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DO YOU REALLY WANT ANOTHER?; You might think twice about that Christmas drink after you've read this.

Byline: BY JENNIE BIBBINGS

BINGE drinking in Wales is likely to hit an all-time high this Christmas as thousands get into the Christmas spirit.

And medical experts have warned that hitting the bottle too hard over the festive season could leave your body seriously damaged.

There are no figures to show how much extra booze we chuck down our necks at Christmas because UK statisticians always miss out Christmas and summer - when drinking hits a high - as they compile year-long alcohol consumption estimates.

But still, every year privately-run Priory hospitals see a 20 per cent increase in admission of patients with alcohol-related problems following the Christmas period.

"The festive season only comes once a year, but there are quite a few days of it so pacing yourself is the best thing, " says Catherine Collins, spokesman for the British Dietetic Association. "I'm not being prudish but I will say don't have too much too often.

"The Government advice is that women can safely drink 14 to 21 units of alcohol a week, and 21 to 28 units for men. One unit is equivalent to a small glass of wine, half a pint of lager, cider or beer or a single unit of spirits. But that doesn't mean you can save them all up and have them all on Saturday night! It's important to spread that over a week with two to three units a day.

"Alcohol is a fairly deregulated poison, but it is toxic to the body - it's one of the major food toxins that we consume."

So while it's fine to knock back a couple over Crimbo, the long-term effects of habitual heavy drinking are quite literally staggering.

Here's a breakdown of what the booze really does to your body.

Zone-by-zone, what that festive tipple is doing to your body . . .

BRAIN We're all familiar with the classic morning-after dreads - you wake up, clutch your thumping head and think 'Why did I do that last night?' That's because booze switches off the part of the brain that controls judgement, leading to loss of inhibitions and awful regrets the next day. And it gets to the parts of your grey matter that deal with body functions, problem solving, understanding of pain and pleasure and co-ordination. Your brain will recover from a one-off binge session, but if you drink a lot regularly it'll cause permanent problems.

Alcoholics often suffer from brain shrinkage, which is loss of brain cells, and studies have found that between 45 and 70 per cent of alcoholics in treatment have difficulties with problem solving.

Booze can affect blood flow to the brain and electrical activity - extreme cases include alcohol amnestic disorder (memory disorder) and dementia.

It interferes with blood flow and can aggravate high blood pressure, which is a common cause of strokes.

It's common for drunks to forget chunks of the night before because booze stops you forming new memories - alcoholics can find that blackouts last for days, even if they're not drinking at the time.

MOUTH Studies have shown that boozing can increase your chances of getting cancer of the gullet, throat and voicebox.

SKIN Drinking heavily over a period of eight to 10 years can lead to premature ageing - so either cut down on the boozing or stock up on face cream.

And don't forget that alcoholics commonly have broken blood vessels peppered over their faces which are permanent and unattractive.

ARMS AND LEGS Alcoholics often get nerve pains or tightening in their limbs.

HEART Your heart rate will get disturbed when you have a tipple, which can be dangerous if you've already got heart problems.

LUNGS You'd think all those evil chemicals in drink would by-pass your lungs, but that's not the case.

It's possible to end up with increased fluid on the lungs after a lot of drinking, which can lead to chronic lung infection.

And medics warn that one of the common causes of death after a booze binge is asphyxiation - if you pass out and throw up you risk getting vomit in your lungs and choking to death.

Incidentally, ever wonder why smokers crave ciggies so much when they drink?

It's because alcohol makes veins and arteries expand and nicotine makes them contract, which is why the two seem to go together so well until the next morning.

STOMACH Alcohol is pretty abrasive on your tum, and you ought to watch it if you've got an ulcer or any other stomach problems - you could end up with a bleed.

LIVER Your liver is the poor little fella who's got to try and get all that poisonous alcohol out of your system, and it'll take the brunt of it.

If you're in the pub regularly it will produce more enzymes to deal with the drink - that's how you build up a tolerance - but longterm it may affect your liver's ability to process nutrients and detoxify.

