Alcohol is a depressant which slows down the body's responses. A small amount can make you feel more sociable, while too much can leave you with a hangover, unable to remember what has happened.
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to addiction, making it harder to live day to day without reaching for a drink.
Without a drink you may find yourself experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
It is estimated that alcohol dependence affects 4% of the population in England aged 16-65.
What are the effects of alcohol dependency?
Regularly drinking more than the recommended daily limits risks damaging your health. Official advice is that:
- Men should not regularly drink more than three to four units of a alcohol each day
- Women should not regularly drink more than two to three units a day
- After a heavy drinking session you should avoid alcohol for 48 hours
The NHS says most people who have alcohol related health problems are not alcoholics; they are people who have regularly breached these limits for some years.
Liver problems, reduced fertility, high blood pressure, increased risk of various cancers and heart attack are some of the health problems attributed to drinking too much. Health problems will be more severe the more you drink.
Pregnant women who drink alcohol risk harming their baby.
Drinking too much can also lead to marriage and relationship problems.
Research by Drinkaware found that eight out of 10 people do not have a realistic idea of how much alcohol the government states people should not regularly exceed. It has an online calculator which can help you keep track of how many units you are consuming.
Am I addicted to alcohol?
The NHS says you may be addicted to alcohol if:
- You always feel the need to have a drink
- You get into trouble because of your drinking
- Other people warn you about how much you drink
Physical symptoms to look out for are blackouts or memory loss after heavy drinking sessions, withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, sweating and nervousness.
There are many tests to gauge alcohol dependency. One simple questionnaire is called the CAGE test. It asks four questions:
- C: Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- A: Have people ever annoyed you by criticising your drinking?
- G: Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
- E: Have you ever had an eyeopener - a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
If you answer 'yes' to two or more questions, it indicates you may have a problem with alcohol.
How is alcohol addiction treated?
If you are worried about how much you are drinking, a good place to seek help is your GP.
You may be referred to a local community alcohol service.
Your doctor may prescribe a sedative such as chlordiazepoxide to help you cope with any withdrawal side effects such as loss of sleep, anxiety, sweating and tremors.
Another first step might be Drinkline (0800 917 8282), the national alcohol helpline, which offers 24 hour help to people worried about their drinking as well as support to family and friends.
Cutting down and stopping drinking is usually only the start of overcoming an addiction to alcohol. Most people will need support in overcoming the reasons why they drink. You may be able to get free one-to-one counselling through your GP or find help from agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In severe cases of alcohol addiction, people may need a short stay in a hospital or residential rehabilitation service ('rehab') to overcome their withdrawal symptoms or other problems. This may be either through the NHS or by paying to go privately.