Do You Really Need That Christmas Drink?

The festive season means the drinks will be free-flowing at parties across the nation - with even the most sensible drinkers casting caution to the wind. But what are those festive tipples doing to your health?

Tis the season to be merry - and the time of year we assume partying MUST be partnered with drinking.

Even those who are generally sensible tipplers throughout the rest of the year seem to cast caution to the wind around holiday season, as drinks flow freely across the nation.

In reality, most of us probably aren't either permanently stone cold sober or among those anti-social binge drinkers. But treading a fine line between being a party-pooper constantly saying 'no' to extra drinks or suffering the hazards of hangovers by saying 'yes' too often can be tough.

"It's particularly difficult during this season," agrees Dr Rachel Seabrook, research manager at the UK Institute of Alcohol Studies.

"There's so much pressure to drink because it's associated with 'having fun'. However, it's a good time to take stock of your drinking levels, recognise you may be tempted to drink more and try and set a sensible personal limit and stick to it."

She points out that excessive drinking damages the liver, and the symptoms may not be apparent until it is too late.

"Women should bear in mind they are able to tolerate less alcohol than men. Also, many women drink wine and, unlike beers, this can be served in varying sizes of glasses, which makes it hard to recognise how much they've consumed.

"A glass holding 250ml of wine can amount to around three units - the equivalent of a woman's maximum alcohol intake for a day. Some glasses sold for personal use can hold as much as 440ml - that's the equivalent to half a bottle of wine."

Recent research by Cardiff University found that 30 to 40-year-old women were more likely to abuse alcohol than other groups.

And Richard Hammersley, professor of health psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University believes that people tend to regard the 'safe' drinking limits as a drinking allowance, rather than the maximum limit of what they should drink.

"Most heavy drinking in the UK, especially female, isn't about being a drunken lout. A lot of it's done in 'civilised' situations like dinner parties or at restaurants," he says.

"It means people are less likely to recognise their drinking habits are putting their health at risk. Unfortunately binge drinking is such an emotive, negative phrase now that people don't listen to any advice on drinking at all.

"You can be damaging your health without doing anything anyone with common sense would describe as bingeing.

"Heavy episodic drinking can cause as much damage, and yet you may not get a hangover, misbehave or notice any ill effects."

Hammersley says the simple message is to drink less - and try to have alcohol free days.

"If you know you are going to drink in the evening don't drink at lunchtime as well," he says.

"It's possible to enjoy yourself without alcohol and there are huge benefits attached to that."

So check out what type of drinker you are - and our experts' advice and tips on safely toasting the season.

SAFE DRINKING LIMITS


:: Men should have no more than three to four units of alcohol per day (maximum of 21 units per week).

:: Women should have no more than two units of alcohol per day (maximum of 14 units per week).

:: You can't save all of the units up until the weekend! Try not to drink alcohol every day - if you are a moderately heavy drinker give yourself a rest for at least a couple of days a week.

:: STRESS RELIEF DRINKER


A recent survey found that 80% of women who drank more than 14 units a week said they did so to wind down after a stressful day.

"These drinkers are much more vulnerable to becoming dependent on alcohol than social drinkers," Dr Seabrook says.

"Although alcohol may temporarily dampen your brain's activity and appear to dull those nagging worries, it's actually a depressant.

"Regularly drinking to excess can make you more anxious, not less."

WHAT CAN I DO?
Cutting down your alcohol intake - or even quitting - will almost immediately steady your mood and help you feel more able to deal with stress.

"Drinking less isn't complicated, and can pay big dividends in health terms," Professor Hammersley says.

See a doctor to learn about healthier ways to alleviate stress. Adapt your lifestyle to take in new activities such as talking to friends or exercise, which will relax you and boost your mood.

:: SOLO DRINKER


You always keep a stock of alcohol in the house, and look forward to getting home and pouring yourself a drink - or four!

"If you habitually drink alone at home, find it hard to stop once you've started, or try to conceal the amount you drink, alarm bells should start ringing," Dr Seabrook says.

"The problem with this sort of drinking is that the amount you drink can easily creep up because there's no worry about travelling or driving home, or more importantly probably no one to note your intake or criticise it."

WHAT CAN I DO?
Keep an alcohol diary and record honestly what you've drunk in a week - the results might surprise you.

If the levels are of concern visit www.alcoholguidelines.gov.au for contact details on alcohol information services in your state or territory, or make an appointment with your local GP.

:: PARTY DRINKER


You regard parties as occasions where normal drinking rules don't apply and you can hit the booze hard. In the festive season that can mean a big escalation in your drinking levels.

"Many people believe that there are 'special' occasions where they are literally obliged to drink, or don't feel comfortable socialising without alcohol," Professor Hammersley says.

"They may be pleaser-type personalities who are unable to say 'no' and although aware of the risks of excessive drinking, blame the peer pressure of everyone around them drinking and urging them to have more."

Dr Seabrook points out that "there's nothing wrong with having fun and a few drinks, but drinking to excess regularly is harmful.

"In the long term it leaves you exposed to liver damage and in the short term it increases the likelihood of your taking risks perhaps by picking up a sexually transmitted infection from a one-night stand, or having an accident on the road.

WHAT CAN I DO?
If you have difficulty saying 'no' to a drink or top-up, decide before you go to the party how much you want to drink and stick to it.

"Don't decide after a few glasses because your will-power will have disappeared," Dr Seabrook advises.

"Once you've got used to saying no it can be a really satisfying feeling to be in control of your drinking."

Eat before you party, and slow down drinking by alternating a glass of wine with a glass of water, or a soft drink with a spirit.

:: DRINKING FOR TWO


You like to drink when you're together with your partner at home, and it's part of the ritual of relaxing and being together.

"Alcohol is a relaxant and for some people it's a tool they think they need," Professor Hammersley says.

"Be aware if you're looking forward to the wine more than the time you spend with your partner.

"Also, many people use drink as a reward - in much the same way as they do food. They will say that at the end of a day they 'deserve' a drink and it's easy for the amount they consume to rise from one bottle to two or more."

Half a bottle a day per person puts you in the medium to high-risk category, and exceeding 35 units a week means you're probably dependent.

WHAT CAN I DO?
Try to do other things as a couple - watching a film, enjoying a hobby, simply talking.

"Ask yourself, if the alcohol were taken out of the equation, whether you'd still sit together or be somewhere else separately in the house," Professor Hammersley suggests.

And he advises, "Don't be afraid to throw alcohol away. If you don't finish a cup of tea you don't force yourself to finish it."
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