Alcohol starts to affect the brain within five minutes of being consumed. The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) peaks about 30 to 45 minutes after one standard drink is consumed. Rapid consumption of multiple drinks results in a higher BAC because on average, a person can only break down one standard drink per hour.
The effects of alcohol vary depending on a number of factors including:
type and quantity of alcohol consumed
age, weight and gender
food in the stomach
situation in which drinking occurs
mental health status
other health conditions made worse by alcohol
other drugs or medications taken (eg cannabis, some pain killers, sleeping tablets).
To reduce risk when drinking, the most important point to remember is to not drink more than the levels recommended in the national guidelines. On a single occasion of drinking, the risk of alcohol-related injury increases with the amount consumed.
For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.
Keep in mind that having four standard drinks doubles your risk of an alcohol-related injury and your risk increases with every extra drink you have. This risk is even higher in younger people.
The lifetime risk of harm from drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed.
The national guidelines state that for healthy men and women, drinking no more than ten standard drinks a week reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.
The same health/safety, legal and social harms associated with drinking too much on a single occasion apply to lifetime drinking. But as well as these harms, drinking more than recommended in the national guidelines on an ongoing basis increases the risk of a number of diseases and adverse effects that reduce quality of life and cause premature death.
Alcohol-related health issues include:
digestive disorders (for example stomach ulcers)
dietary deficiencies and malnutrition
concentration and memory problems
mental health conditions
suicide and suicidal behaviour
brain damage with mood and personality changes
overweight and obesity
sexual impotence and reduced fertility
high blood pressure and stroke
harms to unborn and breastfeeding babies.
Available services for treatment of alcohol problems
SA Health offers a range of public health services for people with alcohol related problems and their family and friends.
Tolerance means a person requires more alcohol to achieve the same effect they used to get with smaller quantities because the brain compensates for the sedating effects of alcohol and the liver breaks it down more quickly. Despite this tolerance, the risk of long-term effects remain.
A person has alcohol dependence when its use has become central in their life. A lot of time is spent thinking about alcohol, obtaining it, using it and recovering from its effects. Use is continued despite knowing that it is causing harm.
A common feature of dependence is that a person will experience withdrawal symptoms if they reduce or stop drinking due to increased excitability (irritability) of the brain.
Typical alcohol withdrawal features last about five days and include:
difficulty sleeping (may last several weeks)
nausea and vomiting
People drinking eight or more standard drinks per day are advised to discuss a decision to stop drinking with their doctor as medication may be needed to prevent withdrawal complications such as seizures.
Long term cognitive impairment
People who regularly drink alcohol at harmful levels have an increased risk of brain damage including dementia.
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