HealthAgenda

Nutrition

Are you drinking too much?

Whether you’re having a cocktail with friends or winding down with a cold beer at home, alcohol often feels like a normal part of life. But are some of us drinking too much?

Few of us would argue alcohol is a big part of Aussie culture, especially when it comes to spending time with friends and family.

Because having a beer with mates after work, opening a bottle of wine with dinner or toasting special moments with something fizzy feels so normal, it can be hard to accept when we might be drinking more than is good for us.

Natalie* grew up with alcoholic parents who seemed “normal”.

“My parents didn’t look like alcoholics,” she says. “Alcoholics on TV hid bottles of vodka in linen cupboards and turned up to events drunk, falling over and slurring their words. They were embarrassing.

“Neither of my parents did that. They both worked, had friends and spent time mowing the lawn and cooking Sunday lunch. They were normal. We were normal.”

But the signs were clearly there. “Every night my mum would drink ‘one glass of wine’ – a glass that always seemed full – in front of the TV, until she passed out on the sofa and I’d cover her with a blanket and go to bed.”

Research suggests that even what we may consider as light to moderate drinking can have long term effects on our health and relationships, and in December 2020 the National Health Council revised the guidelines about how much alcohol is ok consume. Here’s how and why we’re drinking too much.

How does drinking effect our health?

A 2020 report from the Australian National University revealed that our consumption of alcohol was on the rise, with 1 in 5 men and 1 in 4 women admitting to drinking too much.

While guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than 4 in a day, there’s more and more evidence to suggest a link between a low level of drinking and chronic illness.

More seriously, alcohol-related incidents are responsible for more than 4,000 deaths, and 70,000 hospital admissions in Australia every year.

For Natalie, the long-term effects of drinking too much are very visible. ‘My mum forgets things and is always in a bad mood. My dad struggles to think clearly or have a real conversation.’

When alcohol starts to negatively impact how you feel, or your ability to work, have successful relationships and function in everyday life, it’s a sign there could be a problem.

What is a standard drink?

A standard drink in Australia refers to 10 grams of alcohol, which is the average amount the human body can process in 1 hour. And that drink may be much smaller than you realise. A 150ml glass of red wine is actually 1.6 standard drinks. For more alcohol quantities, see DrinkWise’s Standard Drinks Calculator.

Is my drinking a problem?

It’s safe to say that the more you drink, the greater your risk of alcohol-related accidents and health problems. But how do you identify whether your drinking has become a problem?

Alcohol awareness organisation DrinkWise recommends asking these questions:

  • can you control when you start or stop drinking?
  • do you have trouble controlling how much you drink?
  • have you been unable to meet family, personal or work commitments because of your drinking?
  • have you often felt guilty or remorseful after drinking?
  • has a relative, friend, doctor or other health care professional been concerned about your drinking or suggested that you cut down?

What makes us drink too much?

Addressing why you drink in the first place is essential to breaking any reliance on alcohol.

If you reach for a drink when you’re stressed or anxious, it’s important to be aware alcohol is more likely to exacerbate these feelings than ease them.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning says too many people use alcohol to self-medicate. “People tend to avoid seeking help for their stress and emotional issues, but if they did, I think they would turn to alcohol less often.”

The impact of COVID-19 has seen a rise in how much we drink and may be linked to an increase in isolation, financial concerns or health worries.

How to cut back on how much you drink

There are many things you can do to cut back on the amount you drink and improve your health and wellbeing. If you would like to drink less, or are concerned about how much you are drinking, try:

  • picking at least 2 days a week when you don’t drink
  • avoiding lunchtime or day drinking, or events that revolve around alcohol
  • volunteering to be the designated driver
  • suggesting activity-based events with friends, over meeting at a bar, like crazy golf, a long walk, or games night
  • not keeping alcohol in the house.

If you want to drink less when stressed, avoid situations that revolve around alcohol, says Dr Nadine Ezard, clinical director at the drug and alcohol service at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. “Get into the habit of suggesting other social alternatives to friends – such as a long walk, game of golf or footy or a movie.”

*Name has been changed.

Change your relationship with alcohol

Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app⁺, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.

The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.

HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support. For more information contact HCF’s Health and Wellbeing Team at wellbeing@hcf.com.au

Download the Daybreak app on the App Store or Google Play.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:  

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by HCF
Updated May 2021

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