Understanding your drinking

How do I know if I’m drinking too much?

There are lots of signs to look out for that may indicate that you’re drinking more alcohol than is safe or healthy for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you need to drink more alcohol to get the same effect as you used to?
  • When talking with others, do you ever underestimate how much you actually drink?
  • Do you ever skip a meal because you don’t feel hungry after a few drinks?
  • Do you find yourself taking a drink to “take the edge off”, calm your nerves, or take your mind off your problems?
  • Have you ever increased your drinking after experiencing a loss in your life?
  • Has a relative, friend, doctor or nurse ever said they were worried or concerned about your drinking?
  • Have you ever made rules to manage your drinking?

If your answer to some of these questions is “yes” then you may want to think more about how much you choose to drink.

How can I cut down on my drinking?

There are lots of ways in which you can drink a little less alcohol and feel the benefits that come with cutting down.

If you want to cut down your drinking try:

  • eating something before you have a drink, this will help slow down the absorption of alcohol into your body
  • having between 2 to 3 alcohol-free days a week
  • using smaller glasses or a unit measuring cup, it can be harder to keep track of how much you’re drinking at home
  • avoid topping up your glass as this can help keep track of your drinks
  • setting a timescale for each drink to make it last longer
  • having a soft drink or water with, or after, each alcoholic drink
  • try focusing on your hobbies, interests, and social opportunities that don’t involve alcohol.

You can also get some tips for drinking wisely by watching this video

Units – what’s it all about?

Alcohol and its effects vary from person to person, especially as we age. It’s important to remember that if you have health problems or use medications, including over the counter medicines, these can also affect how much you are able to drink.

Government guidelines

The government has recommended guidelines on alcohol use and these are measured in units. Measuring in units may not come naturally to you – so sometimes it is easier to think about units in terms of actual alcoholic drinks that you’re familiar with.

The government set new alcohol guidelines in 2016. Guidelines for men and women are now the same and recommend that:

  • you should not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week
  • you spread the 14 units over at least three days of the week
  • you try to have regular alcohol free days

Also to reduce the short-term health risks of drinking (such as falls, injuries):

  • try to limit the amount you drink in one sitting
  • drink slowly, try to drink with food and space your drinks with water

Finally, no known level of drinking can be deemed to be fully safe (especially in terms of illnesses such as cancer) therefore we can only refer to ‘lower risk’ drinking.

Some health experts recommend that adults aged 65 and over should consume even less alcohol. This is because as we get older:

  • our body’s ability to breakdown alcohol in the liver is reduced
  • we become more sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol
  • we’re more likely to be on medications
  • alcohol concentration in the blood (BAC – Blood Alcohol Concentration) is likely to be higher in older people. As your age, muscle is replaced by body fat and alcohol is not drawn into fat as well as muscle.

However, there are currently no government guidelines on recommended limits for older adults. It’s important to add that the health and well-being of older adults varies greatly for each individual. For example, you can have a very healthy 73 year-old versus someone in their 50s with complex health problems so seeking medical advice is always advised.

Do the guidelines apply to everyone?

The recommended units are given as guidelines for the general population, so it is always important for each individual to think about their own situation and circumstances. In some cases you may want to seek advice from a medical practitioner. For instance, if you are being prescribed medication, this may interact with alcohol in a number of ways.

Drinking in moderation may have some benefits such as helping you relax or feel more sociable. However regular drinking, even in moderation, can become a habit and have harmful long-term effects.

If you believe your drinking is already causing you harm, you may want to speak to your medical practitioner about how you can safely cut down.

Find out more information on the new guidelines


What are the effects of too much drinking?

Apart from the obvious effects of feeling drunk, alcohol has lots of effects on your body and mind. These vary for the individual and can be affected by a number of factors including age, gender and weight. Women have more body fat and less muscle so they do not absorb alcohol as quickly as men do, and are likely to feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and for longer.

As we age, our bodies become less able to break down and remove alcohol from the body – so we are likely to feel the effects of alcohol more strongly and for longer. This can lead to risks like falls and feelings of confusion.

Drinking too much can also cause other problems like memory loss, difficulty sleeping, stomach problems, high blood pressure, and low energy levels.