Is there Ever a Safe Level of Drinking? UK Guidelines

alcohol wineHow does anyone know how much alcohol is too much?  If they can be honest with themselves, most people already know when they have A Drinking Problem.  Once you find yourself saying ‘I don’t really have a problem’ you know you already do.  Just telling yourself this statement shows that you already know, deep down that you are drinking too much. What you might not know is how big a problem you have.

To know that, we need to know about the different levels of drinking.

        Is there Ever a Safe Level of Drinking?

Alcohol is legal, but it is a drug, but it is also a poison for living cells, including the cells of our bodies.  No part of the human body escapes the negative effects of exposure to alcohol.  Alcohol is widely used as a disinfectant, precisely because it attacks and kills, living cells. In the case of using it as a disinfectant, it’s used to destroy the cells of bacteria and germs.

When it comes to people drinking alcohol, it is all a matter of degree.  Abstinence is the safest option, and there are many people who do not drink at all.  Some of these non-drinkers simply don’t like alcohol.  For some people it’s because drinking alcohol is not allowed by their religion.  And others are abstaining from alcohol because they are Alcoholics in Recovery.

Drinking at Safe Levels is All About Minimising Risk

In small quantities, the body and its organs are usually able to cope with the damaging effects alcohol, and will not get damaged to the point where illness or obvious permanent medical harm occurs.  Governments usually have guidelines indicating the levels of alcohol use that are considered to put you at minimal risk of harm.  Safe limit guidelines do not say there will be no harm, they just say there is minimal risk of harm.

And these Guideline amounts, are usually much less than most people think is a Safe level of drinking. Safe Levels are expressed in numbers of Units of Alcohol.

But a ‘unit’ is not ‘a drink’.  A normal average drink will usually contain more than one Unit of alcohol. See more details below.

The UK NHS Currently Recommends:

  • Men (adults) should not regularly drink more than 3 to 4 Units of alcohol a day.
  • Women (adults) should not regularly drink more than 2 to 3 Units of alcohol a day.
  • If you’ve had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours.

‘Regularly’ means drinking these amounts every day or most days of the week.

The Harmful Effects of Too Much Alcohol

Harm from the effects of alcohol can also be social harm – making us unreliable, or perform poorly at work, or destroy our families and close relationships, or result in us hurting someone because we are driving a vehicle when we’ve been drinking.

Alcohol also damages the brain, and that can result in anti-social behaviour, violence, loss of fine motor skills.  Fine motor skills are often required for us to do well in our jobs.  Too much alcohol over time also results in poor judgement (including accurate assessment of risk), poor impulse control and loss of intellectual ability – yes, alcohol can make you slow-witted and less intelligent than you once were.

The damage happens slowly but is cumulative.  Usually it is noticed by others, long before the drinkers themselves are aware of their reduced abilities and changed behaviour. I’m sure most people can recognize the typical signs and behavior of people who are damaged by long term, excessive drinking.  However, damage has been occurring gradually for years before it becomes that obvious.

It also has a damaging effect on our appearance over time.  It’s easy to recognize a long term heavy drinker, just by looking at them.

In a previous article: Classifications: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?  I explained the international definitions of Hazardous Drinking (also known as At Risk Drinking) Harmful Drinking and Alcohol Abuse.  Research shows that many people in the UK are risking their health by drinking above Recommended Safe Levels.

Problem Alcohol Use in the UK:

According to NICE: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, or NICE, as it’s known:

  • approximately 24% of adults in the UK drink in a hazardous or harmful way (NICE, 2010)
  • approximately 1 in 6 patients presenting to their local doctor would be classed as having a drinking problem.
  • approximately 15% of hospital inpatients have a health problem that is directly related to excess alcohol consumption and
  • an additional 15% may consume above recommended limits or have other alcohol-related problems (Latt et al, 2009).

Recommended UK Safe Drinking Levels By Age:

Alcohol: Teenagers aged 15 or less:

Should not drink alcohol at all, ever – total abstinence is a universal recommendation: The adolescent brain is particularly sensitive to the damaging effects of alcohol – and other drugs.

Alcohol: Pregnant Women:

Should not drink alcohol at all, especially early in the pregnancy

Alcohol: Young Adults:

As little alcohol as possible. The human brain has increased sensitivity to potential damage from drugs of any sort until age ~ 24-25 years.  That is when the human physical brain usually reaches adult maturity, and becomes relatively less vulnerable to the damaging effects of drugs, including alcohol.

