our skin and kidneys, causes us to gain weight and affects our brain chemistry via the dopamine receptors, the part of our brain which produces the "reward chemical". Alcohol, like smoking and processed red meat, is also a carcinogen, having been linked with several different forms of cancer.

Abstaining from or cutting down our alcohol intake can be extremely beneficial to your mental health as well as physical, alongside learning how to meditate or using the best diffuser for essential oils

Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.