Health

Drinking for science - Is binge drinking really that bad

Drinking Image copyright Horizon

Making TV shows opens up all sorts of opportunities for fun.

I admit that consuming alcohol can be involved, just occasionally. But normally that's only after the cameras have been packed away. Not so this time.

My twin brother, Dr Xand and I have a long standing debate:

Given that blokes like us are "allowed" three to four units of alcohol a day, is it better to get a whole week's worth out of the way in one binge and give your liver a chance to recover afterwards?

Or to spread the booze across the week, just a couple every night, but never giving your liver a rest?

It seemed like a question BBC's flagship science show Horizon could answer, so we shared it with them… and walked straight into a serious challenge.

Liver 'MOT'

The first thing we found out as we started to look into this idea, was that there's very little medical evidence supporting the recommended daily guidelines.

This was a worry from the start - what were we going to find out, and how long would we need to find it?

Obviously you can't do this sort of thing without guidance, so we were pleased that Horizon put us in the hands of a team of specialists at the Royal Free Hospital.


Limits

  • Men should not regularly (every day, or most days per week) drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day
  • Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day
  • If you've had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours.

Source: NHS Choices


They had some experience of this kind of thing after a running a pilot study the year before.

With their help we devised a plan. Xand and I needed to get our livers to a level playing field to start with, and that lead to the first hardship … a whole month completely dry. No cheating.

After a very dull month off the booze, Xand and I went to the Royal Free for the first of many medicals, a kind of liver-MOT.

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This is actually where it started to get really serious.

As I watched Xand get pricked and poked and scanned, my mind ran through the gallons of beer and wine that must have been through my body, and the hammering my liver must have taken through medical school.

I actually grew quite apprehensive about the results - of course all I really wanted to hear was that my liver was healthier than his.

But I needn't have worried. Incredibly, both Xand and I passed the medicals with flying colours.

After one month off the booze our livers were soft, healthy, and most important for the test ahead, they were identical.

But then the drinking started.

The 'responsible' brother

I was pretty pleased with my lot, an enforced three units - one big (250ml) glass of wine - every night for a month.

To be honest, that's probably less than I normally drink over an average month, but I don't think I've ever gone so long without a day off.

I was genuinely interested to find out whether I'd start to go off the idea after a week or so. On the other hand, Xand was only going to be allowed to drink once a week.

Xand and I met up for the first session. While I supped my three units, he was to down a whole week's worth - 21 units - in that one night.

Image copyright Horizon

On camera. I think it's fair to say we were both quite looking forward to it.

We opted for vodka, as it was going to be easier for him to drink 21 shots over the few hours we had with the camera crew than eight or nine average-strength pints.

And then one of the strangest nights of socialising I've ever experienced began. Basically we sat alone in a bar, with a crew of burly camera men watching, while I suffered the company of my increasingly incoherent brother as he consumed three quarters of a bottle of vodka.

I went through so many emotions that night. It was funny to begin with. Xand really was pretty far gone. But it really made me think about what the alcohol was doing to his liver and his heart and his brain - and what it does to mine every time I overdo it like that.

By the time I got Xand home, he was pretty helpless. I had to play the responsible brother and help him get to bed. And at that stage I was starting to get concerned for him - but the next day was even more sobering.

Luckily for Xand the camera crew didn't arrive until late in the morning so he had a bit of a lie in.

'Bit of a chore'

Image copyright Horizon

But when we looked at all the readings we'd taken, he'd clearly been in a dangerous state the night before. He was actually at his worst a few hours after we'd gone to sleep, when the level of alcohol in his blood was, according to the text books, enough to put him at danger of death.

That wiped the smiles off our faces - along with his inability to recall anything about the journey home, or his descent into a blubbering idiot. And this was just the first of four binges he had ahead of him.

While Xand started his week-long recovery, I got into my daily routine of three units a night. To start with it wasn't difficult. In fact it felt odd to stop at just three units.

That's precisely the point where I normally start feeling such a warm glow I think "Ooh yeah, come on let's have another …" So it was actually quite frustrating having to stop there.

What I did notice was that my work started to suffer quite quickly. At the time, I was processing data in a laboratory, so it was quite easy to measure my productivity.

Although I didn't feel much different I was certainly achieving less, and that really surprised me.

After that, I started to find drinking a bit of a chore, like taking medicine. And so by the second week I began finding ways to add some variety - I spread the drinks out over a day, had a glass of wine at lunch for example. But it wasn't quite as easy as I'd expected it to be.

Plus, I began to feel protective of Xand, especially when it was apparent how much he came to relish his binges after six days of recovery.

The results of the final tests truly shocked us. And the medics. Sure, Xand's binges did him no good at all. But they actually affected him for many days afterwards, meaning he never fully recovered between binges.

But even more shocking were my results - which were almost as bad as Xand's. I got the feeling my liver had basically returned to its normal state- and it wasn't any better than Xand's binge-bashed liver.

Under review

Image copyright Horizon

So what now? To binge or not to binge? Well there are two things I learned from our test.

First, the current guidelines of three to four units a day for a man like me need looking at. It's a good job they're under review right now, and I look forward to seeing the results announced this summer.

Second - our livers can bounce back, but they need much longer to recover. This was so clear, that the medics behind our test have launched a full clinical study.

They're measuring the effects of a dry month in well over 100 volunteers. Watch this space to find out what that study reveals.

Horizon: Is binge drinking really that bad? - on BBC2 at 21.00 BST, Wednesday May 20th

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