Do we drink too much, too often, and is Cambridge culture to blame?

Shannon Rawlins 28 February 2019
Image Credit: Air Force Medical Service

How many days a week do you drink? Even if it’s just a glass of wine or a pint or two in your college bar? Probably too many. On average, I drink four or five nights a week. It’s easy to be complacent and not think very much of it, but I’m starting to realise it’s not healthy, physically nor mentally, and I want to cut back.

Everyone knows that getting ‘blackout drunk’ has a detrimental effect on your physical health, the hangover is proof enough of that. An aching head is a sign of dehydration; throwing up is a sign that the alcohol has irritated your stomach lining; fatigue and dizziness is a sign that your blood sugar levels have dropped. But although we don’t wake up with a hangover the morning after a couple of pints at the pub, that doesn’t mean we come out unscathed. I often proudly proclaim that I “never get hangovers”, but that doesn’t mean alcohol isn’t damaging my physical health. In fact, I drink more nights than I don’t so it almost certainly is.

The key thing about regular drinking is its long-term impact on our health. It’s all too easy to go by the mantra of ‘live in the moment’ and not consider the potential state of your health in twenty years’ time, but maybe we should. High blood pressure, arrhythmia, increased blood cholesterol levels, pancreatic problems and some cancers all have proven close links with moderate but regular alcohol consumption.

I work at my college bar, and I have noticed there are some people who come in virtually every day. I know people who rarely have booze-free nights. And I really do believe we can deposit at least some of the blame for this at Cambridge’s door. Casual drinking and regular alcohol consumption is normalised and perhaps even encouraged at Cambridge. Wine is offered at talks by academics and music recitals are followed by free wine receptions. DoS meetings can often feature an offer of a glass of sherry or port. A formal isn’t a formal without a bottle of wine. This is bound to affect our mindsets. Perhaps you subconsciously justify drinking for a third night in a row because the wine is provided by your college. Somehow, it seems far more acceptable to drink regularly if your university actively promotes it.

It is not just the physical effects of regular drinking that we should be aware of. We all know that alcohol acts as an effective social lubricant, but is a dependence on alcohol for this purpose unhealthy? We begin to rely on it in most social situations after 7pm, and those of us who don’t drink can feel awkward and out-of-place. Alcohol also distorts social dynamics, for example, it can make you feel closer and more connected to people, but then the next morning you realise it was all down to the alcohol which leads you to feel empty. Granted, drunk conversations are funny, but they can also be pretty meaningless. Maybe if you stay sober some evenings you might find you have more authentic conversations and forge more meaningful connections. Cambridge is stressful and sometimes a night out is all you have to look forward to beyond the dreary slog which your degree has become. But socialising doesn’t always have to entail drinking. Enjoy a few drinks or a night out every so often but be sure to remember that although alcohol may be a sufficient condition for a good night, it is not a necessary one.

Moreover, our habits are not going to change once we enter ‘real’ adulthood. If anything, they’ll get worse, especially if you’re living somewhere like London, where an after-work drinking culture is ingrained in people’s mindsets. Why not try to adjust your mentality now and cut back a bit? Perhaps you’ve never thought about how often you drink, or whether Cambridge’s casual drinking culture is harmful. Perhaps you have thought about it and are already making a conscious attempt to not drink as often. Perhaps you don’t drink at all, you’ll probably be feeling pretty smug if that’s the case. Either way, writing this article was in part a learning curve for myself but I hope you can take something from it too, and start to take into account the long term effects of regular moderate drinking alongside the more visible effects of irregular binge drinking.