We all enjoy a little tipple with some good friends every now and then but when you reach for that glass of wine a little too often it can quickly have negative effects on your health. Did you know that alcohol is actually the 5th biggest risk factor for death, illness, and disability in the UK? Currently, there are 587,00 dependent drinkers in the UK, though only 18% of them are actually receiving treatment.
But when is it too much drinking?
Generally speaking, if you’re drinking in a way that’s harmful to either your physical or mental health or if you’re regularly drinking more than the recommended guidelines, your drinking could count as alcohol misuse. When alcohol has taken over you life and you don’t have any control over your drinking anymore, however, you’ll most likely a dependent drinker and are suffering from alcoholism.
So, what are the recommended alcohol unit guidelines?
They are so called low-risk guidelines and state that you shouldn’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis. But what actually counts as one unit? Well, one unit can be half a pint of low to normal strength beer or cider with around 3.6% ABV or a 25ml shot of spirit with 40% ABV. A small, 125ml glass of wine with ABV 12% counts as 1.5 units of alcohol. If you want to learn more about alcohol units, you can find more information here.
If you do regularly drink more than 14 units per week, you should try to spread your drinking over 3 or more days with several drink free days during the time. Why? Because drinking all 14 units in a day or two will drastically increase your risk of death, illness, or injury.
Drinking behaviours in the UK
People are often talking about the British drinking culture; but what actually is the British drinking culture? The reality of it is that people in the UK drink in very different ways. Overall, the amount of alcohol that is consumed in the UK has been decreasing steadily since 2005. This is a trend that is especially common among young drinkers. If we look at the stats, men are more likely to drink than women and people aged between 45 and 64 are the ones that are most likely to drink. The people who are least likely to drink are the 16-to-24-year-olds and the over 75-year-olds.
Here’s how alcohol affects your body
Unlike food, alcohol doesn’t get digested by your body but is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. This means that the alcohol travels around your body pretty quickly and reaches your brain in the matter of just a few minutes. Once it’s been absorbed into the bloodstream, the alcohol moves directly into your brain cells, causing physical and psychological changes aka the feeling of being drunk. Even if you only had a very small amount of alcohol, you might already notice the first feelings of warmth and comfort and you might feel like you’re more sociable. Why is this, you ask? Simply because some of the neurons in your brain that inhibit behaviours are affected first of all; as you drink more, the activity in your brain starts to slow down. At this stage, you might feel yourself getting aggressive, giggly, or sad. After a few hours, your coordination, memory, and judgement will be affected, and you most likely just want to go to bed. In the worst case, drinking too much in a short space of time can actually be fatal as the parts of your brain that control automatic functions, such as breathing, will slow down too.
Blackouts are on of the most common side effects of a night on the booze and happen because alcohol also affects the part of your brain that’s responsible for your memories. So, if you drink too much during a night out your brain might not be able to store your memories anymore and there’s a good chance that you won’t remember everything the next morning. No matter how hard you try! When you wake up the next morning you might be feeling rough; this is the so-called hangover. You might be feeling anything from trembling, weakness, nausea, vomiting, or a headache. Most of these symptoms are actually caused by dehydration, so why not try having some glasses of water with your drinks? Don’t worry though, your hangover will usually get better during the course of the day, and you should be feeling largely back to normal by the end of the day.
However, it’s not just the brain that’s affected by the alcohol you drink as most of it actually gets processed by our liver. However, your liver can only process about one unit of alcohol per hour, turning the toxins in the alcohol into carbon dioxide and water. So, if you’re drinking more than your liver can process, the alcohol stays in your bloodstream where it can cause over 60 diseases like breast cancer, heart disease, pancreatitis, brain damage, and liver disease. Now, this generally doesn’t happen after a single 2-day-bender and is usually caused by drinking too much for a longer period of time. How much alcohol you have to drink before it causes health issues, and which issues you might experience varies from person to person so it’s impossible to tell.
Are you drinking too much?
It can be super tricky to know for sure whether you’re drinking too much or not but there are some signs that you might be grabbing a drink a little too often.
- You sometimes don’t remember what happened the day or night before because of how much you had to drink.
- You need to have a drink first thing to steady your nerves or get rid of your hangover.
- You feel bad or guilty about your drinking.
- Other people have been criticising you for your drinking.
- You feel like you should be cutting down on alcohol.
- The first thing you think about when you get up is having a drink.
- You regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
- You’re missing important appointments or work because you’re too drunk or hungover to go
How do I go about getting help?
If you’re concerned about your own drinking or someone else’s drinking, see your GP about it. They’ll be able to help you navigate the first steps and can speak to you about possible services and treatments. They might assess your alcohol consumption with the following tests:
- Alcohol use disorders identification test: This is widely used and can help to determine whether you drinking habits need to change.
- Alcohol use disorders identification consumption test: This is a simpler test to check whether your drinking has reached dangerous levels.
But it’s not just the NHS where you can access services to help you stop your drinking. There’s a number of charities and support groups all over the UK that can help you with your problems with alcohol.
What does treatment for alcohol problems look like?
How your problems with alcohol consumption are treated largely depends on how much you are drinking but the options include the following:
Medication: The most commonly prescribed medicines are the ones that help stop withdrawal symptoms and are given in reducing doses over short periods of time. The other one is there to reduce your urge which is often given at a fixed dose for 6 to 12 months.
Counselling: This generally includes self-help groups and talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Detoxification: This involves a nurse or doctor supporting you to safely stop drinking. This can either be done by helping you slowly cut down over time or by giving you medicines to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
If you want to know more about treating alcohol misuse, follow this link.
Treatment & Support
Realising and accepting that you have a problem is the first big step to getting help and, as we already know, a good place to start is having a conversation with your GP. To get the support you need, it’s super important that you’re open and honest about how much you’re drinking and any problems that come with your alcohol consumption. And you don’t ever have to worry about being judged, GPs are trained to talk through these things with you without making you feel uncomfortable or judged.
If you’re a dependent drinker, you’ll likely in even more need of help and support to cut down, control, or even fully stop your drinking and also to create a plan on how to maintain your levels of drinking after that. If you have become physically dependent on alcohol and need to stop drinking completely, doing so overnight could actually be harmful for you. This is why it’s so important that you get advice and potentially even medicine in order to do it safely.
Staying healthy and in control
If you’re trying to cut down on your drinking or fully stop, you’ll be best off with some sort of help to make sure you’re not relapsing and staying in control and alcohol free. Getting the right support for you can be super important in order to maintain your healthy lifestyle and stay in control in the future and only relying on friends and family might not be enough. Be sure to have a chat with your GP about available long-term support in your area. There are special self-help or mutual aid groups, such as AA or SMART Recovery groups, which are accessible in most areas.
Some useful contacts for alcohol problems
Al-Anon Family Groups offer support and understanding to the families and friends of drinkers, whether they’re still drinking or not. Alateen is part of Al-Anon and can be attended by anyone aged 12 to 17 who is affected by someone else’s drinking.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1110 from 9am to 8pm on weekdays and from 11am to 4pm on weekends.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) provides a free, confidential telephone and email helpline for children of alcohol-dependent parents and others concerned about their welfare. Call 0800 358 3456 for the Nacoa helpline.
SMART Recovery groups help people decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques that support recovery.
We Are With You is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse. If you’re over 50 and worried about your drinking, call 0808 8010 750.
If you’re caring for an alcoholic, click this link to see where you can get support.
If you’re interested in some further reading, here are some great resources for you!
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