What is binge drinking?
Binge drinking refers to the practice of consuming a large amount of drinks within a short period of time-usually defined as five or more drinks at a time for men and four or more drinks at one time for women.
Binge drinking is a major problem in South Africa. Based on admissions in a survey of 20‚000 adults‚ University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers say 4.8-billion alcoholic drinks were consumed in 2014/15. But in the same period‚ the South African Revenue Service collected excise duties on four times as many drinks.
While only 60% of South Africans drink alcohol – higher than the worldwide average of 52% – the level of alcohol consumed amounts to each citizen drinking between ten and 12.4 litres of pure alcohol a year. Worldwide consumption is, on average, 6.2 litres.
Alcohol is estimated to cost South Africa R37.9 billion annually. This includes costs around health care, crime and social welfare, alcohol treatment and prevention and road traffic accidents. And this does not include intangible costs such as premature morbidity, morality and absenteeism from world.
Why is binge drinking riskier than drinking normally?
- Your body can only process one unit of alcohol per hour.
- Two drinks may not seem like much.
- But drinking six units of alcohol within a short amount of time like an hour will raise your blood alcohol level and make you drunk quickly.
- Drinking over several hours as well as eating will have a lesser effect on your blood alcohol concentration.
What are the effects of binge drinking?
Regular drinking will have negative impacts on your health:
Accidents as well as falling over are common as being drunk affects co-ordination and balance. If the accident or fall is bad, it could result in anything ranging from minor injury to severe injury and even death. The chances of accidents or injury are between five to seven units of alcohol within a short amount of time. This is equal to about 2-3 “draft” glasses of beer.
- Too much alcohol in the system can stop your heart and cause you to choke on your vomit which could result in death.
- Binge drinking can affect your mood and your memory and, in the longer term, can lead to serious mental health problems.
- Binge drinking can lead to anti-social and aggressive behaviour which could have detrimental impacts on relations with loved ones and friends.
Are you a binge drinker?
If the following applies to you, there is a chance that you may be a binge drinker.
- You regularly drink more than one unit of alcohol per hour.
- You regularly drink for the purpose of getting drunk.
- You tend to drink quickly.
How to avoid binge drinking?
As binge-drinking is something that can have disastrous consequences on your health and well-being, you should aim to avoid it at all times.
Below are some tips that you should follow in order to avoid binge drinking.
- Keep track of and limit the amount of alcohol which you consume on a single occasion.
- Drink more slowly and try to alternate each drink with a non-alcoholic beverage and food.
- Avoid risky people and places. Always ensure that you are with people that you know and make sure that you have a plan to get home safely.
Getting help with binge drinking
If you or someone that you love is having problems with binge drinking, it may be a good idea to seek help.
You can obtain help by phoning Alcoholics Anonymous on 0861 HELP AA (435-722) or the South African depression and anxiety group on
0800 21 22 23.
A UNIT OF ALCOHOL
What is a unit of Alcohol?
A unit of alcohol is a simple way of estimating the amount of pure alcohol in a drink and stands at around 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol.
According to the South African breweries, as a general rule for responsible drinking, one should aim to consume nothing more than one unit of alcohol per hour which amounts to about 10ml of pure alcohol.
One should however aim to have 0 units of alcohol in their system while driving as even a unit of alcohol in the human body can impair driving ability and though processes.
The amount of units in a drink depends upon its size and strength.
A simple way to calculate the amount of units in a drink is to multiply the size of the bottle and the strength of the alcohol and then divide by 1000 which will give you the number of units. For examples, wine at 12% in a 750 ml bottle would have 9 units in it.
Rough estimates of the amount of units found in popular alcoholic beverages are as follows:
- Standard glass of wine: 2.1 units
- “Draft glass” of low strength beer: 2 units
- “Draft glass” of high strength beer: 3 units
- Bottle of lager: 1.7 units
- Cider: 1.5 units
- Single spirit with mix: 1 unit
On average, it takes an adult an hour to process one unit of alcohol. However if you weigh below 68 kg, it is important to realize that your body will take a longer amount of time to process alcohol. Women generally are affected more quickly and on smaller amounts of alcohol than men and so they need to drink slower and less than men.
AM I DRINKING TOO MUCH?
Some of us aren’t sure if we’re still within safe drinking parameters; even those of us who drink more than the recommended 14 units a week.
See if you recognise yourself often making any of these excuses.
I’m going to have a few drinks because…
“I haven’t got work tomorrow”
For some people, a drink or two after clocking off for the weekend or for a holiday marks the start of the fun and relaxation. People vary in whether they get hangover – some spoil their precious time off in that way.
If you want to toast your time off, set yourself a sensible limit and drink plenty of soft drinks when you’re out – that way you get to stay sober and you’re more likely to wake up hangover-free and ready to get on with your day.
“I’m out with my mates”
A night out with friends might risk ending up as a heavy drinking session, especially if you are all buying rounds.
Rounds often force you to drink quicker because everyone is under pressure to knock back the booze at the same rate as the fastest drinker.
Having a soft drink for some rounds will keep you sharp. And while opting out of buying rounds may feel like going against the grain, your mates may thank you for it if they’re also feeling the pressure.
