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

What are low-risk drinking levels?

In general, limit how much you drink. Canadian health experts recommend that:

  • If you're a man, have no more than 3 standard drinks a day on most days and no more than 15 drinks a week.
  • If you're a woman, have no more than 2 standard drinks a day on most days and no more than 10 drinks a week.

On special occasions every now and then, it's okay to have 1 extra drink.

If you choose to drink, keep the amount of alcohol you drink within the recommended limits. Drinking at the upper limits should only happen once in a while, not every day or week. And on at least a couple of days each week, don't drink any alcohol at all.

Keep in mind that a safe amount of alcohol for one person may be too much for another. Because of things like age, sex, weight, and health history, alcohol can affect people differently. If you're an adult who doesn't weigh a lot, is younger than 25 or older than 65, or isn't used to drinking, you need to be even more careful about how much alcohol you drink.

When is it okay for young people to start drinking?

Young people should wait at least until they are in their late teenage years to drink alcohol. Follow the laws for the legal drinking age where you live. Drinking at a younger age can affect a young person's general health, physical growth, emotional development, ability to make good decisions, and schoolwork.

Parents can play a key part in teaching their children how to drink safely and responsibly.

  • Talk about the risks and dangers of drinking alcohol. Discuss your family rules about alcohol use. Make it clear if you don't want your children to drink.
  • Create a safe environment. If you allow your teenagers to drink, make sure that they drink no more than 1 or 2 standard drinks and no more than once or twice a week and are under your supervision.
  • Make it clear that they should never drink and drive and that they should never get in a car with a driver who has been drinking. Make a plan with your children to get home safely. For example, give them money to pay for a taxi or offer to pick them up if they need a safe ride home.
  • Be a good role model. Your drinking behaviour is an important influence on your children.

Who should not drink alcohol at all?

Although most people can safely have a drink now and then, some people should not drink at all.

Don't drink alcohol if:

  • You're pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Alcohol can harm the developing baby (fetus). Alcohol can pass from the mother's blood into the baby's blood. It can damage and affect the growth of the baby's cells. Experts don't know if any amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy, so pregnant women are advised not to drink at all.
  • You're getting ready to breastfeed.
  • You're taking over-the-counter or prescription medicines that interact with alcohol, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), antibiotics, and antihistamines..
  • You have health problems made worse by drinking, such as liver problems, heart failure, uncontrolled high blood pressure, or certain blood disorders.
  • You have a mental health problem and are using alcohol to try to make yourself feel better.
  • You have problems controlling how much you drink, or you had alcohol problems in the past.
  • You're at work.
  • You plan to drive or operate dangerous tools or machinery.
  • You plan to play sports or take part in dangerous physical activities.
  • You're taking care of someone or supervising others.
  • You need to make important decisions.

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

Health Benefits and Risks of Alcohol

What are the health benefits of drinking alcohol?

Some research suggests that having 1 drink a day may help lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes in middle-aged adults. But these possible health benefits decline with each additional drink that you have. Research also shows that any amount of alcohol can increase your risk of other health problems, such as some cancers.

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

What are the health risks of drinking alcohol?

When you drink alcohol, you may be putting your health and safety at risk. Your risk of harm increases with each drink that you have. And your risk of harm increases with how often you drink at amounts above the low-risk drinking guidelines, even if you do this only now and then.

Drinking alcohol may:

  • Harm your liver, pancreas, nervous system, heart, and brain.
  • Cause high blood pressure, depression, stomach problems, or sexual problems.
  • Contribute to the development of some cancers, such as cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast.
  • Cause memory loss and affect your ability to think, learn, and reason.
  • Cause harm to your developing baby (fetus) if you drink during pregnancy.
  • Lead to problems at work, school, or home.
  • Increase the risk of car crashes and violent behaviour.
  • Cause you to develop an alcohol use problem.

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.

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 to a few days.
    • You are often drunk for long periods of time.
    • You don't remember what you did while you were drinking (blackouts).
    • You have tried to reduce the amount of alcohol you use, 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 to reduce the amount they drink are able to do so on their own. But others may need help.

If you're worried about your health and want to reduce your 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
      • 604-660-9382 (Greater Vancouver) or 1-800-663-1441 (toll free)
    • 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 reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, see:

Quick Tips: Cutting Back on Drinking.

If you're still finding it hard to reduce your 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 reduce your 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:

    • Outpatient or inpatient care to help you reduce your 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 reduce your drinking (cognitive-behavioural therapy).
      • Resolve mixed feelings about reducing your drinking and getting treatment. A counsellor helps you find personal motivation to change (motivational interviewing).
      • Set goals on how to reduce your 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.
    • 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 reduce your 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.

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.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
www.ccsa.ca
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (Canada)
www.camh.ca

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Butt P, et al. (2010). Alcohol and Health in Canada: A Summary of Evidence and Guidelines for Low-Risk Drinking. To be published in Fall 2011.

Credits

Adaptation Date: 12/8/2017

Adapted By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Reviewed By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Date: 12/8/2017

Adapted By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Reviewed By: HealthLink BC