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There is a distinction between abusing drugs and alcohol and being dependant on them. The line between the two is however easy to cross and it is important that the progression into dependency is arrested before it is too late. Easier said than done and it is important that something is done when the early signs become apparent, before the consequences begin to mount.

Alcohol is a drug which relieves anxiety, lifts inhibitions and it is pleasantly, mildly euphoric but when used to excess it is dangerous and causes misery, illness and death. Is it a friend or foe? Surprisingly alcohol is not particularly addictive; unlike for example cocaine or heroin and for the vast majority of people who drink, it does not become a problem. However, alcohol abuse are real issues for about 8% of the adult population with significant consequences for themselves, their families and society as a whole.

Safe Drinking

Over 90% of the adult population are not dependent on alcohol but nevertheless may have problems from drinking too much or inappropriately. A proportion will go on to drink more and eventually lose control so alcohol has an ability to slowly cause addiction over many years. The UK Government has produced guidelines on sensible drinking and the recent trend in the UK towards binge drinking by young women is a worrying new direction.

The unit system introduced by the British and other Governments gives a fair estimation of how much is drunk and how safe it is. The limits are: 14 units for both men and for women. These unit limits are based on sound medical research. Recent changes have introduced a daily rather than a weekly limit removing any misconception that the units can be saved up and used dangerously at Christmas or New Year. As a consequence, it is now deemed safe for most men and women to drink up to 3 units a day for 5 days a week with 2 days a week abstinence. These 2 days of abstinance are important for the liver to ‘rest’ from being overworked processing the toxins from drinking alcohol. The liver’s role is not just a filter for alcohol but an important processing unit for everything we eat and drink that is absorbed into the blood.

What are ‘units’ of alcohol?

Calculating the amount of units you are drinking is easy. A fairly accurate guide is one litre of the alcoholic beverage is equal in units to the percentage alcohol of the drink. One litre of beer of 4.6% alcohol is 4.6 units; one litre of Gin at 40% alcohol is 40 units. Spirits are sold in the UK in 25 ml measures and there are 40 measures in a litre bottle. Therefore 1 single measure of spirit is equal to 1 unit of alcohol. Simple, isn’t it? But be careful when the drink is poured from the bottle and not measured. A double or triple measure isn’t unusual. The average man or woman can safely drink 14 single measures of spirits, 1 litre of wine or 4.5 litres of beer per week. A word of caution: These drinks should be spread evenly across the week and there should be at least two alcohol free day per week. The setting and time of drinking is also important when assessing safety. Be aware drinks poured at home or in the homes of friends and family are almost inevitably larger than those in bars and restaurants.

The unit system is only a guide and does not represent a definition of when drinking is acceptable on health. For some people, just a couple of drinks triggers a change in personality, affecting relationships and to drink even a single alcoholic drink before driving always impairs performance and judgement. Alcohol affects our perception. After an alcoholic drink our perception of our ability is always greater than reality. For these people, avoiding alcohol altogether is probably the best policy.

Alcohol and Sleep

Alcohol consumption can induce sleep disorders by disrupting the sequence and duration of sleep states and by altering total sleep time as well as the time required to fall asleep (sleep latency).

Alcohol consumed at bedtime, after an initial stimulating effect, may decrease the time required to fall asleep. Because of alcohol’s sedating effect, many people with insomnia consume alcohol to promote sleep. However, alcohol consumed within one hour of bedtime appears to disrupt the second half of the sleep period. The subject may sleep fitfully during the second half of the sleep, awakening from dreams and returning to sleep with difficulty. The elderly are particularly at risk because they achieve higher levels of alcohol in the blood and brain than do younger persons consuming an equivalent dose.

Alcoholic beverages are often consumed in the late afternoon or with dinner without further consumption before bedtime. Studies show that a moderate dose of alcohol consumed as much as 6 hours before bedtime can increase rather wakefulness during the second half of sleep. By the time this effect occurs, the dose of alcohol consumed earlier has already been eliminated from the body, suggesting a relatively long-lasting change in the body’s mechanisms of sleep regulation.

Although alcohol is not a particularly addictive drug it does in time lead to dependency. The average time is usually between 5 and 7 years. The route to alcohol dependency is not a predictable one; the drinker often cannot foresee it. Damage to relationships, poor work performance and a bad health record are a few of the signs of addictive behaviours. If you have lost the ability to say ‘no’ to a drink and you can’t stop when you start, you have a serious problem that needs be addressed.

Unlike alcohol abuse and limits of safe drinking it is difficult to lay down what constitutes drug abuse as opposed to drug addiction or dependency. There is no recognised units or amounts that can be deemed safe or relatively safe due to the inconsistency in the drugs purity and what it has been mixed with when it is sold ‘on the street’. For some the occasional use of cannabis or cocaine causes no problems to themselves or others. For others, occasional use can lead to death. Until such time that drugs are government controlled and their strength and cutting agents identifiable it is best to avoid completely. Advice is available from the Nova Vida Recovery Centre Clinical Team.


Nova Vida Recovery Centre
Algarve, Portugal
  (+351) 919357186

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