Health Q&A

Alcohol & Health: How Much Can I drink?

April 4, 2019

Are we drinking too much?

South Africans are ranked as one of the world’s highest alcohol consumers with alcoholism and alcohol-related health problems growing in frequency and number. According to the South African Medical Research Council, an estimated 130 people in South Africa die each day due to alcohol-related incidents. 

Legal use of alcohol consumption in South Africa

The South African Police Service confirms that your blood alcohol level may not exceed 0.05% or a breath-alcohol content of 0.24mg per 1,000ml when you are driving. Failing a breathalyser test could result in your arrest, a fine and even a two-year jail term.

How much alcohol can you drink?

Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as two daily standard drinks for women or three daily standard drinks for men. Our bodies can only process one unit of alcohol each hour, so you need time to process the alcohol. Quick-fix sober solutions, like drinking coffee or water are a myth.

One unit of alcohol is equal to:

  • two thirds of a beer or spirit cooler with a 5% alcohol content
  • 75ml of red or white wine, per hour, with a 12 – 14% alcohol content
  • 25ml tot of spirits per hour

Effects of alcohol consumption

Alcohol’s main ingredient is ethanol, which is produced by yeasts that digest sugar in foods (like grapes). Alcohol acts as a depressant on the brain. This means that it slows down the functioning and activity of your central nervous system. Common symptoms of alcohol consumption, or being drunk, include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor decision-making abilities
  • Slow or poor reflexes
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate

Health implications of excessive alcohol consumption

Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop health problems. You can drink in moderation, and abide by the law, without ever experiencing any negative effects. However, the more you drink, the greater your risk of developing disease-related complications. 

Organisations like the Heart & Stroke Foundation state that excessive alcohol consumption is extremely harmful to your health. It increases your risk of developing certain conditions and diseases and could even lead to substance abuse or addiction. Some of the more serious implications of excessive alcohol use include:

1. Liver damage

The liver is particularly vulnerable to alcohol damage because it functions as a means to neutralise toxic substances in the body. Alcoholic liver damage can include cirrhosis of the liver, where the organ becomes inflamed and liver cells can die.

2. Brain damage

Ethanol reduces communication between brain cells. Short-term brain damage could involve memory lapses, blackouts or amnesia. Long-term effects can cause permanent brain shrinkage, increasing your risk of developing dementia and other degenerative brain disorders.

3. Depression

Many people drink alcohol to relieve themselves of stress or anxiety. However, alcohol consumption can cause and maintain severe depression so should be avoided to control your mood swings.

4. Weight gain

Alcohol is one of the highest calorie-rich substances (seven calories per gram). People drinking alcohol excessively are prone to weight gain, which could lead to obesity and health risks associated with a high body mass index.

5. Heart disease

The risk of developing cardiovascular disease, like coronary disease, heart attack or stroke, increases with excessive, long-term alcohol consumption because it causes high blood pressure and weakens your heart muscle.

6. Cancer

Alcohol consumption is a known risk factor for certain types of cancer, like throat, mouth, colon, breast and liver cancer. It is thought to interfere with the body’s ability to process and absorb certain nutrients, like vitamin A and C.

7. Birth defects

An estimated 25,000 babies are born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in South Africa each year. This preventable disability is caused by the mother ingesting alcohol during pregnancy. For more information about FAS, take a look at our article: 14 Signs your baby could have foetal alcohol syndrome.

8. Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is a disease characterised by an inflamed pancreas. In serious cases, this can result in bleeding into the gland, causing serious damage to other organs, like the kidneys and lungs. Long-term alcohol abuse is a leading cause of this life-threatening condition.

Topmed recommends a healthy diet and lifestyle. This means following the recommended guidelines when it comes to alcohol consumption.