More than 30 percent of American adults have abused alcohol or suffered from alcoholism at some point in their lives, and few have received treatment, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH).
But are we all alcoholics? Before you ask yourself if you’re drinking too much, here’s a brief rundown of the problems it can cause:
- Liver damage
- Stomach disorders (ulcers, gastritis, acid reflux)
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Cancer (mouth, throat, gullet, stomach, liver, pancreas, colon, lung)
- Cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease, irregular heart rhythms)
- Neurological problems (seizures, head injury, brain injury)
- Mental health problems (anxiety, depression, psychosis, suicide)
- Sexual problems (erectile dysfunction and infertility)
- Joint problems (gout, fractures)
- Social problems (divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, financial problems, unsafe sex)
When is drinking likely to cause me harm?
Drinking in excess of the recommended safe limits is likely to put you at risk of harm but there are additional things to consider.
Have you ever found it difficult to stop drinking once you have started or failed to do what was expected of you because of drinking? Have you ever discovered you cannot remember what happened the night before or felt guilty after drinking? This could indicate hazardous drinking and you should seek professional advice.
Have you ever needed an alcoholic drink to get you going in the morning or discovered you have injured yourself or someone else as result of your drinking? Has anyone ever expressed a concern about your drinking or advised you to cut down? This could also indicate harmful drinking and you should seek a professional opinion.
Have you got a history of depression, anxiety or self-harm? Have you got established high blood pressure, liver disease or stomach problems? Have you been a frequent attender to your local genito-urinary medicine clinic or A&E department? You are at increased risk of harm from alcohol and should seek medical advice.
Try this questionnaire from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). With 26 questions, this simple self-test will help you understand the role that alcohol plays in your life.
How much alcohol can I drink?
If you choose to drink, do so only in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.
As a rough guide, a drink is considered to be 1oz. of 80-proof alcohol, or a 12oz. glass of ordinary strength beer (5% ABV), or a 5oz. glass of table wine. Most bottled drinks now tell you how many units of alcohol are in the bottle so it’s worth checking the label. For specifics, try this drink size calculator from the NIH.
What are signs I’m drinking too much?
You may find you have dilated facial blood vessels giving you a flushed appearance, your eyes appear blood shot, your weight has increased or your hand when held steady has a tremor.
You may have also noticed new little red spidery blood vessels on your chest and red and tough palms which cause curling of the little and ring fingers. You may have discovered your urine is dark orange or your poo is pale and the white of your eyes and skin may adopt an orange tinge. These signs could be innocent but if you’re drinking too much they could indicate significant liver disease.
Are there tests to see if I’ve caused myself damage?
Yes. If you see your doctor they are likely to check your blood pressure and measure your body mass index. Blood tests may be recommended but are not always indicated. An ultrasound scan of your liver may also be discussed with you (an ultrasound is a test which uses sound waves to make up images of organs in your body. It doesn’t hurt.)
What treatment is available?
If drinking is putting your health at risk your doctor will talk you through the treatment options. Often some advice and encouragement is all that is needed but your doctor would normally also direct you one of many support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other 12-step programs that provide peer support for people quitting or cutting back on their drinking. Combined with treatment led by health professionals, these groups can offer a valuable added layer of support. You can get the Addicaid app for iOS & Android to help you find a meeting near you.
Occasionally more structured interventions are needed such as counselling, medication or referral onto a specialist alcohol unit. Sometimes admission to hospital is needed. Your doctor will also be able to assess any current health issues which have arisen as a result of your drinking.
What can I do to help myself?
Research shows that most people who have alcohol problems are able to reduce their drinking or quit entirely. There are many roads to getting better. Recognizing that you’re drinking harmfully and deciding to address it is the crucial first step. Think about situations where you might find yourself drinking or triggers that prompt you to drink and look at ways of avoiding or minimising these encounters. Introducing a new interest or hobby is likely to be beneficial and simple measures such as ordering a non-alcoholic beverage before every alcoholic drink or eating some food before drinking can also be helpful. You may find keeping a diary of your alcohol consumption useful. It might be shocking initially to see an honest total of your weekly intake but if you are motivated, as the weeks pass, this tally will drop and hopefully bring you back within the safe drinking limits. The important thing is to remain engaged in whatever method you choose. Ultimately, receiving treatment can improve your chances of success.