Health & Safety

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28 March 2009

Although drinking makes people feel relaxed, happy and even euphoric, alcohol is a depressant. It also switches off the part of the brain that controls judgement, leading to loss of inhibitions and affects physical co-ordination.

pint of lager

The effects

Alcohol is a drug that has the immediate effect of altering mood and will often exaggerate whatever mood you are in when you start drinking. Just enough can make you feel great, too much and you will have a hangover the next day. In moderation, it can reduce feelings of anxiety and inhibitions, making you feel more sociable. Apart from cases of extreme intoxication, however, these effects are short-term.

Long-term excessive use of alcohol causes illnesses such as liver damage, stomach cancer, heart disease, gastritis, ulcers, high blood pressure, and the depletion of certain vitamins and minerals. Even one or two units can be dangerous if you drive, operate machinery, or take some types of medication.

Recommended safe limits for drinking alcohol

  • Men: No more than 21 units of alcohol per week (and no more than four units in any one day).
  • Women: No more than 14 units of alcohol per week (and no more than three units in any one day).
  • Pregnant women: The exact amount that is safe is not known. Advice from the Department of Health is that pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant should not drink at all.

In general, the more you drink above the safe limits, the more harmful alcohol is likely to be. Binge-drinking can be harmful even if you only drink once or twice a week, but you drink four to five pints of beer or a bottle of wine each time, then this is a risk to your health.

The guidelines recommend that after an episode of heavy drinking, it is advisable to refrain from drinking for 48 hours to allow the tissues to recover.

What is a unit of alcohol?

One unit of alcohol is about equal to:

  • Half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager, or cider, or
  • A small pub measure (25ml) of spirits, or
  • A standard pub measure (50ml) of fortified wine such as sherry or port.

Many wines and beers are stronger than the more traditional "ordinary" strengths, for example:

  • Strong beer at 6% alcohol by volume (abv) has six units in one litre. If you drink half a litre (500ml) - just under a pint - then you have had three units.
  • Wine at 14% abv has 14 units in one litre. If you drink a quarter of a litre (250ml) - two small glasses - then you have had three and a half units.

Many manufacturers are now stating how many units of alcohol each can or bottle contains.

The benefits

Alcohol consumed in moderation is thought to be beneficial in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. In 1997, the World Health Organisation concluded that for men over 40 and for women past the menopause the reduced risk from coronary heart disease was found at the level of one drink consumed every second day.

Alcohol dependence (addiction)

For some people drinking gradually gets out of control and results either in regular binge-drinking, heavy harmful drinking or alcoholism (alcohol dependence). Tolerance gradually increases the more you drink excessively on a regular basis, so you may seem to be getting better at holding your drink when it is really a sign of a developing problem.

The severity of dependence can vary. It can develop gradually and become more severe.

Many people can quite easily revert back to sensible drinking if they are drinking above the safe limits.

Always consult your own GP if you are in any way concerned about your health.

Telephone help lines

  • Drinkline 0800 917 8282 (24 hours)
  • Talk to FRANK: 0800 77 66 00