More than 74% adults in Northern Ireland drink alcohol and a larger proportion of males (78%) than females (72%) drink alcohol. It is often seen as a natural part of adult life but how do your drinking habits compare to the recommended amount, how much do you know about what you’re drinking, and what effects could your drinking habits have on your long term health?
Let’s begin with the basics: what is a unit of alcohol?
One unit is 10ml of pure alcohol. Because alcoholic drinks come in different strengths and sizes, units are a way to tell how strong your drink is. The alcohol content of a drink is normally expressed as a percentage of the drink. For example on a bottle of wine you will see a percentage followed by ABV (alcohol by volume). So if it were to say 10% ABV then 10% of the whole bottle of wine is pure alcohol.
The strength of the alcohol you’re drinking as well as the amount you drink will equal the amount of units you have consumed.
How many units should you be drinking?
The NHS recommends that men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week on a regular basis and to spread your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week. They also recommend ‘Drink Free Days’ where you do not drink alcohol: click here for some tips on how you can work towards achieving this
So what do units look like in actual drinks?
Here are some examples of the units in various alcoholic beverages (these are averages and the actual units vary between brands).
Single small shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%) – 1 unit
Alcopop (275ml, ABV 5.5%) – 1.5 units
Small glass of wine (125ml, ABV 12%) – 1.5 units
Bottle of lager/beer/cider (330ml, ABV 5%) – 1.7 units
Can of lager/beer/cider (440ml, ABV 5.5%) – 2 units
Standard glass of wine (175ml, ABV 12%) – 2.1 units
Pint of higher-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 5.2%) 3 units
Large glass of wine (250ml, ABV 12%) – 3 units
Click here to use DrinkAware’s website to learn more about your drink of choice. Use their unit calculator here: to see exactly how much of your weekly recommended amount you drink when you ‘for a few’.
Alcohol is a normal part of many of our lives but what happens when alcohol isn’t enjoyed in moderation? The short and long term effects of drinking too much alcohol can be extremely severe.
Drinking too much on a single occasion, often known as binge drinking, can cause:
- Slurred speech
- Lack of co-ordination
- Memory loss
- Irregular heartbeat
For a man binge drinking is drinking more than 8 units of alcohol on one occasion and for a woman it is drinking more than 6 units.
Long term alcohol abuse can have huge detrimental effects on both your physical and mental health.
Cancer – Alcohol is the second biggest risk for cancer after smoking. Drinking more than the recommended daily amount leaves you at higher risk of getting:
- mouth cancer
- throat cancer
- oesophageal cancer
- colon cancer
- breast cancer
- bowel cancer
- liver cancer
Heart problems – Some of the early cardiovascular effects of alcohol abuse are high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat, both of which increase your risk of serious problems such as strokes or heart attacks. Alcohol weakens the heart muscles and your body’s ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to other vital organs.
Liver Health – When you drink alcohol your liver works to break down the alcohol and remove it from your blood. However, excessive alcohol abuse can overwhelm this system and lead to life threatening health problems. Fat deposits can develop in your liver which can cause liver inflammation, liver failure, and death. Other serious liver complications associated with excessive alcohol consumption are alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Fertility – Long term alcohol abuse can effect both men and women’s fertility; with the potential for men to become impotent.
Alcohol and your weight- ‘Beer Bellies’ aren’t a myth – there is a serious connection between alcohol intake and weight gain and it’s not just because of that kebab you get at the end of a night out. With food it is often easy to know what will make us put on weight and what won’t but with alcohol it’s different. Most of our favourite alcoholic drinks are actually very high in calories: for example drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200kcal over a year, equivalent to eating 221 doughnuts.
Alcohol is often referred to as ‘empty calories’ as it provides your body with calories but little to no nutrients. Wine, beer, cider, spirits are made from natural starch and sugar. Fermentation, and distillation for certain drinks, is used to produce the alcohol content which is why alcohol contains so many calories – 7 calories a gram, almost as many as a gram of fat. Use Drink Aware’s calorie calculator to see the calorie content of your drinks
Mental Health – Mental health problems can lead people to drink to excess and drinking to excess can cause mental health problems. So, both the reasons for drinking and the consequences of drinking can be linked to our mental health.
It is understandable why we sometimes see alcohol as a tool to change our moods and mental state: to make us happier, to temporarily rid us of anxiety or even just to help us sleep. However, drinking too much can actually make these problems worse and should not be used as a way to cope.
Alcohol is a depressant and disrupts the delicate balance of chemicals and processes in our brains. For example, the relaxing feeling you can get when you have a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol has caused in your brain, numbing your inhibitions. Whilst this is ok every once in a while – drinking to excess can start to have a serious long term effect on our brain, interfering with neurotransmitters that are needed for good mental health. Alcohol can cause depression and anxiety, it can damage your memory and in some cases can lead to reckless harmful behaviour towards yourself and others.
The continued abuse of alcohol can lead to a dependency or addiction which we refer to as alcoholism. Men too are twice as likely as women to abuse or become dependent on alcohol and here in NI alcoholism has been outlined as the ‘biggest health problem in NI’.
Figures show the number of alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland is the highest on record. Between 2001 and 2016, more than 3,500 deaths in Northern Ireland were attributed to alcohol.
Individuals struggling with alcoholism often feel as though they cannot function normally without alcohol. It is important to remember you can always seek help if you or someone you care about is struggling with alcoholism.
How to seek help
Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0800 917 8282
Click here to see alcohol and drug abuse services near you
Alcoholics Anonymous – can be used by the person suffering from alcoholism as well as their family. Phone: 028 9035 1222 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: https://www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie/
Lifeline is a free, confidential telephone helpline. It is available anytime every day. Telephone 0808 808 8000.
Addiction NI counselling and peer support to help with alcoholism
You can also speak to your GP if you are concerned about your alcohol intake.
Here at MaleMenu we urge anyone struggling with these problems to seek the help you need and accept the support you deserve.