Alcoholics get fatty deposits in their livers which cause alcoholic hepatitis - and that leads to fatal cirrhosis.

PANCREAS Extended boozing can lead to inflammation of the pancreas.

KIDNEYS Your kidneys will labour over the gallons of wee that you force them to produce by chucking pint after pint down your neck.

SEX DRIVE (MEN ONLY) You might believe the dreaded drink turns you into a sex-crazed Adonis, but you couldn't be further from the truth. Alcohol mucks about with your libido in rather an embarrassing way, leading to a decrease in sex hormones and, ultimately, impotence. Girls, you know what I mean.

BREASTS (WOMEN ONLY) There's evidence to suggest that drinking increases your chances of breast cancer.

FERTILITY Did you know that you'll get more tipsy when you're ovulating and a few days before your period? Apparently so - but before you test the theory, bear in mind that years of heavy boozing can upset your menstrual cycle and lead to infertility.

PREGNANCY If you're pregnant and you splash out on a Christmas binge you and the little one will probably be fine. But if you drink more than 56 units of alcohol a week you could miscarry, and you run a one-in-three chance of your baby getting Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can result in growth and IQ problems and facial deformities.

How to minimise your hangover BEING realistic, no matter how good your intentions are, at some point over the next month you're bound to find yourself knocking them back as if Prohibition is coming in at midnight.

So here 's how to avoid the hangover from hell: stick to light-coloured drinks like vodka and white wine, which contain less harmful chemicals and leave you slightly less toasted the next day; drink pints and avoid shorts - longer drinks take more time to drink and leave you less dehydrated; add mineral water or lemonade to white wine to make a spritzer; drink at least a pint of water before bed, unless you're likely to throw it back up; eat before you go out - it slows down alcohol absorption and lines your stomach; some nutritionists recommend taking evening primrose oil, to help the liver process all the booze; a big breakfast the next morning will boost your depleted blood sugar levels.

More great hangover-saving tips: see page 44

Festive delights IT seems like everything about Christmas is bad for you, but don't despair - some nutritionists reckon if every day was Christmas we'd have a lot fewer people suffering from coronary heart disease.

That's because it's good for you to sit round with the family, relax while you eat and drink a glass or two of wine.

"We know that taking alcohol can be protective for a number of diseases, " says Catherine. "There's been more and more work looking at population studies. People who tend to drink regularly seem to have lower instances of chronic disease such as heart disease. And being teetotal doesn't seem to be any better.

"Alcohol does make you feel more relaxed, and it could be that fact that actually brings the positive benefits. The Spanish, French and Italians do have a very low rate of heart disease.

They eat a diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, olive oil, and also alcohol with meals as a part of a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

"But in the UK we have a lot of fast food, and Christmas dinner is probably the only time when we do relax for dinner. Everybody sits back and enjoys the family meal, and that is the norm for Mediterranean countries where the families do sit down to eat. We try to encourage people to do that a bit more often."

Hour-by-hour in full effect HOW you pace yourself makes all the difference between a tipsy partygoer and an unconscious sot.

Here we tell you what you can expect depending on how many units you go through in an hour:

TWO - the alcohol influences the association area of your brain, making you dizzy, less inhibited, slowing your reactions and making you liable to overestimate your skills THREE - most of your brain is under the influence, making you slur, blurring your vision and affecting your co-ordination FOUR to FIVE - your whole brain is drunk, and you might find yourself with double vision, feeling drowsy, losing your balance. EIGHT to TEN - this much drink affects your entire limbic system - the bit of your brain that controls basic emotions and instinctive actions - and you could well end up in a deep sleep or coma TEN or more - this is a huge amount of alcohol to drink so quickly, and if you haven't got a strong constitution it could be fatal

CAPTION(S):

PARTY POOPER: A description of the damage you do to yourself is sobering DON'T BE SORRY: Take action
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 9, 2001
Words:1615
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