It’s front and centre in all the college party movies (American Pie, anyone?!). It can be found in cups, glasses and cans at virtually every university event, from ‘O’ week to graduation. In fact, it’s one of the most widely used psychoactive substances in the world. But how much do you really know about alcohol? Here we bust the myths and break down the warning signs. So you can understand the difference between having a few drinks, and a few drinks too many.
But first, let’s start with the basics…
What exactly is alcohol and why’s it so popular?
Glad you asked. Technically ‘ethanol’, the drug we know as alcohol is a powerful and addictive depressant that’s produced by yeast digesting the sugars in foods like grapes or grains. Once in your bloodstream, it eventually enters your brain, where it produces feelings that differ from person to person, but may include increased confidence, relaxation, even euphoria. Sounds great, right? And, when enjoyed in moderation (see below), alcohol can be a fantastic social lubricant.
It’s legal, so it can’t be that bad for you, right?
Wrong. Drink no more than two standard drinks maximum per day – in conjunction with a healthy diet and regular exercise – and you’ll most likely avoid most of alcohol’s negative health impacts. But when you drink more, and often, the health risks of alcohol abuse can be life-threatening, including several forms of cancer, liver and heart disease, brain damage, stroke, birth defects, anxiety and depression. Plus, the social implications and societal costs, like road deaths and increased family violence and assaults, are extreme. The key here is moderation – a word we’ll keep coming back to. So let’s break it down.
Gender, age, weight, mood and ethnicity are all factors here, so we’ll start with some general rules of thumb. Australian safe drinking guidelines recommend healthy adults should:
Drink no more than 2 standard drinks per day
One schooner of beer (425ml) or about 150ml of wine (which is a fair bit less than you generally get poured in a bar).
Drink no more than 4 standard drinks in one sitting
Doesn’t sound like much, right? Try this nifty drink calculator, and you’ll get the idea.
Binge drinking debunked
Uni students are seen to be among the heaviest drinkers in Australia. And while the notion of ‘binge drinking’ may conjure images of upside-down keg stands and festival pre-loading, the definition may surprise you. Bingeing is classified as 7+ standard drinks in a sitting for men, and 5+ standard drinks in a sitting for women. If that sounds like you, it’s time to take stock of where your drinking habits are leading.
This is where things get serious. Drink too much alcohol, and you can become physically and psychologically dependent – otherwise known as alcoholism. Alcoholics are not just people in meetings. You or someone you know may be experiencing alcoholism if there is:
- a daily compulsion to drink
- lack of self-control over the amount of alcohol consumed
- memory loss experience after, or blackouts during, drinking sessions
- nausea, shakiness, sweating and anxiety after periods of heavy drinking
- a noticeable increased tolerance to alcohol
- a need to hide or lie about alcohol consumption to friends and loved ones
- a need to drink alcohol in the morning, especially after a heavy drinking session
- a drinking habit or practice leading to everyday struggles with things like study, work or relationships.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing ANY of these symptoms, it’s time to seek help.
How much alcohol do you really consume – really?
Most of us drink while we’re out and about, socialising and having fun. And what we’re poured in a glass at the pub is often the equivalent of 1.5–2.5 standard drinks. So it can be hard to keep track of alcohol intake. If you’re not sure if you or someone you know falls into the category of ‘heavy’ or ‘binge’ drinker, tracking alcohol consumption is a great place to start. There are plenty of apps, like AlcoDroid and AlcoTrack, and websites like this one or this one, to help you get a handle on exactly how much you’re drinking (as opposed to, how much you imagined you were).
OK, so you’re drinking too much – what next?
Talking to a general practitioner (GP) is a great place to start. At Swinburne, we offer a full range of confidential health services. Depending on your drinking habits, your doctor may recommend simple treatments like counselling and behavioural techniques. For more severe alcoholism, doctors can help with recommending medication, detox facilities, and peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Smart Recovery. Remember, our medical staff are there to help, not judge. So, even if you’re not quite sure but keen to find out more, it’s always worth a visit.
OK, so someone I know is drinking too much – what next?
Living with a friend or loved one who drinks excessively can be tough. Whether you’re feeling angry, anxious, guilty or stressed about somebody else’s drinking, it’s important to get a conversation started. From here, you can offer support: like accompanying them to a GP visit or taking them out to alcohol-free social events. Here are some tips for opening up the conversation:
- Do your research and arrive prepared for exploring possible treatment ideas
- Practise what you’d like to say with someone else first, to help stay on-track on the day
- Choose a quiet, low-distraction environment (ideally not the pub)
- Listen, and try to be calm and supportive – never combative.
Remember, you might not get through to them first time. But with the conversation started, you’re one step closer to helping address the problem.
So, where’s that next drink taking you?
Zonked, smashed, maggoted, blind and s@*t-faced – getting drunk may seem like a university rite-of-passage, but for some it can prove a dangerous slope to poor decisions or eventually, alcoholism. By understanding your limits, and implementing strategies to stick to them, you can limit the impacts of alcohol on your physical and mental wellbeing. And by opening up the conversation around alcohol – with a GP, friend or loved one – we can work together to ensure that the next drink is not the next drink too many.