Saturday night and I am treating myself to a non-alcoholic mojito. It’s not too bad actually. I think I’ll buy more non-alcoholic soft drinks in future so I’m not automatically reaching for the wine. I definitely want to have at least 2 or 3 alcohol-free days a week as this is the recommended guideline, and 48 hours after a binge to recover if necessary.
So what are the other guidelines we should all be aiming for, and how much alcohol do you have to drink for it to affect your health? These are the categories of drinking recognised by the NHS:
Men No more than 3-4 units a day (21 a week) on a regular basis (i.e. most days of the week, or most weeks of the year) .
Women No more than 2-3 units a day (14 a week) on a regular basis (i.e. most days of the week, or most weeks of the year)
It’s called Lower Risk not “Safe”, because drinking is never completely safe in all circumstances – e.g. driving, operating machinery, after strenuous exercise or before swimming, and if on certain medication.
Pregnant women or those trying to conceive are advised to avoid alcohol, or failing that to drink no more than 1-2 units once or twice a week and avoid getting drunk.
While there is a reduced risk of heart disease for men over 40 and women post menopause, there is convincing evidence that alcohol increases the risk of developing a number of cancers- at lower risk levels it’s small but it increases the more you drink.
On the whole, for those of us who drink alcohol (and only about 10% of the UK population are abstinent), if you’re within these limits you don’t need to worry too much, just be aware of what you drink as it’s easy to start drinking more without really noticing. The majority (about 60%) of the UK population fall into the Lower Risk category.
Men More than 3-4 units a day on a regular basis
Women More than 2-3 units a day on a regular basis
A lot of us fall into this category, and may not realise that regularly drinking over the lower risk levels does increase the risk of damaging our health. The likelihood of cancers of the liver, mouth, larynx, oesophagus, breast, pancreatitis, hypertension, stroke, cardiac arrhythmias, coronary heart disease, mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and dementia increases the more we drink. Basically alcohol affects all the body’s systems and organs, and these are just a few examples.
Men More than 8 units a day (or 50 a week) on a regular basis.
Women More than 6 units a day (or 35 a week) on a regular basis
Drinking at these levels carries a much higher risk to your health which progressively increases the more you drink. There’s likely to already be some damage, even though the drinker may not be aware of it.
8% of men and 5% of women are estimated to drink at Higher Risk levels. This equates to 2.7 million people in England.
And 31% of men and 20% of women (about 10 million people) drink at Increasing Risk or Higher Risk levels.
Surprised by these facts? We often think that dependent drinking – when someone may have such a strong desire to drink that they experience difficulties controlling their drinking and persist despite harmful consequence – is the indicator of an alcohol problem (“alcoholism”), but the World Health Organisation also uses the definitions hazardous drinking (at Increasing Risk or Higher Risk levels) and harmful drinking (Higher Risk) as problematic.
What’s your drinking pattern?
People often underestimate how much they drink, and the number of units in alcohol, particularly as drinks’ strength, sizes and measures vary so much, and have got bigger in recent years. A glass of wine could be anything from 1 unit – if VERY small, to 2.1 units (175ml of 12 % abv), up to 3.5 units (250ml of 14% abv).
The NHS Choices www.nhs.uk/livewell/alcohol/pages/alcoholhome.aspx website has further information on units, as well as a Unit Calculator and downloadable Alcohol Tracker which will automatically work out your daily/weekly units. Keeping a Drink Diary can be a really useful exercise if you’re unsure how much you’re drinking, or want to cut down.
There’s also loads of other information and advice on the NHS site, including a Self Assessment tool, which can help you to work out the level of risk to your health and wellbeing linked to your alcohol use. It’s a routine screening tool also known as an AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) used by Alcohol Workers.
If you’re contemplating changing your drinking, there are some excellent online self help sites like www.downyourdrink.org.uk and www.drinkerscheckup.com which I would wholeheartedly recommend. They’re filled with e-tools, exercises, information and tips and based on well-evidenced treatment approaches, and you can work through them anonymously and get personalised feedback.
You can also call Drinkline on 0800 7314 314 if you’re worried about your alcohol use, or someone else’s, to get support and find out about local services in your area.
To donate online please go to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/bethanfisher – running total £460 for Alcohol Concern.