Alcohol is the most widely used social drug in Australia. While most people don’t drink to excess, unfortunately two out of five Australians binge drink, with surveys showing this number may be increasing, and one in five of us drink at levels that cause long term health problems.

As a result, thousands of Australians die every year due to alcohol. The majority of them are related to road traffic accidents, self-inflicted injuries and suicide. Many others are due to liver damage and cancer. Drinking too much alcohol is also associated with increased tobacco and cannabis use, and heroin overdose.

Alcohol and the body

Alcohol is quickly absorbed through the stomach into the blood and distributed throughout the body. In the brain, alcohol can initially feel stimulating and reduce inhibitions, but in fact it slows down the brain. Short term changes can include poor judgement and memory lapses. In the long term, excessive alcohol intake can make brain cells (neurons) shrink and function less efficiently.

The liver is the main organ that removes alcohol from the body, but in the process produces toxins that harm itself. Other organs may also be negatively affected including the heart and pancreas.

Health impacts

Binge drinking is defined as consecutive drinks without allowing alcohol in your blood to go down to zero, in order to become intoxicated. The impacts may include a stroke (brain damage), irregular heartbeat, injuries and death due to accidents, alcohol poisoning (overdose), unprotected sex, stolen property and an increased risk of becoming addicted.

The long term health problems of regularly drinking excessive amounts of alcohol (addiction) include:

  • Brain damage such as dementia
  • Liver cancer, hepatitis (inflammation), cirrhosis
  • Heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Cancers
  • Reduced sexual desire

What to do

The clear recommendation is either don’t drink or only drink in moderation. If the choice is moderation, start by learning how much is ‘one standard’ alcohol drink, for example, 285 ml (one pot/middy/half-pint) of regular beer.

The guideline for drinking for adult men and women is no more than two standard drinks on any day. For women planning to become pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s safest not to drink. For under 18 year olds, it’s safest not to drink either, but if over 15 year olds do drink, it should be under adult supervision and the same amount as adults.

Expert assistance can often help. Speak to your GP, visit http://www.alcohol.gov.au/ or ring Alcoholics Anonymous 1300 222222