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Introduction

Most people drink alcohol, and most do so without any problems. We all know that a drink can sometimes help us to unwind or to relax with friends.

But it’s very much a case of a little bit of what you fancy. Drinking in moderation is unlikely to lead to problems. But heavy drinking, getting drunk, or drinking at the wrong time or in the wrong place, can lead to a whole range of difficulties.

Drink affects everyone in different ways and can lead to different sorts of problems. And it’s not just the drinker who is affected.

One person’s heavy drinking often causes difficulties for all those people they come into contact with - their family, their friends and their colleagues.

How would you describe your drinking? Most people say that they drink ‘a little’ or ‘a moderate amount’. Yet one in four men and one in eight women drink more than doctors recommend. The next section explains how you can work out how much you drink. It’s worth finding out.

How much do I drink? 

If you want to work out how much you drink, you need to ask yourself three questions?

  • how much do I normally drink on a week day?
  • how much do I normally drink on a Friday night, Saturday or Sunday?
  • how much do I drink on a special occasion, like having friends over, someone’s birthday or a wedding?  

You may find it helps to fill out a drinks diary.  Don’t forget to include drinks you have with a meal, and ‘extras’ like a can or two when you’re watching sport on the TV, or a glass of wine while you’re cooking, or a tot of something in a hot drink. It’s all alcohol and it all adds up.

Having recorded how much you’re drinking, you need to work out how much pure alcohol (ethanol) you’re consuming.

Different types of drink have different amounts of alcohol in them. One way of working out the total amount of alcohol you’re drinking is by using ‘units’ of alcohol as a measure. A unit is an exact amount; - 8gms or 10ml (1cl) of pure alcohol.

As a rough guide, there’s ONE unit of alcohol in:

  • half a pint of ordinary strength (3.5 or 4% ABY) beer, lager or cider
  • a small glass(125ml of lower strength wine (8 or 9% ABV)
  • a single 25ml pub measure of spirits (40% ABV).  

But many other drinks contain approximately TWO units of alcohol, for example:    

  • a pint or a large can (500ml) of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider (3.5 or 4% ABV)
  • half a pint or half a large can of high strength beer or lager (8 or 9% ABV)
  • a large (50ml) whisky or other spirit
  • a large glass (175ml) of wine which is 11% or 12% ABY
  • a 330ml bottle of lager or ‘alco-pop’ (5.5% ABV)

“How often do I drink?"

Having worked out how much you drink normally and on special occasions, you need to ask yourself how often you drink. Every day? Most days? Weekends only? Less often?

You may find that you drink more in some situations than you do in others. Perhaps because of who you’re with, or how you’re feeling. Again you might find it interesting to fill out a drinks diary or have a go at our alcohol checker.

“How much is too much?"

alcohol

The daily benchmarks illustrated are a guide to how much you can drink without putting your health at risk. They don’t apply to women who are pregnant or planning pregnancy or to young people who aren’t fully grown.

The benchmark applies to any day when you drink whether that’s most days, once or twice a week, or occasionally. Most people drink different amounts on different occasions. But not drinking on some days doesn’t mean that you can drink more than the benchmark on days when you do drink. It’s about how much alcohol your body can cope with on one day without any risk to your health.

You can convert your usual drinks into units. For example, there are three units in a pint and a half of ordinary strength beer or three pub measures of spirit or three small glasses of lower strength wine. Two large cans of ordinary strength beer or one can of high strength beer or two large glasses of wine all contain four units.

Comparing how much you drink against the benchmarks can come as a bit of a shock. It's also worth thinking about your pattern of drinking.

“What kind of drinker am I?"

“I hadn’t seen Pete for years. We had a couple of pints in the pub, then a bottle of wine with dinner. I was opening the second bottle when he said, “Do you always drink like this?” What kind of question is that?”

If you drink most days of the week and you regularly drink more than the benchmark, then you could be said to be a regular heavy drinker.  

You may not get drunk very often but there is still a real risk that you are damaging your health. The more you drink and the more often you drink above the benchmarks, the greater the risk.

Alcohol damages many of the body's organs. It can lead to liver disease and cancers of the mouth and throat. One physical effect of drinking alcohol is that it raises the blood pressure. As blood pressure increases so does the risk of ill health, in particular the risk of coronary heart disease and some kinds of stroke.

"But I thought alcohol was good for the heart?"

Yes, but only in men over 40 and women who've been through the menopause. And even then only moderate amounts of alcohol (one or two units a day) can provide protection against coronary heart disease. Drinking more than that doesn't give you any additional benefit.

Heavy drinking is expensive and can cause disagreements with family and friends. Over time it can change you as a person - how you think and feel, behave and react.  

There's a lot to gain from bringing your drinking back down to within the benchmarks.

"Why only have a couple of drinks when you’ve got the rest of the weekend to recover?" 

If you drink a lot on some occasions, perhaps every weekend or less often, and you usually get drunk then you could be described as a binge drinker and you could run into other risks and problems.

