Drinking alcohol - your questions answered

18 December 2016

For this topic, ‘Drinking alcohol – when is there a problem?’ Dr Mark Winwood, our Director of Psychological Services, hosted a live chat providing tips on cutting down on alcohol.

Here’s a summary of that session:

Question: Why do some people black out when they drink too much and what does it mean?

Dr Mark Winwood answered: An alcohol induced blackout occurs when a person drinks so much alcohol that his or her memory is impaired. Blackouts are not to be confused with “passing out”, which is when a person becomes so intoxicated by alcohol that he or she simply loses consciousness. Most blackouts are caused by the rapid ingestion of a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. In other words, someone who quickly downs several shots of alcohol within an hour is more likely to experience a blackout than someone who slowly drinks alcohol over a longer period of time. This is true even if the person who drinks more slowly ends up ingesting more alcohol and becomes more intoxicated.

Blackouts are dangerous for many reasons. For one thing, people who are experiencing a blackout are still conscious. Alcohol use tends to lower a person’s inhibitions and impair judgment, which may cause them to engage in high risk activities like drunk driving, sexual promiscuity, fighting, or committing crimes. These high risk activities may lead to any combination of serious injuries, chronic diseases, legal problems, or death. Moreover, a person who is experiencing a blackout may not have any control over their impulses.

You can avoid blackouts by:

  • Not drinking alcohol to excess, so drink slowly over a long period of time.
  • Allow the body to process the alcohol and avoid binge drinking.
  • Be sure to avoid drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. Food will slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, which will help prevent blackouts.
  • Don’t drink shots of alcohol. Instead, drink beverages with a lower concentration of alcohol like wine or beer, or slowly drink mixed drinks.
  • Above all, it’s good to have a trusted and sober friend nearby to ensure safety.

Question: I can’t seem to leave a bottle of wine once it’s opened until I’ve drunk it all and I’m worried that this might be a sign that I’ve got a problem. How can I cut back?

Dr Mark Winwood answered: I am sure many people are faced with the same issue. Our intention may be to only have a glass or 2 but unfortunately our judgement then gets skewed because we are a bit tipsy so our decision making also becomes flawed.

My suggestions would be:

  • Share the bottle - drink with others rather than alone.
  • If you are alone - buy smaller bottles - you can get small bottles from most supermarkets now.
  • Only buy enough for that evening so you are not tempted to open another small bottle!

If you find you are drinking a bottle of wine regularly more than once per week, you are drinking well over the recommended safe limits and should consider more professional support if you are finding it difficult to curb your intake. Remember most bottles of wine contain in excess of 9 units of alcohol and the recommended safe drinking limit for women and men is 14 units of alcohol a week.

Question: I always promise myself I won’t get drunk on nights out, but once I’ve had one drink I can’t seem to stop. How can I make sure I don’t embarrass myself?

Dr Mark Winwood answered: We start with the best intentions but they fly out of the window once we have had a drink and the party gets going. There are no guarantees unless you make a decision not to drink - which is an obvious choice that you do have.

A few other tips that you might find useful are:

  • Drink a soft drink between each alcoholic drink and loads of water.
  • Stay in control and only drink what you pour and what you buy - steer clear of big rounds and large measures.
  • Dilute your drinks - add sparkling water to wine, add lemonade to beer, add a lot of mixer to spirits and do not do shots.
  • Have a cut-off - make a decision to leave at a certain time - book a taxi before hand and do not cancel it.
  • Make a pact with a friend to drink less together.

It is completely possible to have a great night out without waking up the next day with a hangover and lots of regrets.

Further reading

How much is too much alcohol? – AXA PPP

Does drinking alcohol lead to liver cancer? – AXA PPP

Useful resources for help and support

NHS – Alcohol-related liver disease - factsheet