If you ask Australians about the use of drugs, most people will immediately think of drugs like “Ice”, Marijuana, Cocaine or Heroin. But did you know that alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive substance (“mind altering drug”) in the country? In 2013-14, there were almost 10 litres of pure alcohol available for consumption for every person over 15 years of age in Australia. That’s about 800 standard drinks per person.
Alcohol consumption can affect all areas of our lives – notably relationships, health and employment. Alcohol consumption has been shown to have several negative impacts in workplaces, including accidents, injuries, absenteeism and low productivity. Furthermore, many workplaces now state a zero blood alcohol requirement and undertake random testing to ensure compliance. This reinforces the importance of managing alcohol consumption responsibly.
In Australia, liver disease is the major illness caused by alcohol, followed by mental and behavioural disorders. Alcohol consumption can cause alcohol-related mental health conditions and is also correlated more strongly with other mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Heavy alcohol use can lead to poorer outcomes for people who have existing mental health conditions – for example, people with depression who also drink heavily are at greater risk of self-harm and suicide.
Alcohol is a depressant drug, which means it slows the function of the central nervous system. One of the effects of alcohol is to interfere with some messages trying to get to the brain. As a result, a person’s perceptions, emotions, movement, vision, and hearing can all be altered – often leading to impaired judgment and poor or risky choices.
About 40% of crime in Australia is alcohol related. Those crimes can include assault, violence, verbal abuse and physical abuse as well as vehicle and road traffic offences like drink driving.
Many myths about alcohol still persist – including that it improves sleep, sexual performance and increases confidence. The first two are simply untrue – alcohol decreases the quality of both. Alcohol doesn’t increase confidence either but it may have a marked “disinhibiting” effect – making you more likely to do something that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Clearly this may be dangerous!
The reasons for drinking alcohol responsibly are clear – alcohol is a powerful drug, quite easy to obtain and the effects of actions taken while under the influence of alcohol can be severe, and sometimes lifelong.
So what does responsible drinking look like? The current Australian Government guidelines on alcohol consumption (which are available using the links below) note that “Responsible drinking is about balancing your enjoyment of alcohol with the potential risks and harm that may arise from drinking – especially if you go beyond low risk drinking levels.” Remember that things like your age, sex, body weight, underlying health and use of medication will all have an impact on how your body responds to alcohol.
Health risks from drinking alcohol are cumulative across a lifetime – the more you drink and the longer you do it for, the greater the risk. To reduce the risk, limit the number of times you drink alcohol and limit the number of drinks you consume. Generally, for healthy, men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces your risk of harm from alcohol related disease and injury across a lifetime. Drinking no more than four standard drinks on any day reduces your risk of alcohol related injury on that occasion. In general, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid alcohol consumption.
If you’re uncertain about whether your current pattern of alcohol consumption is placing you at increased risk of harm or illness, a good place to start is to keep an accurate record of your alcohol consumption for a month and then make an appointment to discuss it with your GP.
Joining in community events like Febfast, Dry July and Ocsober are also good ways of limiting your alcohol consumption and putting you more in charge of making responsible choices for yourself.
Other strategies to ensure that you’re drinking alcohol responsibly can include:
- Plan to consume alcohol on a limited number of nights per week. Make sure you have regular alcohol free days.
- Set limits for yourself and stick to them – note the guidelines above.
- Start with a non-alcoholic drink and alternate with alcoholic drinks.
- Drink slowly.
- Try drinks with a lower alcohol content.
- Eat before and while you are drinking.
- Avoid participating in rounds of drinks but if you do, include some non-alcoholic drinks.
- Avoid drinking games.
If you find you’re having difficulty managing your consumption responsibly or reducing your consumption when you want to, make an appointment to chat with your GP who may also provide you with a referral to a Psychologist.