Millions of people in the UK drink excessively, according the research carried out by the NHS. It is estimated that 1 in 13 British people are dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol addiction can have serious implications for all areas of a person’s life, but it is particularly damaging to their health. Alcohol dependency also has negative implications for friends and relatives, as the person becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol is perfectly harmless in moderation and everyone enjoys a drink now and again; however, what starts as a harmless occasional drink can quickly spiral into an uncontrollable addiction and most people don’t realise they are drinking far more than they should be.
The articles below will explore some of the effects of both short-term and long-term drinking, discuss the recommended intake of alcohol and outline possible treatments for alcohol dependency.
What are the effects of drinking?
Drinking alcohol has a number of different effects on the body; most people feel the effects of drinking alcohol almost instantaneously and the short term effects of drinking can bring about a pleasant state where you may feel more confident and outgoing. Drinking a couple of drinks at the weekend will not cause any long-term damage, but choosing to go ahead and drink several drinks in a short period of time can place huge strain on the body and can affect your ability to make sound judgements. The short-term effects of drinking alcohol are listed below:
Short term effects of drinking
Common short-term effects of drinking include:
- Increased confidence
- Feeling woozy
- Being giggly
- Losing inhibitions
- A lack of coordination
- Lack of balance
- Finding it difficult to stand up straight and walk
- Slurred speech
- Disturbed vision
- Making poor judgements
- Losing consciousness
Many people do things they would never normally do when they have had a lot to drink and are not thinking straight; alcohol is a major cause of accidents and contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Binge drinking in the UK is currently on the rise, with young women the most frequent offenders. Binge drinking is extremely damaging to the body and can place the individual in danger, as they are more likely to lose touch with friends, end up alone and talk to people they would never normally take to. People that have drunk far too much are more likely to have accidents and alcohol has frequently been linked to being a victim of crime.
Long term effects of drinking
Long-term regular drinking can contribute to a large number of health conditions, some of which are very serious and potentially life-threatening. Some of the most common long-term effects of drinking include:
- Weight gain
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Lack of sexual libido
- Increased risk of cancer (including throat, mouth and breast cancer)
- Increased risk of liver cirrhosis
- Increased risk of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Increased risk of obesity
Long-term drinking can also cause huge strain on family relationships and contribute to financial pressures. Many people that drink excessively find they argue with loved ones on a regular basis and suffer from mental health conditions such as depression. Drinking to cope with problems becomes a vicious cycle as drinking will never provide the solution to problems.
How much should people drink?
The recommended daily intake of alcohol is a general guideline which is designed to allow people to drink sensibly and know their limits. The weekly recommended daily intake of alcohol is really quite low, so drinking on a daily basis can soon add up and you could be drinking too much. The recommended daily intake should not exceed 21 units per week for men and 14 units per week for women; it is not advisable for men to drink more than 4 units per day and women should drink no more than 3 units per day. Drinking more than the recommended daily intake may contribute to health problems. Pregnant women should avoid drinking as alcohol can harm the health of the baby.
One unit of alcohol equates to 10ml of pure alcohol; this translates to:
- Half a pint of lager, cider or beer
- One 25ml measure of spirits, such as vodka or gin
- One 50ml measure of port or sherry
A small glass of wine is usually one and a half units.
If you are driving, you should make sure you are not over the limit, which is currently 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood in the body; this roughly translates to 3 units of women and 4 units for men but this will depend on what kind of alcohol you are drinking. If you are unsure, don’t drive.
Alcohol dependence is usually characterised by an overwhelming urge to drink, but there are many other symptoms that may be associated with being alcohol dependent; these include:
- A ‘need’ to drink every day
- An inability to stop drinking once you’ve had one drink
- Devoting more and more time to drinking
- A greater tolerance for alcohol; people with a dependence find that they need more and more alcohol to feel the effects of drinking
- Becoming withdrawn and socialising less
- Drinking early in the morning as soon as you get up
Alcohol dependence can also cause several physical symptoms which may occur when you haven’t had a drink for a while; these include:
- Inability to sleep
- Rapid heartbeat
- Feeling confused and disorientated
Why do people become alcohol dependent?
