The effects of binge drinking every weekend The effects of binge drinking every weekend

Figures from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’s (FARE) annual poll reveal that 40 per cent of Australians drink to get drunk, and more than a quarter drink so much that they can’t remember what happened the night before. Although the numbers who drink continue to decline, statistics point to an increasing culture of extreme drinking among those who do.

Worryingly, results from the survey have led researchers to predict a future surge in chronic diseases, such as liver cirrhosis, cancers, and nervous and cardiovascular system damage because people simply don’t register the risks associated with drinking.

We know the warnings, but we're just not listening

While many drinkers admits an underlying awareness of the potential harm they might be causing themselves, a desire to live in the moment and social expectations are persistent triggers to binge drinking. Many drinkers report friendship bonds have been formed around heavy drinking sessions, and alcohol gave them the confidence to meet new people.

Despite the guilt drinkers feel after a heavy night on the booze, the FARE poll results suggest the link between drinking alcohol and dire health consequences is still not getting through. What is also going under the radar, and is potentially just as damaging, is the collective view around what constitutes “moderate” levels of drinking.

The guidelines on healthy drinking

The National Health and Medical Research Council advises people drink no more than two standard drinks a day to avoid harm from alcohol-related disease or injury over a lifetime, yet Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that around one in five adults exceeds these guidelines. More than one in six of FARE poll respondents said they consumed six or more standard drinks per occasion.

Jill Stark gave up alcohol for over a year

Jill Stark, The Sunday Age health reporter and author of High Sobriety: my year without booze, says although the guidelines may seem stringent, it’s time for Australians to stop accepting their drinking habits as part of the broader culture. Most of us would be hard-pressed to recall a wedding, birthday, barbecue or sporting event where alcohol wasn’t readily available. But normal, says Stark, doesn’t equate to right.

“Evidence shows beyond the recommended levels, your health risk increases,” Stark says. “A bottle of wine is seven standard drinks. You might come home and share a bottle of wine with your partner – that’s 3.5 drinks and you’re over the guidelines. People do that routinely, every night.”

Stark had a 14-month hiatus from alcohol after realising in her mid-30s she was “living a life in denial” of her reliance on alcohol to relax, socialise and deal with stress. She underwent brain scans and cognitive tests to investigate the subtle, cumulative effects it can have on our health, and was staggered to learn how strong some of the causal links to longer term illnesses are – one in five breast cancer cases is attributed to alcohol consumption, for instance. She says while it’s important not to alarm people, there needs to be greater understanding that alcohol is a group-one carcinogen, alongside tobacco and asbestos. Some scientists even claim that if alcohol was introduced into society today, it would be a banned substance.

“It’s important to make people aware of the more subtle changes that can happen and look at habits in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They need to ask: ‘If I carry on like this, when I’m 50 I may have the cognitive function of a 70 year-old. Is that something I’m willing to accept in exchange for these big weekends?’” says Stark.

Stark hasn’t sworn off booze for good, but is relishing a newfound resilience in being able to enjoy one beer instead of downing the whole six pack. “I do a lot of yoga, meditation, go for a run, or sit with feelings rather than trying to anaesthetise them with alcohol, which I used to do routinely,” she says. “We use all sorts of things – whether alcohol or food or the internet – to distract ourselves, but there’s nothing wrong with just sitting with emotions ... you find they tend to dissipate a lot more quickly.”

Having faced exclusion and judgement from many in her social circle after stemming her drinking, Stark is determined to change people’s responses to those who choose to drink moderately or not at all.

What is moderate?

The National Council recommends men and women drink no more than two standard drinks per day to reduce health risks over a lifetime. One standard drink is the equivalent of 375mL of mid-strength beer or around 100mL of wine.

Tips for drinking:

  • Set limits for yourself and stick to them.
  • Start with non-alcoholic drinks and alternate with alcoholic drinks.
  • Drink slowly.
  • Try drinks with a lower alcohol content.
  • Eat before or while you are drinking.
  • If you participate in rounds of drinks, try to include some non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Make at least two days a week alcohol-free.

If you believe you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol, contact the Australian Drug Foundation on 1300 858 584.