Worried about the health effects of alcohol? You’re not alone
Anyone who’s chosen not to drink at a social function in Australia, regardless of the reason, knows that their decision is rarely accepted without question. People assume that you must be driving, pregnant or sick to refuse a wine.
The truth is that a lot of people here in Australia drink. Alcohol has always been a big part of our culture: it’s how we celebrate, wind down and commiserate. More recently, though, a new social movement has started that’s all about non-drastic sobriety. And today, more and more functional, healthy, stable people are becoming ‘sober curious’.
Important: This information may help people who want to cut back. However, anyone who feels that they are not in control of their drinking should consult their GP.
What does being sober curious mean?
It’s basically a label for people who don’t identify as having a traditional drinking problem but want to examine the effects that alcohol has on their health and wellbeing.
They’re thinking about cutting down significantly on their alcohol consumption. They may even be thinking about embracing sobriety altogether.
Sometimes the motivation is mood-related, when they notice the effects of alcohol on their mental health. Sometimes it’s about feeling better physically. And sometimes, it’s as simple as wanting more energy in their day.
So if, like thousands of other Aussies, you’re taking a hard look at your drinking, then good for you! Assessing behaviour is a great idea, no matter what outcome you arrive at. We’d love to help you on your journey by answering some of the questions you may have.
Are you drinking too much?
Short answer: probably – at least if you’re like most Australians.
Let’s start with the Australian Government’s Department of Health guidelines. Their most recent recommendation is that adults should limit their alcohol to 10 standard drinks in any one week.
It’s important to recognise that this is a recommended safety limit. The Department of Health guidelines state "The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol. For some people, not drinking at all is the safest option."
But… within those 10 standard drinks per week, the guidelines also recommend a limit of no more than four standard drinks in any one sitting. So drinking six glasses of wine on a Friday night would still count as an unhealthy amount. Additionally, a ‘standard drink’ of wine is just 100mls. And by the time you’re on your fifth glass, your pours will probably be… a little less conservative.
So what happens if you regularly exceed those 10 drinks per week, or four in one sitting? In that case, the Department of Health says, you substantially increase your risk of a range of brain, heart and liver issues, along with a host of other health problems.
But, moving away from all the science, if you suspect your drinking is excessive – either physically or mentally – or you’re worried about your drinking in general, then you’ll probably benefit from seeing your GP.
How alcohol affects everyone’s health
Dr Jill Gamberg, GP says alcohol has two types of effect on our health and wellbeing.
In the short term, even low-level drinking can affect our:
- energy levels
- sleep and mood
- ability to judge situations accurately
And if you binge drink, Dr Jill says that alcohol can have a negative effect on your social health, with disinhibited behaviour causing potential relationship issues. On a physical level, you may also experience nausea and vomiting, accident-proneness and – in extreme cases – alcohol poisoning.
Meanwhile, in the longer term, excessive alcohol is associated with mental health issues like low mood, worry/stress and a higher likelihood of substance abuse.
Dr Jill mentions that other long-term health effects of alcohol on the body may include or contribute to:
- diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke
- brain damage and cognitive decline
- impotence and infertility
It’s not an uplifting topic to read about, for sure. But it’s important to be aware of.
Does drinking affect men and women differently?
There’s some good research about how alcohol affects men and women differently. For a long time, researchers assumed that most of those differences were about size. Men generally have more body mass than women, so the alcohol they drink may not affect them as much as women.
However, research suggests that there are other reasons that go beyond size. Men may metabolise alcohol faster than women. This means that alcohol may impair women more quickly than men, and also that the long-term effects of alcohol may be more detrimental to women than men.
Pregnancy and alcohol
When it comes to sex-related differences in the effects of alcohol, we also need to remember that women are the ones who sometimes experience pregnancy and breastfeed. There is no known safe time or amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.
Are there any health benefits to drinking?
Short answer: probably not.
It’s true that grape skins contain polyphenols: antioxidants that may help to decrease inflammation and ward off heart disease. However, the amount they contain is low, and the health risks of drinking enough alcohol to get an antioxidant effect probably or likely outweigh any potential benefit.
And if health is your motivation for drinking, you’d be better off just eating grapes (or berries, or fruits, or any other healthy polyphenol-rich food).
In other words, long answer: unfortunately, also probably not.
However, Dr Jill says that this doesn’t mean she thinks that nobody should ever drink. “Absolutely, saying that alcohol has health benefits is stretching it,” she agrees. “But everything in moderation is a better way to think about it.”
So, you want to cut back? Let’s talk tips
As we said earlier, if you suspect you’re drinking too much, you probably are. Alternatively, you might just want to investigate the benefits of cutting back on alcohol.
Either way, changing behaviour is never easy, but a great place to start is to identify the reason you want to change in the first place. Are you trying to improve your mood, get more energy or sleep better? Perhaps it’s for a health reason?
Regardless, knowing your ‘why’ will help you to figure out your ‘how’. Then, once you’re clear on your reasons, Dr Jill suggests trying out these tips.
Important: These tips may help people who want to cut back. However, anyone who feels that they are not in control of their drinking should consult their GP.
1. Think about your triggers
Do you mostly drink to wind down? Or do you have specific friends who encourage you to drink excessively? Whatever your triggers might be, bringing some mindful awareness to them is a great first step in assessing and controlling your alcohol consumption.
2. Become more aware of how you’re drinking
Educating yourself about alcohol, and your relationship with it, can help on your journey. Take some time to notice how alcohol physically and mentally affects you. Perhaps also try tracking your alcohol consumption and any effects in a planner or notebook.
Reading articles like this one is another great place to start. The cliches are true: knowledge is power.
3. Choose a ‘swap-out’ behaviour
It’s often more effective to replace a habit, rather than trying to stop it cold.
So if you usually have a glass of wine after work, ‘swap it out’ with something healthier that you enjoy. Try reading a book to your kids, taking a walk or cooking something special.
Another option is to find a non-alcoholic drink you enjoy, like a mocktail or tonic water. Either way, reframe your cutting back as a swap, not a sacrifice.
4. Take it one day at a time
If you’re thinking about cutting down now, don’t let future events where you may want to drink derail your decision.
Being sober curious doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing commitment. Knowing that you’ll want to enjoy a glass of wine on Friday night doesn’t need to affect your decision to open a bottle today.
Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help
You also don’t have to be diagnosed with alcoholism to seek help with cutting back on alcohol.
If you’re worried about going it alone, your GP is always the best place to start looking for professional support. They can refer you to a range of non-judgemental service providers who are professionally trained in this area.
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Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021