Alcohol changes the way we feel and behave. Whilst small amounts of alcohol may help us socialise and feel relaxed, it can be difficult to stop drinking. People then get into a pattern of getting drunk every time they drink.

The risks are mainly short term. Being sick, waking up hungover, or making a fool of yourself might be easy to dismiss as an occupational hazard. That is until it affects your job or relationships. You are also more likely to have an accident or do something you really regret. Being drunk is no excuse under the law.  

Around half of all pedestrians aged I6-60 killed in road traffic accidents would fail the breath test.

Half of all adults admitted to hospital with head injuries are drunk.

Heavy drinking can damage muscle fibres and affect your physical fitness.

Drinking alcohol together with taking legal or illegal drugs is particularly dangerous - for example, alcohol increases the likelihood of a serious drug overdose

If you drink a large amount of alcohol in one go, you run the risk of passing out, suffering memory loss, or ending up in hospital with alcohol poisoning.

When the going gets tough  

 If you are concerned about your drinking, or perhaps you've tried to cut down before and found it difficult, ask yourself these four questions:  

  • Have you ever felt you ought to cut down on your drinking?  
  • Have people annoyed you by criticising your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

If you answered ‘yes’ to two or more of these questions, your drinking is causing some problems for you. You may even be dependent on alcohol and should seek specialist help.

"I am always worried that there won’t be enough drink when we go out to a party"  

If you find that drinking is a major part of your life and that you really miss not having a drink to hand, you may be a dependent drinker.

Being dependent on alcohol also means you may need to carry on drinking to avoid the unpleasant emotional or physical effects if you stop drinking. Nausea, retching, shaking and sweating are all common withdrawal symptoms, most likely to occur some hours after your last drink eg. first thing in the morning when you wake up.

If you have become dependent on alcohol, you will probably need professional support and advice to help you get through withdrawal.

"I’ve not been drunk for 3 years. I’m not saying it was easy - quite the opposite, but I had plenty of support. Now it’s all worth it. Life feels real, even with its ups and downs. I feel really proud of myself"  

Admitting to yourself and to others that you have a problem with drink can be very difficult. The good news is that people with drink problems can and do cut down, and getting specialist help can make a huge difference.

"How will I gain from drinking less?"

Cutting down now could mean:

  • More money. Work out how much you’ve spent on alcohol during the last week.
  • Fewer hangovers, headaches and stomach upsets.
  • Improved concentration and a clear head.
  • Sounder sleep and less tiredness generally.
  • Time and energy for activities other than drinking.
  • New sense of being in control and feeling fitter.
  • Less risk of an accident.
  • Fewer arguments and rows with family or friends.
  • Less risk of being overweight, developing high blood pressure or liver disease.
  • More pleasure out of your sex life.
  • Improved chances of success if you are trying to become pregnant.
  • If you are pregnant, your baby will stand a better chance of being born healthy.
  • During pregnancy you should cut down as much as possible - if you drink, avoid getting drunk and keep to no more than one or two units once or twice a week.

If you started drinking more heavily because of other problems, these problems may not disappear but you will be more able to deal with them.

"How can I cut down?"

If you think your drinking is a problem, try following these steps.

Step 1    

 Decide what your aim is. Do you want to give up alcohol altogether? Or do you want to cut down to within the daily benchmarks  The decision is yours - but be clear about what you’re trying to achieve.

Step 2

Pick a day in the next week to start cutting down. Go for a day when you are likely to be relaxed.

Step 3

Plan ahead for that day so that it’s easier to avoid alcohol. Work out how you are going to avoid situations when you end up drinking more. If you often drink at home, stock up on alternatives to alcohol, like alcohol-free beers and wines or soft drinks. And tell other people that you’re cutting down - you might find that they avoid putting pressure on you or even join in.

Step 4

Don’t give up! Changing habits like drinking takes a lot of time and hard work. There may be times when you find it difficult to drink less. Don’t worry too much about this -

  • try to remember the positive things you have already achieved and set a new start.
  • date to reduce your drinking.

Step 5

If you continue to find it difficult to cut down, you could see a trained alcohol counsellor or contact Drinkline.

Ten tips for cutting down

The following tips have come from people who wanted to do something about their drinking. Some will suit you better than others.

1.  Keep a drink diary

If you filled out a diary to work out how much you drink, go back to it to find out when and in what situations you drink more. Keep a new diary to see how you’re doing

2. Stick to the limit you’ve set

Work out a reasonable drinking limit for any day when you drink - and stick to it. Set a limit for particular occasions too, like parties or going to a pub.

3.  Watch it at home

Most people pour larger drinks at home than the ones they get in a pub. Take care not to go over your target. Try to avoid heading straight for a drink when you get home - look for other ways to relax.

