How to build a better relationship with alcohol

Whether it be a hangover-induced vow, advice from your doctor, a New Year’s resolution, a long-held desire to improve your health, or a charity campaign such as Dry July and Feb Fast, you might have at some point reassessed your relationship with alcohol.

There are huge health benefits to cutting back on the grog, and drinking rates are declining in Australia, according to the latest research. You may have noticed more low- and non-alcohol drinks popping up at your local pub and bottle shop in recent years too, which is a sign more people are modifying their relationship with booze.

So, should you consider cutting down your alcohol intake? Or do you want to help a mate or family member who is going over the top with their drinking?

The downsides of drinking alcohol

Drinking is very much part of Australian culture — it is the most widely used drug in the country and is consumed for a vast range of reasons. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics states people born in Australia are almost twice as likely as those born overseas to exceed drinking guidelines (more on them shortly). Men are more likely to drink at risky levels, with one in four exceeding the recommendations.

While drinking is widespread and (for the most part) accepted, Alcohol and Drug Foundation spokesperson Robert Taylor says alcohol causes significant problems.

“Every year, there are more than 4,100 alcohol-related deaths (in Australia), and more than 86,000 alcohol-related hospitalisations nationally,” he says.

“Sadly, data from 2021 saw the highest rate for alcohol-induced deaths in 10 years, driven primarily by an 8.1% increase in the rate of alcohol-induced deaths for males since 2020.
“Young people continue to be the most likely age group to drink at risky levels on a single occasion, with risky drinking more common among young males.

“People on higher incomes are more likely to drink alcohol compared to those on lower incomes. However, if people on lower incomes do drink heavily, they are more likely to experience serious harms.”

Some of the damage alcohol can do includes:

  • Increasing the risk of many cancers, while it can also damage the liver and cause high blood pressure. The level of risk increases as more alcohol is consumed
  • If someone drinks, it increases their chance of getting hurt and hurting other people, for example through car accidents, falls or getting into arguments
  • It increases the chance of developing mental health problems or makes these problems worse
  • Drinking alcohol can also impact your chances of having a baby
  • In the past, low levels of alcohol were thought likely to protect against heart disease. The evidence is now less clear.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education CEO Caterina Giorgi says people should be more aware of the damage alcohol can cause.

“It seems as though we accept a higher level of harm when it comes to alcohol (compared to other issues),” she said at an Australian Men’s Health Forum webinar on alcohol during Men’s Health Week. 

“These types of harms, if they existed in many other areas, there would be an absolute riot on the streets. In Australia, a person dies about every 90 minutes because of alcohol … a person dying every 90 minutes! If that was happening on our roads, if that was happening from anything else, there'd been an uproar, and we'd be making changes.”

Recommendations for alcohol consumption in Australia

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day, while people under 18 should not drink alcohol. 

But what is a standard drink? It is any drink containing 10 grams of alcohol and can include one 425ml light beer, one 285ml full-strength beer, 100ml of sparkling wine, one 30ml spirit or 60ml of fortified wine. 

While the NHMRC encourages people to drink within its guidelines, it also states: “Not drinking at all is the best way to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol.”

Do you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol?

Australian not-for-profit organisation Hello Sunday Morning, which delivers alcohol behaviour-change programs, states there are several warning signs which indicate you have issues with drinking, adding “if you are worried that you can see a lot of these within yourself, we’d suggest you consider your relationship with alcohol and look at ways you can improve it.”

These indicators include: 

  • Using alcohol to cope with uncomfortable situations, life events, feelings or emotions
  • Hiding your alcohol use
  • Drinking alone
  • Alcohol becomes a priority over your responsibilities (e.g. work, school, etc.)
  • Experiencing guilt over drinking
  • Strained relationships due to your behaviour under the influence of alcohol
  • Participating in risky behaviour as a result of drinking (e.g. drink driving, unprotected sex)
  • Dependence and withdrawal symptoms (e.g. needing more alcohol to experience the same effects)
  • Losing control of your drinking – not being able to stop even if you want to 
  • Drinking and the after-effects (e.g. recovering from a hangover) start to take over your life.


Benefits of cutting back, or quitting, alcohol

Reducing your alcohol intake can boost your health and wellbeing.

Healthdirect — an Australian Government-funded service providing quality, approved health information and advice — states “cutting alcohol consumption means you are less likely to feel anxious or depressed. You’d also be at less risk of developing long-term health problems such as cancer, heart disease or liver cirrhosis (scarring).

“You might even lose weight, have more energy, and look better.”

The public health service adds that cutting back on drinking can also help improve your relationships and financial situation.

How can you be more responsible with alcohol?

As with any behavioural change, it can be a difficult process, according to Taylor.

“Social norms and peer pressure can make it difficult for people trying to reduce the amount they drink,” he says. 

“It’s not uncommon for people trying to drink less to face stigma and unsupportive responses from colleagues, friends, or family members. 

“Given the strong and consistent evidence around the harmful impacts of alcohol, it’s important to support people wanting to cut back or stop drinking, rather than making it more challenging.

Taylor listed several ways for people to support a mate or loved one trying to drink less, including:

  • Avoiding questioning the person’s decision
  • Commending them for focusing on their health
  • Asking how you can support them. This may include planning alcohol-free social activities
  • Providing non-alcoholic beverages if they visit you, or if you’re hosting a party
  • If you suspect the person is experiencing alcohol-related harms (including dependence), encourage them to talk to their GP. Giving up alcohol after drinking it for a long time is challenging because the body has to get used to functioning without it.  If a person dependent on alcohol stops drinking alcohol, they may be at risk of seizures or fits. Medical assistance may be required to help the person get through withdrawal safely.


Tips to reduce your drinking

If you do want to cut down but don’t know how, here are some tips:

  • Count your standard drinks so you know how much you're consuming
  • Drink slowly and put your glass down between sips
  • Eat before or while you're drinking
  • Avoid 'shouts' so you can drink at your own pace and don't feel pressured to consume more
  • Pace yourself — try starting with a non-alcoholic drink or having a 'spacer' every second or third drink
  • Try low-alcohol alternatives
  • Get active while drinking — play pool or dance instead of sitting.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns about your drinking, it’s best to book in to see your doctor.

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