When drinking becomes a problem

21:34, May 05 2013
alcohol landscape
BINGE-DRINKERS: New Zealanders commonly drink too much.

New Zealanders commonly drink too much.

The proportion who drank more than recommended limits on at least one occasion in the past year ranged from 40 per cent for those aged 55 to 64 to 80 per cent for those aged 18 to 24.

While for some this may be infrequent, for too many New Zealanders this is their usual pattern of consumption.

It's not just this binge-style drinking that is of concern. Problems also arise for people drinking regularly. For a healthy adult, even two or three drinks a day may cause health complications. For those with compromised health, even lower levels may be problematic.

Drinking can easily slide from one of life's pleasures to one of life's problems. Perhaps it's a regular routine that has become a bit heavy, or perhaps you find it hard to place a limit on how much you drink in social situations.

When people are offering you drinks, buying in rounds, there's a competitive edge or an expectation to keep up.


Take a minute to stop and add up how many standard drinks you had in the past week. One standard drink is a 100ml glass of wine, a can of four per cent beer or a pub-poured double spirit (a home-poured double is more likely to be two standard drinks or more).

If you're having more than five standard drinks on any one occasion (four for women), more than 15 a week (10 for women), or fewer than two days without alcohol in a week, it would be a good idea to try to reduce your drinking. Of course, you may already be drinking less than this and want to reduce further.

Here are some ideas about how you might do that.

First, do you even need to have a drink? One of the quickest ways to reduce your intake is to increase the number of non-drinking days you have.

If you are going to drink alcohol, you should always avoid drinking on an empty stomach.

Combining food with alcohol slows down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and gives you something else to do so you may consume less.

Make sure you're not thirsty. Have a non-alcoholic thirst quencher so you're not guzzling alcohol as a reaction to dehydration.

Those non-alcoholic drinks aren't just for the start of the evening either. Alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, especially if you take at least as much time over the non-alcoholic drinks, is a great way to cut your drinking in half.

When you do get an alcoholic drink, opt for smaller serving sizes, such as a half-pint, or if pouring your own wine, make it a smaller one.

Low-alcohol options should be considered too - this might mean being adventurous and trying a low-alcohol beer, or simply avoiding the particularly high-alcohol ones, for example.

Once you have that drink, pay attention to the way you drink it. Do you tend to gulp? Make a conscious effort to take smaller sips. We all have our own ways of drinking and these can be retrained.

Another way to disrupt the autopilot drinking pattern is to put your glass down between sips, if you are in a place where you feel it is safe to leave your drink unattended, or at least not clutched in your hand.

If you're holding a glass or bottle, you can very easily drink regularly without even making a conscious decision to do so.

Set a limit and keep count. Setting an alcohol budget can be equally effective if you are going out to a bar with friends. This works especially well if you leave your eftpos or credit cards at home and take only as much cash as you plan to spend.

If you're serious about modifying your drinking, keeping a written record is a big help. This allows you to see what your drinking level is at the start of an attempt to reduce and how you are progressing.

People tend to be reluctant to undertake this sort of homework, but once you start recording a behaviour you want to modify, you may find that your natural competitiveness kicks in as you try to beat last week's figures.

Finally, if you would like further information to decide if your drinking is OK and ways to modify it, see alcohol.org.nz or phone the Alcohol Drug Helpline, 0800 787 797.

Associate Professor Simon Adamson is deputy director of the National Addiction Centre and a Christchurch-based clinical psychologist in private practice specialising in alcohol, other drugs and behavioural addictions. 

The Press