Over summer, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate – Christmas, end of year parties, birthdays, weddings and even just catching up at a BBQ with friends. Socialising is an important part of maintaining our mental health, helping us stay connected to family, friends and loved ones. But celebration can often come with the ‘social lubricant’ alcohol, which is Australia’s most widely used social drug. With the occasional celebratory drink there is always the risk of overindulgence and the health risks this can bring.
You’re not alone if you’ve ever thought to yourself: How much is too much? What is the magic number of drinks that will avoid a ‘hangover’? Is there a healthier way to enjoy an occasional drink?
So what are some ways to reduce the effects of alcohol on our bodies, both short and long term and what can we do to minimise our chances of experiencing the dreaded ‘hangover’?
Australians and alcohol
The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey of over 24,000 Australians found that just over three quarters of us drank alcohol in the past year. And while this number is down on previous years, there were still some interesting, and worrying, findings about the relationship we have with alcohol.
The good news: there was a decline in drinking that increases the risk of harm over a lifetime, with young people leading the way. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm (such as chronic disease) from alcohol.
The not-so-good news: there was no overall change in drinking that increases risk of injury on a single drinking occasion. This means that many of us are still consuming more than five standard drinks in a single occasion – this is often called binge drinking. And in surprising news, it was actually people aged 30 and older (and particularly women) who were exceeding these guidelines more frequently.
Check out this infographic to learn more about our drinking habits:
Infographic: Courtesy of 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey
So this summer, why don’t you make a commitment to reduce how much alcohol you drink? Your body will thank you.
Guidelines and standard drinks
The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol sets out clear advice on the level of drinking alcohol to keep the risk of alcohol-related accidents, injuries, diseases and death low – both in the short and long term. These standards are not there to control how much you drink, but to help you make an informed decision about your drinking habits. Remember, these are just an indication as the guidelines state that that “there is no amount of alcohol that can be said to be safe for everyone” because we all respond differently to alcohol.
There are three guidelines relevant to adults, which are:
- For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.
- For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol related injury arising from that occasion.
- (a) For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option. (b) For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.
So this all seems quite clear, but what exactly is a standard drink? Unfortunately, this is not as simple as saying ‘one glass of wine’ or ‘one stubbie of beer’. This is because a standard drink is defined as 10 grams but the size of a standard drink can vary according to the type of alcohol, the alcohol content of the drink (for example, wine can vary from nine to sixteen per cent) and even between particular brands or labels. And then there’s the serving size which, depending on where you are and the type of glass used, can be much bigger than a standard drink.
As a rough guide, the following table shows the number of standard drinks in popular types of alcohol:
|Serving size and drink
||Approximate standard drinks
|Can/Stubbie low-strength beer
||0.8 standard drink
|Can/Stubbie mid-strength beer
|1 standard drink
|Can/Stubbie full-strength beer
|1.4 standard drinks
|100ml wine (13.5% alcohol)
|1 standard drink
|30ml nip spirits
|1 standard drink
|Can spirits (approx 5% alcohol)
|1.2 to 1.7 standard drinks
|Can spirits (approx 7% alcohol)
|1.6 to 2.4 standard drinks
For a more detailed list visit alcohol.gov.au
Splitting headache, dry mouth, light sensitivity and nausea are some of the tell-tale signs of a hangover. However depending on the amount and type of alcohol consumed the effects can vary. A hangover is your body’s way of telling you that you’ve gone too far, with a range of effects from alcohol on your body contributing to the general sense of unpleasantness. Let’s not mince words here, if you’re experiencing a hangover, you’ve drunk too much.
The main cause of a hangover is ethanol – the alcohol in your drinks. It's a toxic chemical that works in the body as a diuretic, which means it makes you urinate more and you can become dehydrated as a result. Dehydration is one of the main causes of your hangover symptoms.
Even one drink can be enough for some people to experience a hangover.
