What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is produced by fermentation – the action of yeast on liquids containing sugars and starches. Pure alcohol has no colour or taste. Alcoholic drinks vary in colour and taste because of the ingredients used in them.
Alcohol is a depressant drug and not a stimulant as many people think. It slows down the activity in the central nervous system including the brain. Depressants affect concentration and coordination, and slow the response time to unexpected situations.
In small quantities depressants – such as alcohol – cause people to become relaxed and lower their inhibitions. They feel more confident and often act in a more extroverted manner.
In larger quatities depressants can cause unconsciousness and death. Benzodiazepines , heroin and cannabis are also depressant drugs.
Alcohol use in Australia
- Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive, or mood-changing, recreational drug in Australia.
- People drink to relax, celebrate and have fun. Alcohol is part of most social occasions.
- One in two Australians (aged 20 to 59 years) drink alcohol at least once per week. In 1997 Australia had the second highest per capita consumption of absolute alcohol of the English speaking nations (the United Kingdom was the highest). 1, 3
- In 1997, over 3,600 Australians died due to the effects of alcohol. This represents 16% of all drug-related deaths and 2.8% of all deaths in Australia. 2
- In 1998, 48.6% of the population regularly drank alcohol at least one day per week. 3
- Males (59%) were more likely to drink regularly than females (39%). 3
- Over two-thirds of teenagers were recent drinkers (consumed in last 12 months), with 3 in every 10 being regular drinkers (at least one day per week) and 4 in every 10 being occasional drinkers (less than one day per week). Male teenagers (33%) were more likely than female teenagers (27%) to be regular drinkers. 3
- In 1998, from age 20 onwards, most drinkers were regular drinkers (consumed alcohol at least 1 day per week) 3
Alcohol and the body
Alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the stomach and the small intestine. Food in the stomach slows down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed but does not prevent intoxication or drunkenness. All alcohol that is drunk will reach the bloodstream, no matter how much food is in the stomach. Alcohol is distributed throughout the water in the body, but not into fatty tissue.
How alcohol leaves the body
Sobering up takes time. The liver breaks down about 91 per cent of alcohol, and a small amount leaves the body in urine, sweat and breath. The liver can only work at a fixed rate, getting rid of about one standard drink an hour. Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, fresh air or vomiting will not help.
If you drink a lot at night, you may still have a high level of alcohol in your bloodstream the next day.
Effects of alcohol
The effects of any drug (including alcohol) vary from person to person. It depends on many factors, such as how much you drink, how quickly the alcohol is consumed and whether the alcohol is consumed with other drugs.
It also depends on whether you are used to drinking, your mood and many other factors such as age, weight, sex and general health status. For example, as young people tend to drink alcohol less regularly than adults, they experience many of the immediate effects more strongly.
- After a few drinks… Feel happy, more relaxed and have less concentration and slow reflexes.
- A few more…Less inhibitions, more confidence, less coordination, slurred speech, intense moods – e.g. sad, happy, angry.
- A few more…Confusion, blurred vision, poor muscle control.
- More still… Nausea, vomiting, sleep.
- Even more may cause coma or death.
Heavy or ‘binge’ drinking
Binge drinking can be described as drinking heavily over a short period of time or drinking continuously over a number of days or weeks.
Binge drinking is harmful because it results in acute intoxication. As well as health risks, this can lead people to take risks and put themselves in dangerous situations.
Common effects of binge-drinking episodes are hangovers, headaches, nausea, shakiness and possible vomiting.
Long-term effects of alcohol
If you drink heavily over a long period of time, alcohol can cause damage to many parts of the body. Impairment of brain and liver functions can be permanent. Diet is often also poor, further affecting health. Emotional difficulties, such as depression and relationship problems, are also likely.
Possible health benefits of alcohol
Research shows that moderate amounts of alcohol can reduce the risk of developing some types of cardiovascular disease. Death rates from coronary heart disease have been shown to be lower among middle-aged males who consume small to moderate amounts of alcohol than among non-drinkers. However, it is important to remember that the risk of cirrhosis, some cancers and other diseases becomes greater with increased alcohol consumption.
Tolerance and dependence
People who drink heavily usually develop a tolerance to alcohol. They need to drink more to experience the same effect. As a result some people can drink large amounts of alcohol without appearing drunk. However, the amount of alcohol consumed can still damage their health.
People who regularly drink heavily may become dependent on alcohol. There are degrees of dependence, from mild dependency to compulsive drinking (often referred to as alcoholism). Dependence can be psychological or physical, or both.
People who are psychologically dependent on alcohol find that drinking becomes far more important than other activities in their life.
Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to alcohol. The body gets used to functioning with alcohol present.
