Here you can read about alcohol including how it affects your body, how much alcohol is in a standard drink and how to check if your drinking is okay.
What is alcohol?
Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is an addictive toxin and intoxicant, found in beer, wine and spirits. An addictive substance means that you find it hard to stop taking it once you have started. Toxin means it is poisonous to the human body in large amounts. Intoxicant means it causes intoxication or an altered state.
When alcohol is swallowed, it is rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream and distributed to all parts of your body within just a few minutes. As it reaches different parts of your body, alcohol slows down the work of your cells, especially in your brain. You can feel this happening in the symptoms of the stages of intoxication and drunkenness – relaxation, laughter, slurred speech, inability to walk straight, and impaired judgement and coordination.
As alcohol travels through your stomach and intestines to your liver, it starts to be broken down (metabolised). Enzymes in your liver work hard to clear it from your body, taking 1–2 hours to break down 1 standard drink.
Effects of alcohol on your body
At low doses, alcohol can act as a stimulant that induces feelings of euphoria and talkativeness. However, it is classed as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means it depresses your central nervous system at high doses and slows down your body’s reaction times and responses.
People respond to alcohol in individual ways, and the same amount of alcohol consumed can have varying effects on different people. Your reaction to alcohol is influenced by:
the ability of your liver to break down alcohol
your stomach contents or recent food consumption
how much alcohol you have had and how quickly you have drunk it
your body type and age, gender and ethnicity.
Drinking too much alcohol at one time can lead to drowsiness, respiratory depression (where your breathing becomes slow, shallow or stops entirely), coma or even death.
Use this interactive tool or click below to find evidence-based detail from the Health Promotion Agency (HPA) of how alcohol affects body systems and parts:
Drinking too much at one go (binge drinking) or drinking too much over time (alcohol misuse) can both lead to long-term health problems.
The Health Promotion Agency’s Is Your Drinking Okay? test can help you find out more about your level of risk of harm from your drinking. Just complete the questionnaire and it will automatically add up your score and tell you what it means. It's that easy!
A range of factors can affect your level of risk of harm, including the rate of drinking, your body type or genetic makeup, your gender, existing health problems and whether you are young or an older person. However it is important to recognise that alcohol is a carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer), so even if you are drinking following the low risk drinking advice, there is no safe level of consumption.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Luisa Silailai, Programme Manager for Alcohol Harm Minimisation and accredited DAPAANZ Clinical Supervisor/Alcohol and other Drugs and Problem Gambling Clinician.
Last reviewed: 01 Jun 2022
Low-risk drinking advice for adults
Low risk is not no risk. Even when drinking within low-risk limits, a range of factors can affect your level of risk, including the rate of drinking, your body type or genetic makeup, your gender, existing health problems and whether you are young or an older person.
The following advice from the Health Promotion Agency (HPA) is to help decrease your risk of alcohol-related accidents, injuries, diseases and death.
It is important to recognise that alcohol is a carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer), so even if you are drinking following the low risk drinking advice, there is no safe level of consumption.
Reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than:
2 standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week
3 standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks a week.
Have at least 2 alcohol-free days every week.
Reduce your risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking by drinking no more than:
4 standard drinks for women on any single occasion
5 standard drinks for men on any single occasion.
A useful way to remember the number of standard drinks to lower your risk of alcohol-related harm is this chart from the Health Promotion Agency:
Image credit: alcohol.org.nz
The above advice is based on ‘standard drinks’. A standard drink contains 10g of pure alcohol. A common serve or pour of an alcoholic beverage is often more than 1 standard drink.
If you choose to drink alcohol, there are things you can do to help you stay within low-risk levels. These include to:
know what a standard drink is
keep track of how much you drink – daily and weekly
set limits for yourself and stick to them
start with non-alcoholic drinks and alternate with alcoholic drinks
try drinks with a lower alcohol content
eat before or while you are drinking
never drink and drive
be a responsible host, eg, provide alcohol-free drinks and food and make sure everyone has a safe way to get home
talk to your kids about alcohol
limit your drinking to recommended safe levels
have at least 2 alcohol-free days each week
seek help if you feel your drinking is becoming a problem.
When not to drink alcohol
There are times and circumstances when it is advisable not to drink alcohol.
You should not drink if you:
are pregnant or planning to get pregnant
are on medication that interacts with alcohol
have a condition made worse by drinking alcohol
feel unwell, depressed, tired or cold, as alcohol could make things worse
are about to operate machinery or a vehicle, or do anything that is risky or requires skill.
In Aotearoa New Zealand the alcohol laws state that a minor (person under 18 years old) cannot be supplied with alcohol unless:
the person supplying the alcohol is their parent or legal guardian AND the alcohol is supplied in a responsible manner, OR
the person supplying alcohol has the express consent of the teenager’s parent or legal guardian AND the alcohol is supplied in a responsible manner.
You could be fined up to $2,000 if you don’t follow this law.
As a parent or guardian you should:
supervise the consumption of alcohol
provide a choice of low-alcohol and/or non-alcoholic drinks
ensure safe transport options are in place.
Important: If a teenager or minor in your care is drunk and unconscious, call 111.
Alcohol advice for parents of children and young people
The brain is still developing in young people up to the age of 25 years, making children and young people especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.
Young people with their developing bodies and brains have a lower tolerance to alcohol than adults and are susceptible to more and different harms. Alcohol negatively impacts on memory and learning, thinking and processing, and mental health.
(Turning Point Training - Professor Dan Lubman, UK, 2013)
Young people who drink alcohol are more likely to:
experience an injury or accident related to alcohol use
find themselves involved in an assault or arrested
have unprotected and unwanted sex
experience other harmful effects on their social life, finances or work/study
be at risk of alcohol dependence.
Not drinking alcohol is the safest option for children and young people. Delaying alcohol consumption for as long as possible is advised.
If children or young people are drinking or considering drinking alcohol:
delay drinking for as long as possible
supervise events or situations where there may be alcohol
support initiatives to minimise the amount drunk
provide positive role models in the child or young person’s life
encourage open conversation and trusting relationships about alcohol use and its impacts.