A hangover is a combination of a number of reactions your body has to alcohol, which can include:
- frequent urination and dehydration
- inflammatory responses from your immune system
- irritation of the stomach lining
- lowered blood sugar level
- an expansion of blood vessels
Most hangovers start to ‘kick in’ once your blood alcohol has returned to near zero and they tend to last up to 24 hours – so if you have managed to inherit a hangover after a few too many drinks, your pain and suffering should pass in time on its own. To potentially reduce some of the symptoms, you might want to consider:
- keeping hydrated by sipping water or fruit juice
- eating something plain to help settle your stomach
- taking a pain reliever
- sleeping it off
Remember, avoiding a hangover in the first place is the best way to manage the symptoms, and reducing the amount of alcohol you drink in one sitting is the best way to avoid a hangover.
Tips for reducing alcohol consumption
So you’ve made the smart decision and want to avoid a hangover. Well done! The best way of doing so is reducing how much alcohol you drink. Here are some helpful ways to limit the amount of alcohol you drink on an occasion:
- Start slow – make your first drink water or a non-alcoholic beverage
- Eat up – having a meal before drinking will slow alcohol absorption
- Drink more to drink less – have a glass of water between each alcoholic drink to space out your intake
- Don’t be tempted – bring or buy less drinks so there is less temptation to drink
- Save more, drink less – set a budget when you go out; once you’ve hit your limit, call it quits
- Young and impressionable – remember that your behaviour may be seen by children: think about the message you send to them when you drink
Alcohol and health
Alcohol has real long term health risks including cancer, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver and a huge host of other conditions. In fact, according to the NHMRC guidelines, “Alcohol is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related death and hospitalisation”.
More immediate impacts to your health from drinking large amounts of alcohol, in a single sitting, include: injury to yourself from falls or other accidents, injuries to yourself or others while driving intoxicated, alcohol related violence and even death due to alcohol poisoning.
Drinking can also contribute to other health risks such as weight gain. We’ve all heard of ‘beer belly’, but the unfortunate spherical protrusion from one’s torso could also be just as easily called ‘pre-mix belly’ or ‘wine belly’. All alcoholic beverages have a high energy content, as alcohol itself contains 29 kilo joules of energy per gram – almost double that of carbohydrates or protein. So while the main way to make your drink healthier is for it to contain less alcohol, there are other ways you can make the odd tipple less risky:
- Switch the fizz – replace sugary soft drink with soda water and lemon or lime
- Shandies are handy – dilute the alcohol by making a wine spritzer or beer shandy
- Let it be sugar free – sugar free soft drinks keep the flavour but reduce the energy content
- Keep it low carb – try low carb beer varieties, similar amount of energy as light beer
- Light and bright – drink light beer, similar energy to low carb but with more body
Remember that alcohol is ‘empty calories’. This means it has no nutritional value, so drinking less is always going to be the healthier option.
Tips for socialising without alcohol
Often alcohol is used as a ‘social lubricant’ as it can help people to feel more comfortable in a social situation. This is because drinking alcohol leads to lowered social inhibitions by releasing dopamine, the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain. The trouble is, alcohol releases so much dopamine that it actually blocks your ability to tell a good decision from a bad one. It can lower your inhibitions so much that you do things you would never normally do. And the more you drink, the more outrageous, or dangerous, these behaviours can be.
So if you find it awkward or uncomfortable to socialise with groups of people without drinking, here are a few tips to help you mingle without relying on ‘dutch courage’:
- Ask away – people love talking about themselves, so if you’re not sure of what to talk about, just ask some questions.
- Listen out, not in – when you are speaking to people, try to really listen to what they are saying, rather than listening to any internal dialogue you have about the situation you are in.
- Grinners are winners – Smile. It can make you feel more confident and approachable to others.
- Eye to eye – make eye contact with people when you’re talking to them.
- Common ground – find common interests to talk about: sports, current events, music or movies are good topics.
Remember that if you or someone you know is having trouble reducing or avoiding drinking, there are resources you can turn to for help.
Where to get help