If a physically dependent person suddenly stops drinking they will have withdrawal symptoms because their body has to readjust to functioning without alcohol. Symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, anxiety, inability to sleep, irritability, confusion, tremors and sweating. In severe cases withdrawal may cause convulsions, cramps, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations and even death.
Anyone considering withdrawing from alcohol should first see their doctor.
In Australia, there are a number of drug treatment options. Some aim solely for the user to achieve a drug-free lifestyle. Others recognise abstinence as one option, however, due to individual circumstances, may not be possible in certain situations. The overall aim of these programs is to reduce the harm/risks related to a person’s drug use.
Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person’s specific situation and usually involves a combination of methods. The different options include individual counselling, group therapy, medication and supervised/home withdrawal.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding
Alcohol crosses the placenta to the baby. It can cause problems in pregnancy such as bleeding, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth.
It is not known whether or not there is any safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Nor is it certain if any particular stage of pregnancy is the most vulnerable to the effects of drinking.
Babies of women who are heavily dependent on alcohol can suffer withdrawal after birth. Symptoms can include tremors, irritability, fits and bloated abdomen.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that there is no safe level of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and that no alcohol is the safest approach.
If trying to become pregnant, limit your alcohol consumption to infrequent, small amounts.
While the effects of drinking alcohol on breast-feeding are unclear, it is known that alcohol is excreted into breast milk. It may be that having only one drink occasionally is safe, but in general it is better to avoid using alcohol as much as possible.
During the first 12 months of the baby’s life the brain is still developing and may be damaged by alcohol. Alcohol use can also reduce the milk supply.
Check with your doctor, or other health professional, if you are taking or planning to take any substances during pregnancy, including alcohol, prescribed and over-the-counter medications.
Alcohol and other drugs
Combining alcohol with any other drug (including over-the-counter or prescribed medications) can be unpleasant and dangerous. The effects of one drug may be greatly increased by the other. Using alcohol with other depressant drugs such as sleeping pills can be potentially fatal, as the central nervous system may switch off brain and heart activity.
Seek advice about the effect of combining alcohol with prescribed and over-the-counter medications.
Alcohol and sex
Some people have sex when they have been drinking and regret it when they sober up. People who have been drinking are also more likely to have unsafe sex that can result in pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
Alcohol and social problems
Excessive alcohol use may contribute to many personal and social problems:
- Family problems
- Financial problems
- Legal problems: Drink-driving may lead to fines, loss of licence and even imprisonment.
- Work problems: Excessive alcohol use causes illness resulting in absenteeism, poor work performance and accidents at work.
- Sexual problems: Alcohol reduces your ability to perform sexually.
- Accidents: The risk of road, boating and work-related accidents is increased.
- Appearance: Alcohol can affect the condition of skin and hair and the high calorie content of alcoholic drinks can lead to weight gain.
Alcohol and the law
People under 18 are breaking the law if they:
- buy alcohol
- receive or possess alcohol
- drink alcohol in a hotel or public place (such as a street, park or beach).
But the law is not broken if a person under 18 drinks alcohol while having a meal on a licenced premise with a parent, guardian, husband or wife. Nor is the law broken when alcohol is consumed at home or in someone else’s home.
People over 18
Alcohol use is legal for those 18 or over. However, there are laws governing how alcohol can be used:
- Hotels must not serve alcohol to people they believe are drunk, or people under 18. Heavy penalties apply for breaking these laws.
- In some areas local by-laws make it illegal to drink alcohol in public places (i.e. beaches, parks or streets). Check with the local council about the by-laws in your area.
- It is illegal to give alcohol to someone under 18, unless given by a parent, guardian, husband or wife.
- It is illegal to send someone under 18 to buy alcohol for you.
Blood alcohol concentration
Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. A BAC of .05 means the person has .05 grams of alcohol in every 100ml of their blood.
As the liver metabolises alcohol at around one standard drink per hour, the BAC level drops unless more alcohol is consumed.
BAC is measured with a breathalyser, or by analysing a sample of blood.
Factors affecting your BAC
The more a person drinks, the higher their BAC. But two people who drink the same amount might register quite different BACs.
Body size: A smaller person will have a higher BAC than a larger person because the alcohol is concentrated in a smaller body mass.
Empty stomach: Someone with an empty stomach will reach a higher BAC sooner than someone who has just eaten a meal. Food in the stomach slows down the rate at which alcohol passes into the bloodstream.
Body fat: People with a lot of body fat tend to have higher BACs because alcohol is not absorbed into fatty tissue, so alcohol is concentrated in a smaller body mass.
Women: After drinking the same amount of alcohol, a woman will almost always have a higher BAC than a male.
Because of all these variable factors, counting the number of standard drinks you consume can only give a rough guide to your BAC.
Women and alcohol
Research has shown that alcohol affects women differently than men.
