What is risky drinking? How much alcohol is too much?  Why do women process alcohol differently to men? These questions and many more are answered along with tips for drinking responsibly.

Alcohol & your health

The size, body type and the way in which women's bodies process alcohol, mean women, particularly younger women, can become affected by alcohol far quicker than men.

The 2009 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines say 'At higher levels of drinking, large differences by gender are seen, with the risk for women being significantly higher than that for men. The risk for women also increases faster with increased consumption than for men.'

Low risk drinking

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guideline for reducing health risks associated with drinking alcohol defines 'low risk' alcohol consumption for healthy women as no more than two standard drinks on any day with regular alcohol free days.

This 'low risk' level of alcohol consumption in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle does not appear to be associated with long-term illness.

However, there are times when you should probably not consume any alcohol:

  • During illness
  • When taking medication
  • When pregnant
  • When breastfeeding

Your doctor can provide advice at these times.

High risk drinking

High risk alcohol consumption is best defined as anything that exceeds the consumption of more than two standard drinks per day. High risk drinking, including binge drinking (consumption of excess alcohol over a short space of time) can put your health at serious risk.

Having more than four standard drinks on a single occasion (even if you only do it once or twice per week) may cause health problems, increase risk of injury and accidents and affect relationships with those close to you.

Short and long-term effects of high risk drinking

Short-term effects of high risk drinking
  • Poor sleep
  • Changes in mood (often affecting relationships)
  • Headaches
  • Dehydration
  • Problems with day-to-day functioning, including clear decision making
  • Irritation to the lining of the stomach, intestine and pancreas, which may cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • Accidents and injury
Long-term effects of high risk drinking
  • Depression
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Alcohol dependence
  • Low vitamin B, zinc and magnesium – especially when combined with irregular eating
  • Increased risk of some cancers – particularly breast cancer
  • Dementia
  • Permanent liver damage
  • Weight gain
  • Decline in quality of life
  • Relationship difficulties

What is a standard drink?

One standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. All pre-packaged alcohol cans or bottles have the number of standard drinks listed on the label.

When keeping track of your alcohol consumption it is important to count the standard drinks consumed, rather than the number of cans or glasses. Wine, beer and spirits are sometimes served in glasses which might contain more than a standard drink. Ask bar staff if you are uncertain.

Different types of alcoholic drink will also have different levels of alcohol content and can often be higher than one standard drink. For example, pre-mixed drinks can be equal to 1.5 or more standard drinks and cocktails can be equal to two or more standard drinks.

Standard drink guide

Alcoholic drink Alcohol content Serving size mls Number of standard drinks
Wine 9.5-13% Small glass 100 1
Average restaurant serving 150 1.5
Large glass 200 2
Bottle 750 7.5
Fortified wine e.g. port or sherry 18% Glass 60 1
Spirits 37-40% Nip or shot 30 1
Double 60 2
Bottle 700 22
Pre-mixed spirits 5-7% Bottle 275 1.3
Can 375 1.8
Low strength 2.7% Pot or middy 285 0.6
Can or stubbie 375 0.8
Schooner 425 0.9
Mid strength beer (3.5% alcohol) 3.5% Pot or middy 285 0.8
Can or stubbie 375 1
Schooner 425 1.2
Full strength beer or cider including diet beer 4.9% Pot or middy 285 1.1
Can or stubbie 375 1.4
Schooner 425 1.6

Alcohol & young people

According to the National Alcohol Guidelines, it is young Australian adults who have the highest consumption of alcohol and are most at risk of alcohol related injuries from:

  • road trauma
  • sexual coercion
  • falls
  • violence
  • accidental death e.g. drowning or overdose
  • suicide

Binge drinking is most common among 14-25 year olds. Parents are now advised that children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from alcohol, so not drinking under 15 is especially important, and alcohol drinking by 15-17 year olds should be delayed for as long as possible.

It is important for young adults (and older adults as well) to carefully weigh up the risks involved before drinking alcohol at levels above the recommended guidelines.

Handy hints for drinking responsibly

Set limits
  • Set a maximum number of drinks for the night and make a pact with your friends to help you keep to it
  • Take a limited amount of money out with you, to help limit how much you drink
Alternate drinks
  • Start and finish with soft drinks or water
  • Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks
Choose low alcohol content drinks Choose drinks such as light beers, top mixed drinks with extra soft drink or soda.
Include food
  • Do not skip meals when going out
  • Drink alcohol with food to slow absorption of the alcohol
  • Avoid salty foods that make you thirsty and make you drink more
  • Eat sensibly through the week, get exercise and sleep so you are healthier to start with
Know what you are drinking
  • Avoid home-mixed drinks such as punch where you cannot determine the alcohol content
  • Be aware of friends or waiters topping up your drinks – this makes it much harder to gauge how much you have had to drink
Keep together Make sure your friends stick with you, all night, to support you and your decisions.
Be the designated driver Offer to be the designated driver so on some nights out you do not drink.
Know what's fun
  • Remind yourself you don't have to drink too much to let go and have fun
  • Think about what makes a fun night out for you that doesn't involve drinking to excess

Alcohol & breast cancer

Regular alcohol consumption increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. This risk rises with the level of alcohol consumed, so a reduction in alcohol consumption by women who drink alcohol regularly may reduce their breast cancer risk.

Alcohol, pregnancy & breastfeeding

The 2009 NHMRC guidelines advise pregnant women and breastfeeding women should not drink alcohol. High level drinking during pregnancy can cause a range of health problems for the unborn child, and can increase the likelihood of miscarriage.

Alcohol in the bloodstream also passes through into breast milk which can in turn cause irritability, poor feeding and sleep disturbances in the child.

Alcohol & menopause

For women around the time of menopause, alcohol intake can exacerbate hot flushes and add to the risk of excess weight gain.

If alcohol is affecting your health and you are having trouble stopping drinking, talk to your doctor and seek expert help.

Last updated 24 July 2017 — Last reviewed 17 February 2014

** Currently under review **

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at February 2014.

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