Many people become alcohol dependent as a means of coping with stress caused by their job, family problems, relationship breakdown and unemployment. Many people also turn to drink after bereavement. For most people, alcohol is a coping mechanism, but for others it acts as a release and an escape from daily life, which may be difficult as a result of any of the factors listed above.
Should I see my GP?
If you think you are drinking too much and you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you should see your GP. If you simply didn’t realise you were drinking so much, try to cut down to the recommended intake; many people will be able to do this easily by making small changes to their routine; people that go for a drink regularly after work, for example, don’t realised they are drinking so much because they drink small amounts over the course of the week, but this all adds up.
If you are having difficulty cutting down and find yourself reaching for the bottle as a way of coping with stress, see your GP. When you see your GP they will usually ask questions about your drinking habits and ask you about your life in general; if you are experiencing difficulties in some areas of your life, such as at home or at work, you should discuss these with your doctor. Depending on the nature of your case, your GP will recommend a suitable treatment and offer advice and support on how to cut down on drinking. Confronting a dependency and admitting to the fact that you have a problem is often the hardest part, but this will help you to get better and conquer your drink problems.
Treatment for alcohol dependency
There are a number of different treatment methods use to help people with alcohol dependency. Initially, your GP will ask questions about your drinking and they may carry out a questionnaire to determine your drinking habits. Once the doctor has a general impression of how much you are drinking, when you are drinking, what you are drinking and why you are drinking they will be able to set about drawing up a treatment plan. Everyone is different and what works for some people won’t work for others. Conquering alcohol dependence is a long and challenging journey and patients must be ready to change their lifestyles and commit to the treatment programme; if they are not ready, the treatment will not work and thousands of pounds worth of NHS money could be wasted.
The most common types of treatment are outlined below:
- Medication: medication can be used to ease withdrawal symptoms, which can be really unpleasant when a person is trying to give up drinking. Medications including diazepam are commonly used during the detoxification process.
- Detoxing: detoxing is a process of cutting out drink altogether; it can be extremely difficult so many people go into a specialist treatment unit during this time.
- Counselling: counselling can help to identify the reasons why people drink and help people to develop new coping strategies. Counselling can also help people to build their confidence and establish new goals.
- Support groups: it is often easier to tackle something as serious as a dependency with other people than going it alone; support groups allow people to talk with people that are in a similar situation and form new friendships.
Help for those trying to give up and their family members
Giving up drinking can be an emotionally draining process and many people feel angry, frustrated and helpless without the strength supposedly given to them by drink. However, giving up drinking will improve a person’s life significantly and they should begin to notice the benefits fairly soon after they cut down on alcohol. Aside from the obvious health benefits of giving up drinking, cutting down will also enable people to rebuild friendships and relationships, engage fully in their job and have a higher disposable income. Counselling and practical support provided by the NHS and other government departments will help those who don’t have a job to find work and offer support to those who need additional help following a bereavement, for example.
If you are struggling cope and you need help, don’t suffer in silence; there are a number of charities and organisations that are there to help. Your GP should be your first port of call if you are worried about the amount you drink, but you can also get in touch with charities such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Anon and Addaction; these charities run help lines which are both anonymous and confidential. You can also call Drinkline 24 hours a day; this is the national alcohol telephone help service. If you are struggling to cope with a loved one’s dependence, you can also contact the charities listed above; they will be more than willing to help you and they can put you in touch with people in a similar situation.
Many people find that joining a support group helps them to give up; this enables them to meet new people and engage with people that understand where they are coming from and the hardships they are going through. The NHS runs local groups or you can join a voluntary group, like those run by Alcoholics Anonymous; ask your GP for details of groups in your area or get in touch with charity direct; all of the links are available on the NHS website. Counselling services are also available throughout treatment and after people have given up to prevent them from relapsing.