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EAP - Addictions

Alcohol

There's more to a drink than you think.

Alcohol is something to be enjoyed and, most of the time, drinking doesn't cause any problems. But drinking too much or at the wrong time can be harmful. The important thing is to know where the benefits and the risks begin. The daily benchmarks for adult men and women are a guide to how much you can drink without putting your health at risk. They apply whether you drink every day, once or twice a week, or occasionally.

Daily Benchmark Guide

Men

Women

You can work out the exact number of units by multiplying the volume of the drink (in ml) by the % abv and dividing it by 1000.

For example, the number of units in a 330ml bottle of lager with a 5% abv is:

330 x 5 = 1650 ÷ 1000 = (1.7 units)

Wines

125ml glass of wine at 11% or 12% abv contains about 1.5 units
175ml glass of wine at 11% or 12% abv contains about 2 units
75cl bottle of wine at 9% or 10% abv contains between 6.8 and 7.5 units.
75cl bottle of wine at 11% to 12% abv contains between 8 and 9 units.

Sherry, Port, Madeira or Vermouth

50ml measure contains about 1 unit

Beer, Lager or Cider

330ml bottle at 4% or 5% abv contains about 1.5 units
440ml can at 4% or 5% abv contains about 2 units
440ml can at 8% or 9% abv contains about 3.5 and 4 units
500ml can at 8% or 9% abv contains between 4 and 4.5 units

Low alcohol Beer and Lager

440ml can at 1.2% abv contains 0.5 units

Alcopops/Ready-mixed drinks

330ml bottle at 4% to 6% abv contains between 1.3 and 2 units
200ml bottle at 13.5% abv contains 2.7 units

How many units are in your usual drink? What's a unit?

Half pint of ordinary strength lager/beer/cider (3.5% abv) = 1 unit
A 25ml pub measure of spirits (40% abv) = 1 unit
A small glass of wine (many wines are 11% or 12% abv) (9% abv) = 1 unit.

Alcohol -what it is and what it does

All alcoholic drinks contain pure alcohol in varying quantities. A number, which may be preceded by the word ‘alcohol', or the abbreviation ‘alc', followed by % vol, shows the strength of alcoholic drinks. This is known as the alcohol by volume (ABV). The higher the percentage; the stronger the drink. As explained, alcohol can be measured in ‘units'. Increasingly, drinks are being labelled with the number of units they contain. This can help you work out how much alcohol you drink in a day and compare it with the recommended daily benchmark. Remember, drinks poured at home are often more generous than pub measures so you may underestimate the number of units you drink.

Alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream within a few minutes and is carried to all parts of the body including the brain. The amount of alcohol in your body, your ‘blood alcohol, concentration' (BAC), depends on how many factors including how much you would have drunk and your size and weight. If you are smaller and lighter you will have more alcohol per kilo. A full stomach can delay the time for alcohol to be absorbed. Stronger drinks like spirits and fizzy drinks like champagne or sparkling cider, are absorbed more quickly.

It is difficult to know how much alcohol is in your bloodstream at any one time or what effect it will have. The drink-drive limit cannot accurately be converted into a number of units. The only way to be sure that you are safe is not to drink at all if you are going to drive. A healthy liver takes one hour to break down and remove one unit of alcohol. So, if you drink two pints of ordinary strength beer or half a bottle of wine (four units) at lunchtime, there will still be alcohol in your bloodstream three hours later. If you drink heavily in the evening, you may still be over the legal drink-drive limit the next morning. Only time can remove alcohol from your bloodstream; black coffee, cold showers and fresh air won't sober you up.

Remember:

The Risks

Everyone takes risks at some time or other and we generally weight up the risks before deciding whether something is worth doing. People sometimes dismiss the idea that they need to think about how much they drink. But regularly drinking too much increases the risk of long-term damage to your health. Raised blood pressure is a very common condition, especially among older people. As blood pressure rises, so does the risk of ill health, in particular of coronary heart disease and some kinds of stroke. Drinking alcohol raises blood pressure. In general, the more you drink the more your blood pressure will go up.