Higher BAC: If a man and a woman drink exactly the same amount, the woman will almost always have a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A woman’s body contains more fatty tissue and less water than a man’s body and women are often smaller than men. As a result the alcohol will be more concentrated in a woman’s body, producing a higher BAC. In addition, women break down alcohol more slowly than men do because they have less of a particular enzyme in the lining of their stomach.
Health problems: Women may develop liver damage and other health problems at lower levels of alcohol consumption than men.
Women who drink alcohol are more likely to develop breast cancer and gynaecological problems than women who don’t drink.
Hormonal differences: Some research suggests that a woman’s reaction to alcohol may vary at different stages of her menstrual cycle due to differences in hormone levels. Women who take the contraceptive pill may take longer to get rid of alcohol in their bodies than women not on the ‘pill’.
For all these reasons, health authorities recommend that women should drink less than men.
Alcohol and driving
It is safest not to drink alcohol at all if you are going to drive. Alcohol is involved in about one-third of all serious motor vehicle accidents. It is illegal to drive with a BAC over and including .05.
Probationary drivers (P platers) must maintain a zero BAC (i.e. their BAC must equal zero).
Drivers of heavy trucks, buses, trains and trams are now subject to a zero BAC level in most of Australia. Motorcyclists in their first year of driving also must maintain a zero BAC.
Penalties for drink driving offences include disqualification from driving for a set period, fines and imprisonment.
In Victoria, a BAC reading of .15 or more results in suspension of the driver’s licence on the spot, until the case is heard in court.
To stay below .05 BAC, drivers are advised to limit their drinking to:
For men: No more than two standard drinks in the first hour and no more than one standard drink every hour after that.
For women: No more than one standard drink in the first hour and no more than one every hour after that.
This is a conservative estimate that is designed to minimise the risk of exceeding the legal limit to drive. Because everyone is different, some people need to drink less to maintain a BAC level below the legal limit. This guide is based on advice from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
Do not drive if there is any doubt. Make alternative arrangements: call a taxi, get a lift with someone who has not been drinking, or stay overnight.
The use of standard drinks can help people to monitor their alcohol consumption and exercise control over the amount they drink.
Different types of alcoholic drinks contain different amounts of pure alcohol. A standard drink is defined as one that contains 10 grams of pure alcohol.
These are all equal to approximately one standard drink:
2 full strength pots of beer + 1 small glass of wine + 1 rum and coke = 4 standard drinks.
A 285 ml container of beer is called:
- a ‘pot’ in Vic, Qld and Tas
- a ‘middy’ in NSW, ACT and WA
- a ‘schooner’ in SA
- a ‘handle’ in NT
Keep in mind:
Some hotels don’t serve standard drinks – they might be bigger. Large wine glasses can hold two standard drinks – or even more!
Drinks served at home often contain more alcohol than a standard drink.
Cocktails can contain as many as five or six standard drinks, depending on the recipe.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia defines low-risk drinking as:
- no more than four standard drinks per day for men
- no more than two standard drinks per day for women
- at least two alcohol-free days a week.
This table shows the level of risk your drinking carries:
Standard drinks per day
Scale of risk
up to 2
anything over 4
up to 4
anything over 6
‘Saving up’ drinks
‘Saving up’ drinks for a few days and then having a binge will not maintain a level of low-risk drinking.
How to drink less
Start with a soft drink: You will drink much faster if you are thirsty, so have a non-alcoholic drink to quench your thirst before you start drinking alcohol.
Use standard drinks: Monitor how much alcohol you drink. By converting what you drink into standard drinks, it is easier to keep track.
Drink slowly: Take sips and not gulps. Put your glass down between sips.
Eat before or while you are drinking: Eating slows your drinking pace and fills you up. If you have a full stomach, alcohol will be absorbed more slowly.
Avoid salty snacks: Salty food like chips or nuts make you thirsty, so you drink more.
Avoid shouts: Don’t get involved in shouts or rounds. Drink at your own pace – not someone else’s. If you do get stuck in a shout, buy a non-alcoholic drink when it’s your turn.
One drink at a time: Don’t let people top up your drinks. It is hard to keep track of how much alcohol is drunk.
Pace yourself: Try having a ‘spacer’, a non-alcoholic drink every second or third drink.
Stay busy: If you have something to do, you tend to drink less. Play pool or dance – don’t just sit and drink.
Try the low-alcohol alternative: There is a wide range of light beers available now. Low-alcohol or non-alcoholic wines are also becoming more available. Most places that serve cocktails also serve non-alcoholic versions.
Have alcohol-free days: Have at least two days a week when you don’t drink at all.
Keep a diary: Write down how much you drink each day. This can make you more aware of exactly how much you drink.
Be assertive: Don’t be pressured into drinking more than you want or intend to. Tell your friends ‘thanks but no thanks’.
Alcohol can be an enjoyable part of life. But like all drugs, alcohol causes problems when misused.