At what point does having a regular drink or two become something you should worry about? If you're not out partying till the early hours every night, you haven't got anything to worry about, right? Maybe not. Many people think that unless you're stumbling home every night, a regular drink doesn't do anyone any harm, but that isn't always the case. How many times have you declared you're just out for 'one' and suddenly you're making a night of it? The sliding scale of drinking too much begins with much smaller amounts of alcohol than most people would think. Drinking as little as a couple of pints after work on week nights, or sharing a bottle of wine with a friend most nights, could mean you're drinking too much. And consequently be affecting your long term health.
What exactly is too much?
There are three main categories of 'problem' drinking and many are surprised by how easy it is to fall in to the first...
Heavy or hazardous
· Drinking above the Government's recommended limits (two to three units a day for women and three to four units a day for men) is classed as heavy or hazardous drinking.
· In Great Britain just under a third of men and one in five women drink over the Government's recommendations.
To put this in perspective, as little as two large glasses of wine will take you over the recommended daily unit intake. Even if you're not out doing tequilas off the bar every night, you could still be drinking too much.
In order to help prevent damaging your health and look and feel your best, you should aim to stay 'alcohol-free' for at least a couple of days each week.
· Drinking 50 units a week for men and 35 units a week for women is regarded as 'harmful' drinking.
· Currently 8% of men and 2% of women drink more than the level regarded as 'harmful'.
But isn't that an awful lot of alcohol to drink in a week? Surprisingly not. For women, drinking two large glasses of wine a night would mean you've reached this level even before the weekend is over. And for men, drinking a bottle of wine to yourself just five nights a week gets you dangerously close to the level. Drinking habits like this can make you dependent on alcohol and you may develop long-term physical and mental health problems.
· More than one in 25 adults are dependent on alcohol.
How will I know if I'm dependent on alcohol? You may feel the need to drink alcohol throughout the day, experience withdrawal effects between drinks or drink large amounts at one time.
How does alcohol affect your life?
Taking a step back and looking at the role plays in your life is very important. You may feel drinking doesn't have a negative effect on your life and that you don't need to drink. However drinking could still be affecting your health.
As well as looking at your unit intake, it is important to be aware of the following;
Routine drinking: Religiously opening a bottle of wine after a stressful day or finding it impossible to get ready for a social event without a drink in your hand.
Needy drinking: Avoiding a situation or event because you know you wouldn't be able to have a drink while you're there. Feeling anxious or worried about where your next drink is coming from.
"Just one more" drinking: Finding you can't just go for a half pint, it always has to turn into a full drinking session.
Closet drinking: Drinking in secret or even just telling a little lie about how much you drink.
Dodgy drinking behaviour: Regularly regretting the things you've done while drunk - and we're not just talking about poor karaoke performance. Arguing with friends or family, for example, or being involved in accidents or fights.
Look out for the physical signs which can indicate that you're drinking too much. These can include:
Loss of appetite
Memory loss, blackouts
These are just the short-term effects. In the long term, drinking too much can lead to a host of health problems from heart disease to cancer.
It can also affect your day to day appearance, causing spots and red patches on your skin and adding weight to your love handles.
Drinking and mental health
Many people are unaware that alcohol can have an effect on your mental health and wellbeing. The most common symptoms of drinking too much include;
· Disturbed sleep patterns
· Feeling agitated and/or anxious
· Slowed brain functioning affecting concentration and memory
However more serious problems, such as isolation and depression can result for drinking heavily and could cause serious family and work problems.
When should you get help?
If you suspect you may be drinking too much alcohol, it is likely you could have a drinking problem.
Dr Sarah Galvani, Principal Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, recommends keeping a drink diary to record exactly what you drink, how much and who with. She argues "This can help you to get a picture of your drinking and how you can help yourself make some changes".
If you feel worried after recording your drinking habits, the worst thing to do is avoid seeking help. You should "Never be too proud to ask for help," says Dr Galvani. Often "That first phone call may need a little courage but professionals will not judge you, you will be welcomed."
If you are concerned about your drinking either contact your doctor or call a helpline for advice, such as Drinkline - open 24 hours 0800 917 8282. You will be able to find local services in your area to help.
Andy Ball, 36, had always been able to put away more drinks than his mates from a very early age. As a teenager he'd drink more than most people at parties and still not feel that drunk. Before he knew it he was drinking half a bottle of vodka to start the night before even leaving his bedroom.
"I wouldn't get drunk every day," says Andy. "I didn't wake up thinking of alcohol or have the shakes or anything. But alcohol was always there, a constant in my life. And I'd always have a drink before I went out."
Towards the end of his twenties, Andy says he got more deceitful about his drinking. "I used to have an orange juice and lemonade in the day when I was working and I'd put some vodka in that."
Andy was aware he was drinking a large amount of alcohol, but justified it as being something which young people do and he would stop when he's older.
"But things do creep up on you," says Andy. "I knew I could stop drinking if I wanted to but it took me to be really ill before I did." In 2001, Andy was diagnosed with the liver disease cirrhosis, which causes the liver to stop working properly.
"People need to be honest about how much they drink," he says. "A lot of people are alcohol-dependent to some extent because few of us would choose to socialise without a drink in our hand."