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Alcohol: Drinking and Your Health

Topic Overview

Alcohol can be an enjoyable part of life. It's part of many people's lives and may have a place in cultural and family traditions. Many people enjoy drinking alcohol, and most people usually do it safely. But it's okay to decide not to drink.

If you choose to drink alcohol, the key is to keep your drinking at the safest possible levels, called low-risk drinking. It's important to remember that drinking alcohol is not risk-free.

Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines

Daily and weekly limits

Plan to stay within the alcohol limits recommended in Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines to lower your risk of harm. Canadian health experts recommend that:

  • men have no more than 3 standard drinks a day on most days and no more than 15 drinks a week
  • women have no more than 2 standard drinks a day on most days and no more than 10 drinks a week
  • you plan non-drinking days every week to prevent you from developing a habit or dependency (addiction)
  • It’s important to remember this guideline is a low-risk but not a no-risk guideline. It sets a limit, not a target, for alcohol use.

On special occasions

Every now and then you may want to drink more than the limits above. To lower your risk of injury and harm:

  • have no more than 4 drinks on one occasion (if you’re a man)
  • have no more than 3 drinks on one occasion (if you’re a woman)
  • plan to drink in a safe place
  • stay within the weekly limits

Know how alcohol affects you

Keep in mind that alcohol can affect people differently. How alcohol affects you is related to things like age, sex, weight, and health history. You need to be even more careful about how much alcohol you drink if you:

  • are a smaller adult
  • are younger than 25
  • are older than 65
  • aren’t used to drinking
  • take certain medicines
  • haven’t eaten before you drink
  • aren’t drinking water while you drink

What is a standard drink?

Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines are based on a "standard" drink. All standard drinks have the same amount of alcohol. A standard drink is a:

  • 341 mL (12 oz.) bottle or glass of beer, cider, or a cooler (5% alcohol)
  • 142 mL (5 oz.) glass of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 43 mL (1.5 oz.) shot of liquor, such as gin, vodka, or rum (40% alcohol)
Studies show that many of us don’t think we’re drinking as much as we are because we don’t know what a standard drink is. Know what a standard drink is for beer, wine, cider, spirits, coolers, and other types of drinks with alcohol. This will help you follow Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines and not drink too much.

Talk to your doctor about whether drinking alcohol is safe for you. And if it is, ask how much is okay.

Youth and drinking

Less than half of Alberta teens in Grades 7 to 12 drink alcohol. But when they drink, most will “binge drink”. This means drinking 5 or more standard drinks in a day.

Alcohol can harm the way your body and brain develop. Teens should talk with their parents about drinking. If they choose to drink, they should have a parent with them and never drink more than 1 to 2 drinks at a time or more than 1 to 2 times a week. Always plan ahead and follow the local alcohol laws.

For more information on youth and drinking, visit Youth Substance Use: Information for Parents

Who shouldn't drink alcohol at all?

Don't drink alcohol if you're:

  • driving a vehicle or using machinery and tools
  • taking medicine that shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol
  • using other drugs
  • doing any kind of dangerous physical activity
  • living with a mental or physical health problem
  • living with an alcohol dependence
  • caring for others
  • making important decisions
  • pregnant, planning to be pregnant, or about to breastfeed
For more information about alcohol and pregnancy, visit The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Health Benefits and Risks of Alcohol

What are the health risks of drinking alcohol?

Drinking alcohol may raise your risk of:

  • damage to your liver, pancreas, heart, and nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and nerves)
  • high blood pressure, depression, stomach problems, or sexual problems
  • cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast
  • memory loss and affect your ability to think, learn, and reason
  • harm to your developing baby (fetus) if you drink during pregnancy
  • problems at work, school, or home
  • a motor vehicle accident
  • acting violent
  • an alcohol use problem

When you drink alcohol, you put your health and safety at risk. You raise your risk of harm with each drink that you have. And your risk of harm goes up even higher the more often you drink amounts of alcohol above the low-risk drinking guidelines.

Are there health benefits of drinking alcohol?

Drinking low to moderate levels of alcohol (1 to 2 standard drinks a day) may help protect against certain types of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes in people over the age of 45. But these possible health benefits lessen with each drink you have.

If you don't drink, don't start drinking now to lower your risk. There are many other ways to lower your risk of health problems, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking.

Talk to your doctor about the effects of drinking alcohol on your health.

Problem Drinking

How much drinking is too much?

It can sometimes be hard to know when you begin to drink too much.

You are at risk of drinking too much if you are:

  • A man who has more than 3 standard drinks a day on most days, or more than 15 drinks a week.
  • A woman who has more than 2 standard drinks a day on most days, or more than 10 drinks a week.

If you think you might have a drinking problem, take this short quiz:

What are some signs of an alcohol use problem?

One of the signs of an alcohol use problem is that you keep drinking even though you know your drinking is causing problems in your life. Another sign that you might have a problem is if you often have a strong need or craving to drink.

Here are some other signs:

  • You can't control how much you drink. For example, you find it hard to stop drinking after you have started (hard to stop after 2 or 3 drinks). Or you find it hard to keep from drinking (abstain) for as long as a few hours.
  • You drink in the morning.
  • You are often drunk for long periods of time.
  • You drink alone.
  • You don't remember what you did while you were drinking (blackouts).
  • You have tried to cut back on the amount you drink or to stop drinking, but you haven't been able to.
  • You have problems at work or school because of your drinking. Problems may include finding it hard to concentrate, being late, or just not going in to work or school some days.
  • You get into arguments after you've been drinking, and then you later regret the things you said or did.
  • You have legal problems because of your drinking, such as being arrested for harming someone or driving while drunk.
  • You have withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, especially in the morning. These include sweating and feeling sick to your stomach, feeling shaky, and feeling anxious.
  • You need to drink more to get the same effect.
  • You make excuses for your drinking. Or you do things to hide your drinking, such as buying alcohol at different stores.
  • You give up other activities so you can drink.
  • You keep drinking even though it harms your relationships and causes health problems.

