Recent research concludes that men who drink no more than three to four units of alcohol a day, and women who drink no more than two to three, are unlikely to harm their health. In fact, scientists believe that drinking between one and two units of alcohol a day can lower the risk of heart disease in men over the age of 40 and post-menopausal women. But remember that there are times when even one or two drinks can be too much – for example, if you are going to drive or operate machinery afterwards. It can also be dangerous to drink alcohol if you are taking certain types of medicine – check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure. Young people and pregnant women should drink far less for medical reasons. If you are tempted to drink more, for example at a party, remember that this could result in your getting into a fight or trouble with the law, or having an accident or unwanted sex, think again. But if you do have a night of heavy drinking, keep off the alcohol for the next 48 hours to allow your body to recover. In reality, “hair of the dog” is the last thing you need.


It may seem unfair, but a woman is more at risk from the harmful effects of alcohol than men. This is because of biological differences. For example, women’s bodies contain more fat and less water than men’s. As alcohol is distributed through the body fluids, it is more concentrated in women’s bodies than men’s. This is why women are advised to drink less than men.


If you drink alcohol when you are pregnant, you are actually giving your baby an alcoholic drink too. This is because when you drink, the alcohol passed into your bloodstream, travels across the placenta and is fed to your baby.

If you are pregnant or planning a baby, never drink heavily or frequently and certainly avoid binges. If you limit yourself to an occasional drink – say one or

two units, once or twice a week – the risk to your baby will be very small. But if you cut out alcohol completely, you cut out any risk.

When your baby is born, alcohol is passed to them in small quantities through your breast milk. This may affect the baby’s feeding, bowels and sleeping patterns. If you’ve had several drinks, it is advisable to allow some time for your body to get rid of the alcohol before breastfeeding. Remember, on average it takes the body about an hour to get rid of each unit of alcohol.


Most of the alcohol you drink is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. Nearly all of the alcohol has to be burnt up by the liver, and the rest is disposed of in either sweat of urine. The concentration of alcohol in your body depends on how much you drink, on whether your stomach is empty or not, on your height, weight, age and sex. If you are smaller or lighter than average, or young, and if you’re not used to drinking, you will be more easily affected by alcohol.

Drink can make some people lively and chatty, but others silent and miserable. It’s worth remembering that alcohol isn’t a stimulant, despite what many people still believe. It is a depressant, meaning that it depresses certain brain functions.

This means that alcohol affects your judgement, self-control and co-ordination, even when you believe you are unaffected by it. It increases your chances of having an accident, of taking unnecessary risks, and of acting in a way that you might otherwise not have done – for example, having unprotected sex.


The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream increases with every unit you drink, and it takes the body about an hour to get rid of each unit of alcohol after drinking it.


Hangovers are caused by drinking too much alcohol. Dehydration is one of the problems, as the alcohol which you drink tends to make the water move out of the body’s cells. Despite all the well-known folk remedies, the only real way of treating a hangover is by being careful about how much you drink in the first place.


The liver is like a car with one gear – it can only work at one rate, burning up one unit of alcohol an hour. If it has to deal with too much alcohol over a number of years, it suffers damage which can be permanent.

Excessive drinking can cause:

v Stomach disorders (gastritis, bleeding and ulcers)
v Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and cirrhosis (permanent scarring of the liver)
v Depression and other psychiatric and emotional disorders
v High blood pressure
v Vitamin deficiency
v Sexual difficulties
v Brain damage
v Muscle disease
v Problems with the nervous system (especially nerve pains in the legs and arms)
v Cancer of the mouth, throat and gullet
v More problems for people with diabetes


Heavy drinkers can be overweight and yet still suffer from malnutrition. This is because they get their energy from alcohol instead of food, and alcohol lacks essential nutrients and vitamins.

Alcohol is loaded with calories which go straight into the bloodstream. For example, a pint of ordinary-strength beer contains 180 calories. Add these on to your food intake, and you can see how easy it is to become overweight. Don’t cut down on food rather than alcohol if you are worried about your calorie intake. This increases your risk of developing stomach disorders, as well as malnutrition.


The number of calories in different brands of drinks varies enormously. These figures give a rough idea only.

Drink Calories per unit of alcohol

Bitter 90
Brown ale 80
Light or mild also 70
Ordinary-strength lager 85
Low-alcohol lager 60
Dry cider 95
Sweet cider 110
Spirits (eg brandy, whisky, gin, rum or vodka) 50
Dry white or red wine 75
Sweet white wine 100
Rose wine 85
Dry sherry 55
Medium sherry 60
Cream sherry 70

Low calorie or diet mixers and soft drinks contain virtually no calories, but there are 35 calories in a small bottle of tonic water, 80 in a glass of orange juice and 130 in a can of coke.