Regularly drinking more than the daily benchmarks also increases your risk of liver damage, cirrhosis of the liver, and cancers of the mouth and throat. Some studies have suggested a slight association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer but this is still uncertain. The risk of mouth and throat cancer is higher if you drink heavily and also smoke.

People who drink very heavily may also develop psychological and emotional problems, including depression.

One too Many!

Most short-term problems from drinking come from one-off episodes of heavy drinking and drunkenness. Alcohol affects physical co-ordination and reaction times so people who are drunk are more likely to have accidents. Around half of adult pedestrians killed in road accidents have blood alcohol levels above the legal drink-drive limit. Intoxication is also associated with violent crime, domestic violence, child neglect and abuse.

System Overload

Large amounts of alcohol drunk in one session can put a strain on your liver and other parts of your body. Drinking alcohol can make you dehydrated; one reason people feel hung over after drinking too much. After heavy drinking you should avoid alcohol for the next 48 hours to give your body tissues time to recover.

Finding it hard to stop

Sometimes people feel their drinking is getting out of control. If you are concerned about your drinking you should seek help from your doctor or a specialist agency. Signs that you might need help are finding that you drink more for the same effect or drink first thing in the morning. The agencies listed on the back page of this leaflet can help whether you are concerned about your own drinking or someone else's.

The Health Benefits

What are the benefits?

People who regularly drink small amounts of alcohol tend to live longer than people who don't drink at all. The main reason is that a small amount of alcohol gives protection against coronary heart disease. Alcohol influences the amount of cholesterol carried in the bloodstream and also makes it less likely that clots will form.

 Do they apply to me?

It seems that you can't build up protection from coronary heart disease when you are young. The protective effect is only significant when people reach a stage of life when they are at risk of coronary heart disease. For men, this is over the age of 40. For women, it is after the menopause.

More isn't better

The major part of the health benefit can be obtained at levels as low as one unit a day, with the maximum health advantage lying between one and two units of alcohol a day. No additional benefit comes from drinking more than two units a day.

Little and Often

The benefits come from drinking small amounts of alcohol fairly regularly so drinking large amounts occasionally, such as at weekends, does not have any benefits.

A little of what you fancy

There is no clear evidence that any one type of drink gives more protection than any other. So if you prefer beer or spirits, you can still get the benefits.

If you don't drink

There are many reasons why people choose not to drink alcohol. If you don't wish to drink, no-one is suggesting that you have to start now. There are other things you can do to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease.

Other things to do

Stopping smoking, eating a health diet and taking regular exercise can also make a big difference. This advice applies to people who drink and to those who choose not to.

Special Advice

Some people are more at risk from drinking because of particular circumstances

Inexperienced drinkers

Inexperienced drinkers are more likely to be affected by alcohol, and young people may find it hard to resist group pressure to get drunk.

 Drinking for two?

Women who are pregnant, or planning a pregnancy, should take special care. Drinking alcohol may reduce fertility and the ability to conceive as well as directly affecting the developing baby in the womb. When a pregnant woman drinks, alcohol passes to the baby through the placenta. Excessive drinking can affect the baby's health and weight at birth, and getting drunk is particularly risky. Women trying to become pregnant or at any stage of pregnancy should avoid getting drunk no more than one or two units once or twice a week.

Taking medications?

Many drugs and medications do not combine well with alcohol. Some combinations could even be fatal. You should read the label carefully and, if you are unsure, ask your pharmacist or doctor.

Medical conditions

People with conditions that may be affected by alcohol (including high blood pressure) should take care as drinking can increase the risk of serious illness. If you are unsure, consult your doctor.

Different Situations

There are some occasions and places when the best advice is NOT to drink at all – because you need to be alert, to react quickly or to make important decisions.

Most people are aware of drink driving and don't drink if they are going to drive, or leave the car at home if they are going to drink. The same kind of choice needs to be made in other situations where the effects of alcohol on co-ordination and judgement could be harmful. Some of the most important situations are listed overleaf. Most of them are obvious. It is also important to drink water to re-hydrate yourself after active exercise, especially if you are going to drink alcohol.

Don't drink:

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