Alcohol: Probable Safe Levels for Adults:

  • Men (adults) should not regularly drink more than 3 to 4 Units of alcohol a day.
  • Women (adults) should not regularly drink more than 2 to 3 Units of alcohol a day.
  • If you’ve had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours.

‘Regularly’ means drinking these amounts every day or most days of the week. To see what this means in terms of actual drinks, see below.

How Many Units of Alcohol Are There In Different Alcoholic Drinks?

Alcohol consumption is based on Units of Ethanol consumed. In the UK, one Unit of alcohol is 8g of ethanol, which is also known as a Standard Drink. But that still doesn’t tell us what we need to know:

Most Served Drinks Are Not ‘Standard’ Size Drinks

alcohol units

Units and You

It’s important to realise that alcoholic drinks are often served in larger than the standard drink size.  And also, what we think of as ‘one drink’, does not contain just One Standard Unit (8g) of alcohol.

For example:

For White wine: The standard ‘small’ glass of wine is now 175 ml instead of 125 ml.

  • And a 12.5% wine should only be 80 mls in size for it to still be a ‘Standard drink’ containing one Unit of alcohol.
  • 80mls is a lot less than we think. It’s roughly 1/3 of a cup.  Measure your wineglasses – see how they shape up
  • A normal white wine glass holds more than one Unit or ‘standard’ drink.

For Red wine:

  • red wine glasses are almost always even bigger than white wine glasses
  • when served in a bar or restaurant, it will contain even more Units of alcohol per glass, than a white wine served in a bar.

Drinks served at home can often be 50% larger than a Standard Drink.

For spirits:  A standard nip is 30mls, whereas ‘a shot’ is usually 100 ml – nearly 4 standard nips.

How Many Drinks Can I Drink at Safe Drinking Levels?

In Terms of Different Serves of different types of Drinks:

Beer: Safe Responsible Drinking: How Many Beers Can I Drink?

units beer

Units and You

  • Men:  2.5 pints (or less) 3.5% beer per day
  • Women: 1.25 pints (or less) of 3.5% beer per day

Wine: Safe Responsible Drinking: How Many Wines Can I Drink?

Units wine

Units and You

Men:

  • less than 4 Standard size white wines per day (1 unit per drink)
  •  which is even less than 4 normal Average size serves of wine (contain more than 1 Unit per drink)
  • Red wine is usually served in larger glasses, so it would be less again for red wine

Women:

  • less than 3 Standard size white wines per day (I Unit per drink)
  • which is even less than 3 normal Average size serves of wine (contain more than 1 Unit per drink)
  • Red wine is usually served in larger glasses, so it would be less again for red wine

Spirits: Safe Responsible Drinking: How Many Spirits Can I Drink?

Units alcohol

Units and You

Men:

  •  Less than 4 single spirits per day (If it contains 1 Unit per serve)
  •  this refers to Nips, not Shots.
  •  Shots can be up to x 4 the size of a Nip, so a single Shot might be nearly your daily limit  for spirits.

‘Regularly’ means drinking these amounts every day, or most days, of the week.

  •  If you’ve had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours.

Women:

  •  less than 3 single spirits per day (If it contains 1 Unit per serve)
  •  this refers to Nips, not Shots. Shots can be up to x 4 the size of a Nip.
  •  if you drink Shots and are female, one shot is already over your daily safe limit

‘Regularly’ means drinking these amounts every day or most days of the week.

  •  If you’ve had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours.

Binge Drinking: What is It & How Much Must I Drink to Be Binge Drinking?

The NHS definition of binge drinking is drinking heavily in a short space of time to get drunk or feel the effects of Alcohol.

‘Bingeing’ is less clearly defined but the marker used by the NHS and National Office of Statistics is drinking more than double the daily unit guidelines for alcohol in one session.  

The government advises that people should not regularly drink more than the daily unit guidelines of 3-4 units of alcohol for men (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and 2-3 units of alcohol for women (equivalent to a 175 ml glass of wine). ‘Regularly’ means drinking every day or most days of the week.

Therefore Binge drinking is:

  • For men, is drinking more than 8 units of alcohol – or about three pints of strong beer.
  • For women, it’s drinking more than 6 units of alcohol, equivalent to two large glasses of wine.  (Drinkaware.co.uk)

Resources:

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Is there Ever a Safe Level of Drinking? UK Guidelines — 1 Comment

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