As a non-drinker, I look at research about alcohol consumption with detached interest. I understand that most people like a drink and I am well-aware of the fact Australia has quite an established culture of binge drinking.
(No sense being moderate when you can down several beers, a few shots and then fall into an Uber at the end of the night… right?)
But is binge drinking really worse for your health than those who enjoy a couple of drinks every night?
Very cute Twin doctors have put themselves through the ultimate test for BBC’s Horizon. They took opposite approaches to drinking, and they (or their livers) answered the question once and for all:
What’s worse for your health: a couple of drinks every night or several at the weekend?
In the BBC Horizon episode “Is binge drinking really bad for you?” twin doctors Chris and Alexander put themselves to the ultimate test. Article continues after this video.
Dr Chris van Tulleken volunteered to drink moderately, following recommendations from healthcare system National Health Service Choices that men can drink a couple of drinks every night without any major risk to their health. What concerned him most about this, was that he was never giving his liver a rest from alcohol.
Dr Xand van Tulleken, Chris’ twin brother, volunteered to try binge drinking, agreeing to abstain from alcohol during the week and hit it hard at the weekend. For the sake of the study, he consumed a week’s worth of alcohol (the same amount as Chris drank over the course of the week) in one night. (Eeek!)
He wrote for the BBC, “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?”
The doctors put their livers to the test and, before conducting the research, they both abstained from alcohol for a month. This meant their livers were in relatively healthy condition going into the study.
Chris drank three units of alcohol every night as per the recommended intake for men, choosing 250mls of wine.
Xand drank 21 units of alcohol in one night. He chose to do vodka shots, as he was unable to stomach the necessary volume of beer and wine. "Responsible drinker" Chris was left to look after his very drunk brother and ensure he got home safely.
What they found was that after consuming 21 units of alcohol in one night, Xand's health was compromised the night of the binge with the level of alcohol in his blood reaching dangerous levels. He also lost his memory of the night in question.
Xand said he felt the effects of the binge for the entire week afterwards, meaning one week probably isn't long enough to recover from a big night out.
Chris saw the effects, but didn't feel them as strongly.
"What I did notice was that my work started to suffer quite quickly," he wrote for the BBC. "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."
However the big question was: Does drinking less alcohol each night result in a healthier liver than drinking a week's work in one night?
The answer: It makes no difference.
"But even more shocking were my results - which were almost as bad as Xand's. It felt like my liver had basically returned to its normal state - but it wasn't any better than Xand's binge-bashed liver," Chris wrote.
The brothers now plan to take the study further to confirm their findings. For now, it seems that the case for reducing alcohol consumption overall has been tentatively made.
To find out more about Australian guidelines for safe alcohol consumption visit alcohol.gov.au.
If you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol consumption contact Drinkwise on 1300 858 584 or visit their website.