What kind of help is available if you think you have an alcohol use problem?

Some people who want to cut back on or stop drinking are able to do so on their own. But others may need help.

If you're worried about your health and want to cut back on or stop drinking, ask your family, friends, or doctor for help. Or join a support group such as LifeRing or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Your family members might want to attend a support group such as Al-Anon or Alateen.

In some provinces, there are telephone helplines you can call for support and to find out what resources are available in your area that can help you manage your alcohol use problem.

  • Alberta: Addiction Services Helpline
    • 1-866-332-2322
  • British Columbia: Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service
    • 1-800-663-1441
  • New Brunswick: Emergency Social Services
    • 1-800-442-9799
    • www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/social_development/about_us/emergency_socialservices.html
  • Ontario: Drug and Alcohol Helpline
    • 1-800-565-8603
    • www.drugandalcoholhelpline.ca
  • Quebec: Drugs: Help and Referral
    • 1-800-265-2626
    • www.drogue-aidereference.qc.ca/www/index.php
  • Saskatchewan: Mental Health and Addiction Services
    • www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/health/accessing-health-care-services/mental-health-and-addictions-support-services
  • Yukon: Alcohol and Drug Services
    • 1-855-667-5777
    • http://hss.gov.yk.ca/ads.php
  • Other provinces: Call your local telephone information line or check the phone book to find out if there is a helpline you can call in your area.

To get some tips on how to cut back on drinking, see:

If you're still finding it hard to cut back on or stop drinking on your own, or if these support services don't help, you may need medical help. This is especially important if you have withdrawal symptoms when you try to cut back on or stop drinking. Symptoms of withdrawal may include sweating and feeling sick to your stomach, feeling shaky, and feeling anxious.

Talk to your doctor about whether you need treatment for your drinking problem. In many cases, treatment may focus on helping you reduce your drinking to low-risk levels rather than stopping completely. You and your doctor can decide what treatment approach is best for you.

Treatment approaches

Some treatment approaches may involve:

  • Outpatientor inpatient care to help you cut back on or stop drinking. These programs provide education and individual, family, and group counselling. They may also provide medical care to help reduce your craving for alcohol and manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Counselling that helps you to:
    • Learn to change your thoughts and actions that make you more likely to use alcohol. A counsellor teaches you ways to deal with cravings and cut back on or stop drinking (cognitive-behavioural therapy).
    • Resolve mixed feelings about cutting back on or stopping drinking and getting treatment. A counsellor helps you find personal motivation to change (motivational interviewing).
    • Set goals on how to cut back on or stop drinking in short counselling sessions (brief intervention therapy).
    • Keep your drinking at low-risk levels or not start drinking again.
  • In-home medical care. In some provinces, you may be able to get medical care at home to help reduce your craving for alcohol and manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • A managed alcohol program. In some cities, people who are homeless and have struggled with a severe alcohol problem for many years and haven't been able to stay sober despite getting treatment may be able to take part in a managed alcohol program. This type of program offers people a place to stay while they get treatment.
  • Medicines to help reduce your craving for alcohol and manage withdrawal symptoms.

If you feel that you have an alcohol use problem, get help. The earlier you get help, the easier it will be to cut back on or stop drinking.

Harm-Reduction Strategies

What can you do to reduce your or someone else's risk of harm from drinking?

If you choose to drink, here are some things you can do to reduce your risk of getting sick or injured:

  • Have a meal or a snack with your drink. Don't drink on an empty stomach.
  • Drink slowly. Don't have more than 2 standard drinks in any 3-hour period.
  • Have a glass of water or non-alcoholic, caffeine-free beverage (such as a soft drink or fruit juice) between drinks.
  • Avoid risky situations and activities. Don't drink and drive, and don't get in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
  • Don't take over-the-counter or prescription medicines that interact with alcohol, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), antibiotics, and antihistamines..
  • Limit how much you drink.

If you know someone who drinks too much or puts himself or herself in situations where risky drinking is going to occur (such as at a bar or party), here are some things you can do to help reduce that person's risk of harm. You can:

  • Take the person's car keys so he or she won't drink and drive.
  • Remove sharp objects and glassware from dance and party locations so the person won't hurt himself or herself or others.
  • Provide water so the person doesn't get dehydrated.
  • Be sure the person eats a balanced diet. If the person is a heavy drinker, he or she may need to take a vitamin supplement (such as vitamin B1) to help prevent cognitive problems. Over time, heavy drinking can affect a person's ability to think, learn, reason, and remember.

If you know someone who is homeless and has struggled with a severe alcohol problem for many years and hasn't been able to stay sober despite getting treatment, find out if there is a managed alcohol program in your area that can help. This type of program offers people a place to stay while they get treatment.

What are some tips for a healthy lifestyle?

Whether you drink a little or a lot, it's important to have a healthy lifestyle. Here are some things you can do to stay healthy:

  • Be active. Try to get 30 minutes of activity or more on most days of the week. Being active not only helps you stay healthy and strong but can also help you better deal with stress and anxiety.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is important for your physical and emotional health. Sleep may help you stay healthy by keeping your immune system strong. Getting enough sleep can help your mood and make you feel less stressed. Your drinking habits can affect how well you sleep. Even though a little alcohol can make you feel sleepy before bedtime, it can affect the quality of your sleep. So it's best not to drink alcohol before bedtime.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Whole grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and protein foods are part of a healthy diet.

Credits

Adaptation Date: 7/30/2020

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.