HOW MANY GLASSES MAKE YOU A HEAVY DRINKER?
10? 15? Actually, it’s eight. Here’s why it might be time to find your booze balance
IT’S A SOBERING THOUGHT
in the season of good cheer, but for all the publicity around other drugs, alcohol is the most abused substance in South Africa and globally.
‘Research over the past 20 years indicates that women are drinking more, drinking younger, and indulging in more bingedrinking,’ says Claire Savage, senior training officer at the South African National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence (Sanca) Durban Alcohol and Drug Centres.
About 130 people die in South Africa each day of alcohol-related causes, says prof Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Unit at the SA Medical Research Council. And according to our Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Olive Dlamini, we have one of the highest average individual consumption rates of alcohol and rank highest for binge-drinking in the world.
Measuring the problem
But how much is too much? You’re a ‘heavy drinker’ if you have eight or more drinks a week (men can have 14), according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And South African women top the list of heavy-drinking women in Africa, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report last year – we tie with Zambia. It’s small consolation that Africa ranked below Europe and the US,estimated to have a per capita alcohol consumption of 12.18 litres and 8.67 litres respectively, compared with our 6.15 litres a week. We ranked 55th out of 189 countries in the heaviestdrinking stakes.
Of special concern is our bingedrinking. The WHO reported that 41.2% of South African women were binge drinkers, meaning they drink in a way that brings their blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08g/dl – which typically occurs after four standard drinks in two hours for women ( ve drinks for men). A standard drink is 360ml of beer (5% alcohol content); 150ml of wine (12%), a typical wine glass; or 45ml of 80-proof (40%) distilled spirits like gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, a tot or shot.
What’s driving us to drink?
Women drink for a cocktail of reasons, says Claire – from attempting to escape from the distress of poverty or heartache, to masking insecurities, shedding inhibitions and just ‘feeling good’. And though it’s not a problem in moderation, it can easily tip into abuse. This has become much easier in recent years because the social stigma that traditionally gave women a greater sense of shame about drinking and getting drunker than men has faded, she says – and advertising and celebrity drinkers have given alcohol acceptability, even allure.
Women are also increasingly driven by demanding careers and their multiple roles as partners and parents. On top of this, there’s the pressure of being constantly on call, and the new worries social media brings, from fear of missing out to feeling we must compete with others’ carefully edited posts and airbrushed images.
Counting the costs
The temptation to escape with a drink can be high, but the cost of overdoing it is higher. ‘Heavy drinking causes impairment of the central nervous system, particularly your brain,’ Claire says. It dulls senses, slows reactions, impairs sexual performance and memory, distorts judgement, affects concentration and coordination and brings mood swings and depression. It also raises your risk of everything from breast cancer to hypertension, ulcers, liver damage, osteoporosis and reproductive problems, including infertility; and if you’re pregnant you put the foetus at serious risk.
As for the argument that alcohol, especially red wine, can be bene cial, ‘some research indicates that moderate alcohol consumption (a glass a day) may elevate good cholesterol, but the fact is that prolonged drinking has been associated with strokes and heart failure,’ Claire says. Charles agrees, saying that even one drink a day can increase your chances of breast cancer by about 20%.
Spotting the signs
When it comes to slipping from social drinker to problem drinker, traumatic or disruptive early life experiences such as divorce, abandonment or abuse make you especially vulnerable, as does alcoholism or psychiatric illness in your family, says Charles. Genetics have a role, but are responsible for only half your risk for alcoholism. Environmental factors account for the rest – peers, family and alcohol availability.
Early warning signs to watch out for are drinking to relieve stress, and a high tolerance for alcohol. ‘People who can “hold their drinks” are not strong, but potentially alcoholics,’ Claire says. Other signs include, gulping drinks at parties, needing a drink for your ‘nerves’, minimising or lying about your drinking, feeling guilty and getting defensive about it, and missing work because of it.
‘Not everybody who drinks alcohol abuses it,’ says Dr Osborn Mahanjana, chief executive of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use. He believes the ‘responsible drinking’ message is reaching people, and quotes WHO statistics which suggest 40% of South Africans drink alcohol, ‘but only 10% abuse it’. ‘We simply need to get people to drink less; to binge less frequently,’ he says.
The key is to assess your drinking. ‘Be honest about how much you’re consuming,’ Claire says. ‘If you’re having more than two drinks a day, make a commitment to cut down, if not to stop drinking altogether.’ Identify your triggers, change your routines and plan how you’re going to socialise and deal with different pressure situations. If you can’t do this, get professional help.