Dry January – Alcohol and Eye Health

Posted by: danielcarmichael - Posted on:

Womans hand rejecting more alcohol from wine bottle in bar

Dry January continues and this week Krysty from the NHS Business Services Authority’s (NHSBSA) team of clinical advisors is here to tell you about some of the short and long term effects of alcohol on your eye health.

Portrait photo of Kyrsty.

I’m Kyrsty and an Optometrist here at the NHSBSA. I’m also part of the NHSBSA’s clinical network and part of a team of clinical advisors. Being qualified optometrists, we’re using our clinical expertise to support the wider team with any queries about any patient treatments or interventions undertaken by an ophthalmic provider.

Let’s clarify right at the beginning that having an alcoholic drink every now and then won’t cause any serious damage to your eyes.

Depending on how much alcohol you consume, you may experience the usual temporary effects like dizziness, blurred vision, or even double vision. Most affects you feel while drinking will likely go away after a short amount of time or sleep.

However, if you drink often or are a heavy drinker, you’re at a much higher risk of causing both short-term and permanent damage. For example, consuming too much alcohol in a short space of time could put you at risk of alcohol poisoning.

In the long term, drinking too much too often can increase your risk of developing different forms of cancer and other serious health problems.

Drinking alcohol has been identified as a contributing to several types pf cancer:

  • Bowel cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Laryngeal (voice box) cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Oesophageal (food pipe) cancer
  • Pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer

Heavy drinking can also cause cirrhosis of the liver (where damage to the liver causes scar tissues to build up) which can then lead to cancer.

The liver and eyes are very closely related. Let’s look at some of the short- and long-term effects and damages that alcohol can have on your eye health.

Short-term effects

Dryness – Studies suggest that even a little amount of alcohol can increase and intensify dry eyes

Twitching eyes – Excessive alcohol intake can cause eye twitching or myokymia

Slow pupil reaction – Consuming alcohol can cause your eye’s iris to dilate much slower than normal

Damaged contrast – Alcohol can impair your ability to make distinctions between different objects based on how light or dark they are. You may have trouble distinguishing different shades of similar colours

Migraines – Possibly accompanied by sensitivity to light and other related vision problem, migraines can be caused by drinking too much

Rapid Eye Movement – Alcohol can help people fall asleep quicker, but it increases non-REM sleep and decreases REM sleep.

Long-term effects

Optic neuropathy – A more serious condition, optic neuropathy can cause loss of vision, which is usually painless. In addition, the disorder can decrease peripheral vision and cause difficulty seeing colours

Vitamin deficiency – Heavy amounts of drinking can affect the liver’s intake of vitamins that are needed to maintain a healthy eyesight

Prenatal alcohol exposure – Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol increases the risk of permanently affecting the eyesight of your baby if you’re pregnant

Cataract formation – Multiple studies have shown increased cataract formation in those with higher alcohol consumption levels compared to those who have little or no alcohol consumption

Age-related macular degeneration – Heavy or excessive drinking could cause oxidative damage to the retina, potentially leading to Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

Other alcohol effects of the eyes

Alcohol affects everyone differently, so it’s always a good idea to be cautious. Some people believe that drinking alcohol can reduce some of the antioxidants — especially the ones that protect against eye diseases — in your system, potentially putting you at a higher risk of developing eye disease.

Avoiding alcohol-related damage

If you’re worried about alcohol affecting your eyes, you don’t need to give it up completely.

Drinking from time to time is not likely to cause any major damage to your eyesight. But, if you’re a heavy drinker, or have been one in the past, you could be at a much higher risk of alcohol-related eye damage. 

Consider practicing good habits while drinking, like pacing yourself and never consuming alcohol on an empty stomach.

You can also reduce the risk of getting AMD and other eye disorders by consuming foods that are good for eye health.

Drinking water between alcoholic drinks and knowing your limit can be very helpful to not only your eyes’ health but your overall health as well.

So, if you’re  considering Dry January, or plan to cut down your alcohol intake just a little, here’s  some top tips:

  1. Make a plan – Before you start drinking, set a limit on how much you’re going to drink.
  • Set a budget – Only take a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol
  • Let people know – If you let your friends and family know you’re cutting down and it’s important to you, you could get support from them
  • Take it one day at a time – Cut back a little each day. That way, every day you do is a success
  • Make it a smaller one – You can still enjoy a drink, but go for smaller sizes. Try bottled beer instead of pints, or a small glass of wine instead of a large one
  • Have a lower-strength drink – Cut down the alcohol by swapping strong beers or wines for ones with a lower strength (ABV in %). You’ll find this information on the bottle
  • Stay hydrated – Have a glass of water before you have alcohol and alternate alcoholic drinks with water or other non-alcoholic drinks
  • Take a break – Have several drink-free days each week.
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