There is NO safe limit for alcohol ingestion. Government guidelines of 14 units per week represent LOW RISK, and not NO RISK.
Recent and developing research demonstrates that even low levels of drinking can contribute to various cancers, including breast cancer.
Alcohol is a major factor in muder, suicide, violence, domestic abuse, dangerous risk taking including gambling, severe emotional distress.
Alcohol kills three million people worlwide every year. In the UK it is the direct cause of more than eight thousand annual deaths and a major contributory cause of many more thousands of deaths. It is is a prime cause of shortened life expectancy.
Every reader of this is affected by alcohol. Taxpayers contribute many billions annually for treatment. It’s estimatted that annual policing costs are £8 billion.
Every reader is affected more directly. Some will be victims of violence and abuse, some will be perpetrators. Most will know at least one person close to them who has been devastated by alcohol. Many readers will be drinking at levels which will have dire health effects: current figures suggest that more than eight million UK citizens are at vey high risk from alcohol harms. Many will regard their own alcohol consumption as ‘safe’ and either not know about or disregard the fact that even low consumption carries risks.
Our culture is saturated with alcohol and to a great extent always has been. It’s hard to think of a party or a wedding without the drink. Social life is often associated with alcohol. For some people the idea of a life without alcohol would leave a big hole. Most people, however, drink ‘sensibly’ even if they are aware that they may incur health harms. Most of us accept the risks of unhealthy eating and drinking, and probably most of us are more focused upon having a good time today rather than worrying about some abstract future. ‘Most’, of course, is not ‘all’ for there are people who try to maximise a healthy life by things like diet, refusing alcohol or other poisons, exercise and so on.
Alcohol is a psychoactive drug. Its harms massively dwarf those arising from other drugs. A person who suffers the day after a night of drinkinng with what is known as a hangover is suffering from withdrawal. Over a sustained period of heavy drinking withdrawal can be life threatening and requires medical aid. (Detox may be as an inpatient or more usually with a diazepam prescription tapering down over ten days or so). After acute withdrawal there may be months and even many years of ‘posta acute withdrawal syndrome’ where every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system, struggle to repair themselves. This period may be marked by depression, anxiety, cravings, anger and other unpleasant feelings. Not everybody will suffer too much (indeed, there are some heavy drinkers who have never experienced a hangover). In the period after stopping help is available through medication, psychological therapies and groups such as AA or SMART Recovery.
Gambling and Alcohol
Culturally, gambling and drinking have been twins. Into the pub, to the bookies, back to the pub to celebrate or drown sorrows. Nowadays, with a big rise in indoor drinking (partly the reult of cheap booze from supermarkets), friends may gather to watch football while watching sports and betting on them. Such occasions are enjoyable. (Enjoyment, of course, is both ‘fun’ and the gateway to repeating behaviours which provide degrees of pleasure, relaxation, socialibility, excitement: sadly, what often starts with pleasure can end with compulsion and pain).
The drug alcohol works to reduce inhibitions, control and thinking about consequences. Research suggests strongly that many people who gamble excessively are also excessive drinkers (and smokers). Some also use other drugs such as cocaine or ‘speed’. While alcohol increases GABA in the brain, the molecule that brings relaxation (drink enough and you’ll fall asleep, drink more and your body will relax into death), the brain chemical which controls excitation is glutamate and this is reduced. A hangover is a rebound effect where the brain tries to restore balance betweeen these chemicals by increasing glutamate: this leads to anxiety or ‘hangxiety’ as it’s known, in more extre cases to shaking, and more extreme again to hallucinations and fits.
Because even mild withdrawal is unpleasant people naturally seek ‘cures’. The recently released figures about deaths from drugs (excluding alcohol) are horrifying, firmly putting Scotland far ahead of any other European nations, including England and Wales. Many of these deaths are down to ‘street valium’, a horrible concoction many times stronger than regulated Valium, manufactured and peddled by gangsters for less than the price of sweets. Users take these pills to manage withdrawal effects of other drugs. In essence, this reflects a drinker’s continued use of alcohol to manage the unpleasant experiences of withdrawal.
We suggest that some people with gambling difficulties may also be struggling with alcohol or other hard drug issues. This complicates things. Some, not all, people have more complex problems and this has implications for treatment. For one, the big issue for most who’ve stopped a harmful behaviour is staying stopped. Given the long term psychological harms of hard drugs like alcohol, resilience to ‘cravings’ during spells of anxiety or depression will be weakened. It’s worth mentioning here too that although gambling is not associated with physical dependence, there is evidence of psychological withdrawal symptoms that may last over time.
For the individual suffering gambling harms, they may not appreciate that drinking is probably related to them. Some ‘in recovery’ from harmful gambling may continue to drink heavily without realising that not only does this put them at high health risks from alcohol, but may also weaken their powers to quit gambling.