4.  It’s OK to say no

Don’t let anyone else pressurise you into another drink. Have excuses planned in advance, eg "No thanks, I’ve had enough" or "I’ve got a lot on tomorrow"

5.  Avoid rounds

Round buying often means you drink more than you want. Skip some rounds by drinking more slowly. Say you’d rather get your own drink. Or when it’s your round, choose an alcohol-free drink for yourself.

6.  Pace your drinks

Sip slowly, put the glass down between sips and choose smaller drinks - a half instead of a pint. Avoid strong brands. Try spacing out alcoholic drinks with soft drinks, or drink lower strength or alcohol-free drinks.

7.  Occupy yourself

Find something else to do while you drink eat (but beware salted snacks that make you thirsty), chat, play darts or pool, listen to music. Any of these will distract you from drinking and help you drink more slowly.

8.  Find alternatives

Get out of the habit of drinking because you’re bored, feeling tense, upset or have nothing else to do. Look for other ways to relax and feel better.

9.  Have days when you don’t drink at all

Alcohol can make you dehydrated, which is one reason why people feel hungover after drinking too much. After drinking heavily, try to avoid alcohol for the next 48 hours to give your body time to recover. If you are trying to cut down, having days off alcohol proves to yourself that you are in control of your drinking.

10.  Reward yourself

Chart your progress. Cutting down or stopping drinking requires willpower and self-control. You should be pleased with yourself for succeeding. Buy yourself something special with the money you have saved by drinking less. But be consistent and honest - only reward yourself when you meet one of the targets you have set yourself.

Family, friends and colleagues 

A person’s drinking doesn’t only affect them. People around them may have noticed signs that there is a problem or had to cope with the consequences. The closer you are to the drinker, the more upsetting it can be. If you are less close - like a colleague or an acquaintance - you might not think it is any of your business. Either way, people who are concerned about someone else’s drinking can feel helpless.

It is important to realise that you are not the only person to feel like that. Around one in ten people in the UK has a problem with drinking. Most of them have a partner, family, friends or colleagues who are worried about them. The first step to helping someone is to recognise how you feel about the situation. Many people find it helps to talk to someone who understands. The specialist agencies listed at the end of this leaflet are there to support the families and friends of drinkers, as well as the person whose drinking is causing concern.

Helping someone to help themselves

Once you have talked to someone about how you feel and got advice on what to do, you will be in a better position to talk to the person you are worried about. You cannot force someone to cut down or stop drinking, nor can you expect things to be suddenly alright, but you can encourage them to stick to the goals they have set themselves.

Here are some things other people in your situation have tried:

  • Talk to the person you’re worried about. Find a time when they are sober and when you are both calm.
  • Tell them about the problems their drinking is causing.
  • Avoid getting into arguments even if the drinker is being confrontational. It will make it more difficult for them to talk openly to you about things in future. For the same reason it’s best not to sound as if you’re ‘having a go’ or ‘nagging’.
  • Be consistent - don’t keep changing your mind about what you’re saying, and don’t say one thing and do another.
  • Help the person who is drinking to be realistic. Don’t encourage them to make promises they can’t keep. The promise "I’ll never drink again" is difficult to keep.
  • Help them to set reasonable goals which they can easily achieve.
  • Don’t make it easy for them to drink by buying alcohol for them, giving them money, or always agreeing to go to the pub. It may be difficult to break these patterns, but they’re more likely to take you seriously if your actions match your words.
  • Don’t try to cover up the effects of the drinking - for example by phoning work with excuses, clearing up the mess, putting them to bed, missing social events for fear of embarrassment. Helping the person to see the effects of their drinking might encourage them to change more quickly.
  • Agreeing a consistent approach with other family members or friends will help the drinker to see the problem more clearly.  

Don’t expect changes to happen overnight. But by helping someone realise that their drinking is a problem, you are starting them on the path to cutting down or stopping.

Where to find help

For general information about alcohol or to find out where your nearest alcohol advisory service is:

Telephone ALCOHOL CONCERN on 0171 928 7377 or visit http://www.alcoholconcern.org.uk

Drinkline

All UK 0345 32 02 02

All calls charged at local rates Dial and listen freecall 0500 801 802

Drinkline, the National Alcohol Helpline, is open from 11am to 11 pm Monday to Friday. Drinkline gives confidential information and advice, and can put you in touch with your local alcohol advice centre where help is available on a one-to-one basis, Drinkline also welcomes calls from people concerned about someone else’s drinking.

Local councelling services

In most areas confidential counselling for people with drink problems and their families is provided by a local Alcohol Advice Centre. They are also able to put you in touch with medical help if you are dependent on alcohol. Look under alcohol in the telephone directory to find the number.

Alcoholics Anonymous (Head Office)

01940 644026
AA runs self-help groups for people who are giving up alcohol because they have a drink problem. The Head Office can give you a contact for your local group.

Al-Anon Family Groups

0171 403 0888
Al-Anon provides self help sessions for people whose lives are affected by someone else's drinking.

Information kindly provided by Health Promotion England.