Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol is a source of pleasure, but it also causes significant individual, social and economic harm. Alcohol is an addictive drug and a major cause of illness such as liver cirrhosis, cancers, heart disease, and social problems including social exclusion, unemployment, homelessness, violence, disorder, health inequality, teenage pregnancy, and accidents.

There has been a strong trend of increased alcohol consumption in the UK since the end of the Second World War. 32% of men and 17% of women (aged between 16 and 64) drink at harmful levels. If price continues to fall, and alcohol strength and availability increases with extended opening hours and more outlets, the danger is that rapidly increasing numbers of people will be drinking above safe levels.

How much can we safely drink?

The body takes 1 hour to process 1 unit of alcohol.

A unit of alcohol is half a pint of ordinary (3.5%) strength beer or lager, a pub measure of spirits, a glass of sherry or port, or a small glass of 9% wine.

Women: 2-3 units per day, but not every day and no more than 14 units in total for the week. Men: 3-4 units per day, but not every day and no more than 14 units in total for the week.

Pregnant women should drink no more than 1-2 units once or twice a week and avoid intoxication.

How does alcohol cause harm?

Alcohol can be considered to cause harm in three ways:

Drunkenness or binge drinking is drinking to intoxication. Even if done infrequently, this can lead to a variety of problems, such as accidents, injuries, interpersonal violence, crime, risky sexual activity or alcohol poisoning.

Dependence. many heavy drinkers develop tolerance to the physical effects of alcohol; chronic heavy drinking may not lead to evident intoxication, but can still cause physical and psychological damage and dependence.

Disease refers to the illnesses and damage to the body and mind caused by regular consumption of large quantities of alcohol over a sustained period of time. Alcohol is not only an intoxicant, but also a toxic substance, which damages a wide range of body organs and systems, affecting both physical and mental health. These effects may be acute, such as alcohol poisoning, or chronic, where long-term exposure to high levels of alcohol can lead to disease, such as liver cirrhosis, dementia, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, gastritis, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis, and certain types of cancer, and mental health problems including anxiety, depression, deliberate self harm and suicide.

Some tips: Before and during drinking

  • Avoid mixing alcohol with other drugs or medication.
  • Have something to eat before you start drinking – food in the stomach allows alcohol to be absorbed more slowly.
  • Avoid drinking to get drunk – stay in control of yourself.
  • Be careful about drinking in ’rounds’. You tend to end up drinking at the speed of the fastest drinker in the company.
  • Learn to refuse offers of drinks which you don’t want.
  • Drink slowly and space alcoholic drinks out with soft drinks.
  • Avoid drinking competitions or gimmicky events to get you to drink more.
  • If you feel hung over after drinking, don’t be tempted to take alcohol to help you feel better.
  • Take lots of non-alcoholic fluids, rest and stay off alcohol for 48 hours and you’ll feel much better.
  • Avoid using alcohol to help you cope with situations like shyness or insomnia, as alcohol causes disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Talk to someone you trust about developing confidence to ease the shyness.
  • Using alcohol to help you cope with problems will only blot them out – it won’t actually solve them.
  • Rather than drinking as your only method of winding down, try to ensure you’ve a range of options for relaxing.
  • Your body needs 48 hours to recover after a heavy drinking session.
  • Aim for at least two alcohol-free days per week.

Drinking and Driving

In the UK, 3000 people are killed or seriously injured on our roads each year in drink drive related crashes and nearly one in six of all deaths on the road involve drivers who are over the legal limit. If you plan to drink, don’t risk driving.

  • Book a taxi
  • Use public transport
  • Stay overnight
  • Arrange for someone who is not drinking to drive
  • Don’t be tempted to get into a car with anyone else who has been drinking

If you’ve been out drinking you may still be affected by alcohol the next day. Even though you may feel OK when you get up, you may still be unfit to drive or over the legal alcohol limit. A shower, cup of coffee, or other ways of sobering up will not help – it just takes time. Any amount of alcohol affects your ability to drive safely as your reaction times are impaired and you’re unable to judge speed and distances.

The role of dietary supplements

Vitamins – alcoholics are commonly deficient in many vitamins, especially the B group of vitamins – alcohol consumption reduces the amounts of these vitamins in the body. As B vitamins are water-soluble, they are not stored in the body and are required to be taken in from the diet regularly. Also, vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium deficiencies are commonly found in people who drink to excess.

Other related products

Useful contacts and links to further information

Drinks If you need more information about how alcohol could interact with any medications you are taking, talk to your pharmacist.

How’s Your Drink – a service provided by Alcohol Concern, with information and a test to help you work out if you’re drinking too much.

Alcohol Concern – provides information and support materials to individuals and organisations.

Alcoholics Anonymous – a confidential group that can support people who wish to stop drinking.

They can also be contacted on 0845 769 7555.

Al-Anon – for families and friends of alcoholics.