The legal limit for driving is 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, or 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath. But there is no sure way of telling how much you can drink before you reach this limit. It varies with each

person, depending on your weight, sex, age, if you’ve just eaten and what sort of drinks you’ve had. Some people reach their limit after about 2 units.

However, just one or two units affect your driving ability. And even if you’re below the legal limit, you can still be prosecuted if a police officer thinks that your driving had been affected by alcohol. The only way to be sure that you’re safe is not to drink and drive at all.


v Alcohol is a major cause of accidents. One in five drivers killed in road accidents have levels of alcohol which are over the legal limit.
v Young people are affected more quickly by drinking than older people, so it’s especially important that young people don’t drink and drive.
v Most drinking and driving accidents happen within one mile of the driver’s home.
v Despite their association with the winter and Christmas drinking and driving, accidents are more frequent during the summer months.
v If you drink a lot in the evening, you might still be over the limit the next morning. Or if you’ve had a few drinks at lunchtime, another one or two in the early evening might well put you over the limit.

Remember that only time can remove the alcohol from your bloodstream.


Mixing drink with drugs – either illegal or legal – can be very dangerous. If you drink and take other depressant drugs such as heroin or tranquillisers, you risk falling into a coma or heavy sleep. If you are then sick while you are unconscious, you can choke on your own vomit and die of asphyxiation.

If you take amphetamines (speed, whiz) and drink alcohol, you are likely to end up drinking far too much, with all of the associated health and personal risks this brings.

Drinking alcohol while taking ecstasy is particularly dangerous. Many people get very hot from dancing after taking ecstasy and become dehydrated; alcohol speeds this process up and so increases the likelihood of you becoming ill. If you have taken ecstasy, sip about a pint of water or soft drinks an hour and eat salty snacks to avoid problems caused by dehydration or excessive fluid intake.

It is not just illegal drugs which can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Drinking when you are taking many prescribed drugs, including sleeping pills, painkillers and antidepressants can make you extremely ill or even kill you. Get into the habit of checking with your doctor or pharmacist when medicines are prescribed or brought and always check the packet or bottle if you are buying medicines without a prescription. Remember that your pharmacist can advise you if you have any doubts.


More people are drinking low-alcohol and alcohol free drinks: lagers, beers, ciders, wines, mineral waters and fruit juices. You can buy them in most of the places you can buy alcohol.

If you need or want to cut down on your drinking, you could try switching to low-alcohol or alcohol free drinks. For example, a pint of strong lager contains four units of alcohol, while most pints of low-alcohol lager contain less than 1 unit (see KNOW YOUR DRINKS). Many of the low-alcohol and alcohol free drinks taste just like alcoholic ones so if you’re drinking them because you’re driving and someone else buys a round, make sure that you really get what you ask for. And if you’re trying to lose weight, remember that low-alcohol drinks are not always lower in calories.


The good news is that, if you’re a sensible drinker, you’ll avoid making a fool of yourself, damaging your health, waking up with a headache, being involved in accidents, harming other people and hurting your pocket. And for men over 40 and women past the menopause, one or two units of alcohol a day may lower your risk of heart disease.

Here are some ideas you might like to try out if you want to change your drinking habits.

v If you drink at the pub, go out later and have something to eat first.
v If you are thirsty, try having a long soft drink or a spritzer (wine with water).
v Choose low-alcohol or alcohol free drinks instead of alcoholic ones sometimes. Remember that you don’t need a drink to enjoy yourself.
v If you drink spirits, dilute them.

v Look at your drinking diary. Are there some places where you always drink more heavily? One particular pub perhaps? Or at home by yourself? Or with a particular friends? How did you feel when you were drinking? Were you angry, stressed or tense, for example? Do you drink more at certain times of the day? Try rearranging your life a bit so that you avoid the times and places where you drink most heavily.
v If you drink with other people who regularly buy rounds for each other, it is easy to end up drinking more than you want. Try drinking more slowly so that you can skip rounds. Ask for a low-alcohol or alcohol free drink now and then, or for a smaller measure.

v Think of a number of ways that you can refuse a drink – write them down and practice saying them.
v If you feel that you’re about to drink more than you planned and want to, perhaps because of pressure from the people you are drinking with, create a delay. Go somewhere for five minutes and say to yourself “I’m in control of my life” you are. Often you’ll be able to stick to your original plan.
v Remember that getting drunk does not make you tall, rich, strong, attractive, smart, witty, sophisticated or sexy.


If you’ve tried to change the way you drink and find it’s just too difficult, keep trying. Maybe somebody close to you can help you. Talk about what you’re trying to do with a friend or a member of your family; they may be able to offer you support.