“I’ve just been paid”
For many people, 5pm on pay day is the perfect time to go out with work mates and have a drink. But drinking right after work can be dangerous because it’s often the case that you and your work mates haven’t eaten since lunchtime. That means there’s nothing to slow down the absorption of alcohol, so you feel the effects of alcohol faster and increase your risk of doing or saying something you’ll regret the next morning.
Why not go to a restaurant rather than the pub? That way you can have something to eat and make sure that that the evening revolves around food rather than alcohol. You could even save money by looking out for a two-for-one or 50% off deal.
If you think your tolerance is rising, then think about whether you could be becoming dependent on alcohol for example, beginning to use it regularly to unwind after work, or to socialise.
But everybody who is drinking on a regular basis, reasonably heavily, will have a degree of alcohol dependence.
Or you have people who can have a few drinks and then can’t stop drinking. We see people around us doing this all the time.
Reset your tolerance
If your tolerance rises, and you drink more and more to get the same effect you once got from one glass of wine, then you could be heading into dangerous ground.
Luckily, if you think your tolerance is rising, fighting back is simple: just give your body a break from alcohol with some alcohol-free days each week.
It’s time to tackle your tolerance if…
- You’re taking two bottles of wine to the party in case you run out.
- The amount of wine in your weekly shop is increasing.
- You’re starting to finish off an evening of drinking with a night cap.
- You buy bigger glasses.
- You’re drinking more than the low risk unit guidelines.
Are you alcohol dependent?
It might be surprising to hear that you don’t always have to be drinking to extreme levels to become dependent on alcohol. Anyone who is drinking regularly will have a degree of alcohol dependency.
At the other end, you have people where alcohol is more important than their jobs, their families, than pretty much anything, including being alive.
People who drink heavily tend to keep increasing the amount they drink because they develop a tolerance to alcohol.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence
Like many other drugs, alcohol can be both physically and psychologically addictive. These are some signs to look out for that may suggest you’re becoming dependent on alcohol:
- Worrying about where your next drink is coming from and planning social, family and work events around alcohol
- Finding you have a compulsive need to drink and it hard to stop once you start
- Waking up and drinking – or feeling the need to have a drink in the morning
- Feelings of anxiety, alcohol-related depression and suicidal feelings – these can develop because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health
- Suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shaking and nausea, which stop once you drink alcohol.
ALCOHOL AND MENTAL HEALTH
Below are ways in which alcohol affects the brain and the varying mental health side effects that can result from excessive drinking.
Alcohol alters your brain chemistry
Our brains rely on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt that balance, affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions – and sometimes our long-term mental health. This is partly down to ‘neurotransmitters’, chemicals that help to transmit signals from one nerve (or neuron) in the brain to another.
The relaxed feeling you can get when you have that first drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol has caused in your brain. For many of us, a drink can help us feel more confident and less anxious.
That’s because it’s starting to depress the part of the brain we associate with inhibition.
But, as you drink more, more of the brain starts to be affected. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in to start with, when high levels of alcohol are involved, instead of pleasurable effects increasing, it is possible that a negative emotional response will take over.
Alcohol can be linked to aggression, you could become angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed.
Alcohol can actually increase anxiety and stress rather than reduce it
Unfortunately reaching for a drink won’t always have the effect you’re after.
While a glass of wine after a hard day might help you relax, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. This is because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health.
When we drink, we narrow our perception of a situation and don’t always respond to all the cues around us. If we’re prone to anxiety and notice something that could be interpreted as threatening in the environment, we’ll hone in on that and miss the other less threatening or neutral information. For example, we might focus on our partner talking to someone we’re jealous of, rather than notice all the other people they’ve been chatting to that evening.
Alcohol depression = a vicious cycle
If you drink heavily and regularly you’re likely to develop some symptoms of depression. It’s that good old brain chemistry at work again. Regular drinking lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood.
∙Drinking heavily can also affect your relationships with your partner, family and friends. It can impact on your performance at work. These issues can also contribute to depression.
∙If you use drink to try and improve your mood or mask your depression, you may be starting a vicious cycle.
Warning signs that alcohol is affecting your mood include:
- Poor sleep after drinking
- Feeling tired because of a hangover
- Low mood
- Experiencing anxiety in situations where you would normally feel comfortable
- How does alcohol affect your sleep? Tips for a restful night
- ∙Four ways to help prevent alcohol affecting your mood
- Use exercise and relaxation to tackle stress instead of alcohol.
- Learn breathing techniques to try when you feel anxious.
- Talk to someone about your worries. Don’t try and mask them with alcohol.
- Always be aware of why you’re drinking. Don’t assume it will make a bad feeling go away, it’s more likely to exaggerate it.
- Alcohol is linked to suicide, self-harm and psychosis
- Alcohol can make people lose their inhibitions and behave impulsively, so it can lead to actions they might not otherwise have taken – including self-harm and suicide.
Alcohol can damage your memory
Soon after drinking alcohol, your brain processes slow down and your memory can be impaired. After large quantities of alcohol, the brain can stop recording into the ‘memory store’.
That’s why you can wake up the next day with a ‘blank’ about what you said or did and even where you were. This short-term memory failure or ‘black out’ doesn’t mean that brain cells have been damaged, but frequent heavy sessions can damage the brain because of alcohol’s effect on brain chemistry and processes.
Drinking heavily over a long period of time can also have long-term effects on memory. Even on days when you don’t drink any alcohol, recalling what you did yesterday, or even where you have been earlier that day, becomes difficult.