The truth about the risks of drinking too much

The dangers of alcoholism are well publicised and understood but did you know the majority of people who have alcohol-related problems aren't alcoholics? Instead, they are usually people who regularly drink over the healthy limits of three to four units per day for men and two to three units per day for women. It is also worth pointing out that it is not only those who binge-drink at the weekend or who get drunk on a regular basis who are at risk.

However, many of those who drink more than they should are unlikely to notice any harmful effects in the early years of their drinking. Instead, the effects of drinking normally show after a number of years, by which time there may already be significant impacts on health such as reduced fertility, increased blood pressure, liver damage as well as an increased risk of both cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Doctors tend to divide drinkers into three categories of risk. These are lower-risk drinkers, increasing-risk drinkers and higher-risk drinkers.

Those who are lower-risk drinkers of course have a smaller risk of causing themselves harm by alcohol in the future, although there is still some risk with drinking any alcohol at all. To be in this group you would need to stay within healthy limits, although even drinking any alcohol at all can still pose risks, especially if you are going to drive, operate machinery, or take part in vigorous physical activity.

Drinkers classed as increasing-risk have a higher chance of developing a health problem as a result of their alcohol consumption. An increasing-risk drinker will be drinking up to twice the recommended limits. If you're drinking at these levels you are more prone to developing alcohol-related problems such as fatigue or depression, while you may also gain weight, have poor sleep and develop sexual problems.

However old you are, you are likely to be in worse shape physically than you would be if you drank less alcohol, and it can also have an impact on your friends and family.

Those classed in the higher-risk category drink at over twice the healthy limits and are even more likely to develop serious health problems, and their body may have already suffered some damage, even if they are unaware of the problem at the moment.

Heavy drinkers are three to five times more likely to develop cancer of the mouth, neck or throat than non-drinkers, and three to 10 times more likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver. Men are also four times more likely than non-drinkers to have high blood pressure, while women are twice as likely to develop it. Women are also one and a half times more likely to develop breast cancer.

At this increased level, your drinking may well be causing some problems between yourself and your friends and family.

Healthy drinking tips

There are so many ways to keep your drinking within healthy limits - take a look through the following suggestions and see what works for you:

At home

  • Avoid stocking up on alcohol in the house as you're far more likely to drink more that way
  • If you drink alcohol at mealtimes, serve individual glasses on the table and leave the bottle in the kitchen
  • Don't feel you need to finish wine to avoid it going off. Use a wine stopper and save it for later
  • Home servings of wine and spirits are typically larger than standard measures so remember to watch your servings.

If you're having a dinner party

  • Give each guest a water glass and keep them topped up
  • Use small wine glasses on the table, and lower-strength wine
  • Offer lemonade or soda water so your guests can make spritzers
  • Offer alternatives such as mixers, juices and fruit cocktails.

Going out

  • Set yourself a limit and stick to it. Remind yourself of the health benefits involved, and make a decision about what you're going to drink after you've stopped the alcohol
  • Take a small amount of cash with you and leave your cards at home
  • Choose lower-strength varieties of your usual alcoholic drinks
  • Alternate your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks such as fruit juice or a glass of water in between
  • If you're feeling peer pressure to drink more, then go to the bar yourself - spritzers and shandy are easy, discreet alternatives to wine and beer
  • Snack as you drink - it will slow your drinking down
  • Try to avoid buying drinks in rounds - you'll have less control over your decisions and will probably end up drinking more than you planned
  • Choose your drinking partners carefully - if you go out with heavy drinkers then you'll probably drink more yourself
  • If you usually choose large drinks then try reducing the size - smaller measures of wine, bottles of beer instead of pints and single spirits
  • If you can, meet up with friends at social venues that don't serve alcohol such as cafés or galleries
  • Literally take it easy when you're drinking - we tend to drink faster when standing and more slowly when sitting with the glass on the table.

And here are some general tips for cutting down

  • Take it slowly - set realistic targets and cut down a little each week until you reach your goal
  • Do you drink every day? Set aside two regular alcohol-free days a week
  • Don't choose alcohol to quench your thirst
  • Pace your drinks - sip slowly
  • If you have a drink at a regular time, change it. Do something else to break that habit
  • If you get a spontaneous urge for a drink, try to find something else to do to take your mind off it, such as having a bath or going for a walk - the urge should soon pass
  • Let your friends and family know what you're doing.They'll probably be supportive, especially if you can add some 'medical' weight to your decision and say you're under doctor's orders to get your blood pressure down.