Sensible drinking

A drink or two can help you relax and socialise and may even do you some good, but how much do you really know about the effects of alcohol on your body and what happens when you drink? Drinking in moderation can be part of a healthy lifestyle; but regularly overdoing it is associated with various health risks. There are some times in life when it’s better not to drink at all – for instance, drinking alcohol during pregnancy may affect the development of your unborn baby.

This article explains how you can enjoy alcohol sensibly as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Read more about sensible drinking below.

Publication date: November 2010



About sensible drinking

Drinking within safe limits is unlikely to do you any harm and it’s even been suggested that for certain people, moderate drinking – that is about one or two units of alcohol a day – may even be good for your heart. But in truth, there are more effective ways to protect your heart, including eating a healthy balanced diet and taking regular exercise.

If you regularly drink too much alcohol, not only do you risk your health, but depending on how much and how often you drink, your work and relationships may also be affected.

To stay safe and healthy, it pays to know your limits and drink alcohol sensibly.

What are sensible drinking limits?

Some countries have drinking guidelines, which include information about the risks associated with certain levels of drinking. The guidelines often give recommendations, which may be provided as daily or weekly limits. These vary between countries, for example in the UK men are advised to drink no more than three or four units a day and women should drink no more than two or three units a day. However, in the US, men are advised to drink no more than one or two units a day, and women no more than one unit.

In some countries the recommended limits are lower for women than for men. This is because women have different amounts of fat, muscle and water in their bodies than men. This affects the way a woman’s body copes with alcohol. As a result, women are more likely to develop health problems, such as liver disease, at lower levels of alcohol than men.

You should check the guidelines in your region for more information about sensible drinking limits.

Alcohol labelling

Alcoholic drinks sold in many countries state on the label how much alcohol they contain. This is usually expressed as ‘percentage alcohol by volume’ (% ABV). The packaging may also give the number of units of alcohol the drink contains.

The label may also include how many ‘units’ or ‘standard drinks’ the alcohol contains.

Be aware that alcoholic drinks vary in strength; for example, some wines contain more alcohol than others.

Drinking sensibly

Drinking sensibly doesn’t mean missing out on all the fun. The first steps are to understand how much and how often you’re drinking. Start by keeping a record of how much you drink over a week. You may find you’re drinking within your limits and don’t need to change your drinking habits. But if you’re exceeding your safe limits think about when and where you’re drinking and how much. You may be having a glass of wine with most evening meals, a lunchtime drink once a week and a planned night out every Friday or Saturday. Remembering a few simple tips can help you cut down.

  • Have something to eat before you drink, and if possible, while you’re drinking.
  • Start with low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks, or alternate these with alcoholic drinks.
  • Pace yourself – enjoy your drink slowly.
  • Keep track of how much you’re drinking.
  • Don’t drink alcohol every day of the week – have at least one or two alcohol-free days.

When not to drink?

It takes about one hour for your liver to break down one unit of alcohol. The more you drink, the longer it will take for the effects of alcohol to clear. There are times when not drinking alcohol at all is the safest choice. These include the following.

  • Before you plan to drive or when you’re driving.
  • Before or when you’re operating machinery or electrical equipment.
  • Before or during swimming or other active sports.
  • When you’re taking certain medicines – always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and ask a doctor or pharmacist for advice.
  • When you’re pregnant or trying for a baby. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage and affect the development of your unborn baby.

Do you need help cutting down?

If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or a doctor can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.



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  • Unit calculator and drink diary. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, accessed 6 May 2010
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. This content was compiled by Bupa based on clinical information and practice current as at the stated date of publication. Content is likely to reflect clinical practice in a particular geographical region (as indicated by the sources cited) – accordingly, it may not reflect clinical practice in the reader’s country of habitation. This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. Photos and videos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

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