Over 90% of the population drink alcohol. Taken in moderation, alcohol presents few problems and may even have some health benefits. Drinking to excess, however, can be very harmful.
Globally, alcohol addiction is a serious problem. Statistics released by the journal 'Addiction' in 2014 show that about 5% of the entire human race struggle with alcoholism (some 240 million people in total).
Units of alcohol
Because alcoholic drinks come in many different strengths, we measure the strength of alcohol in units. One unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol. It takes an average adult around an hour to process one unit so there's none left in their bloodstream.
A 'unit' of alcohol is (roughly) the amount contained in a:
- Standard measure of spirits
- Half-pint of normal strength beer
- Small glass of wine or sherry
The NHS advises that you shouldn't regularly drink more than 3 units of alcohol a day (about one-and-a-half pints of 4% strength beer or one 175 ml glass of wine) and have at least two alcohol free days.. 'Regularly' means drinking every day, or most days of the week.
The alcoholic content of drinks varies a lot. Some beers contain 3.5% alcohol, while stronger lagers can be 5% or 6% alcohol. Wine is typically 13%-14% alcohol.
Just one pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine can contain more than three units of alcohol - the daily limit for women.
Remember that measures served at home are often much larger than those in bars, and some lagers and fortified wines can be much stronger than average.
Units and drinks
- 1 measure (25ml) of whisky, gin or vodka = 1 unit
- 1 small glass of sherry, martini or port = 1 unit
- 1 average glass of table wine = 1.5 units
- 1 pint of beer = 2 units
- 1 can of beer = 1.5 units
- 1 bottle of strong lager = 2.5 - 4 units
- 1 bottle (1 litre) of table wine = 12 units
- 1 bottle (750ml) of table wine = 9 units
- 1 bottle (700ml ) of whisky, gin or vodka = 26 - 35 units
It's easy to underestimate the amount we drink. One way of keeping check is to record our consumption in a diary. Doing this from time-to-time can help keep a check on your drinking. It can also help highlight any times when you're more likely to drink than others.
You can download and print a drinks diary to keep track of your alcohol consumption: Drink Diary Template
Sometimes we might drink to relieve a depressed mood, to 'drown our sorrows'. Drinking too much might be a sign of depression.
It's important to understand the extent to which depression is causing excessive drinking, or excessive drinking is causing depression. If you think you're drinking too much and are feeling low, it's best to consult with a health professional to make sure you're getting the right help and support.
Alcohol is a depressant drug, it reduces our ability to face up to our problems and releases our inhibitions. For many people it plays an important part in overcoming social anxiety.
For some, alcohol releases powerful feelings of self-hatred, producing angry, aggressive or even suicidal behaviour. We all know people who have become gloomy and bitter when drunk, yet have little memory of their mood the following day.
Some individuals drink alcohol as a way of bolstering their self-confidence or obtaining relief from anxiety or distress.
Some people who are depressed and lack energy may use alcohol to help them keep going and to help cope with life. This is a very short-term solution because any benefits of the alcohol soon wear off, while drinking can become routine, harmful and difficult to change.
Alcohol produces tolerance, so we need a larger and larger dose to get the desired effect. This tolerance is a step on the road towards dependence or alcoholism.
Some think that alcohol is simply habit forming - drinking too much for too long produces cravings and the 'habit' of drinking. However, if you're drinking to help you cope with the way you feel, you might need extra support to stop.
Hangovers are depressing experiences. We wake feeling ill, anxious and jittery. We might feel guilty about the events of the previous night. If drinking bouts become habitual, this may lead to trouble at home, conflicts with partners and family, the quality of our work deteriorates and we may feel unjustly criticised by partners, friends and colleagues. Eventually we may stop caring.
A hangover magnifies feelings of despair and self-loathing. When 'hung over' we judge ourselves harshly - we think ourselves stupid, foolish or weak. We may also have specific regrets about things that happened that we might bitterly regret.
Given these circumstances it's not surprising that depression, even thoughts of suicide, can be common for someone who's seriously dependent on alcohol.