Fact-sheet: Alcohol and the effects

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Alcohol is a widely used psychoactive (mood-changing) drug in Australia, it is often part of relaxing with friends, celebrating or commiserating. However, alcohol is also a significant cause of injury and ill health, violence, crime, family breakdown, road accidents, loss of productivity in workplaces and death in Australia.

How Alcohol Affects You

The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey of Australians found that:

  • For most age groups about one in five drank at levels that put them at risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury over their lifetime.
  • Around one in three people aged 12 and older drank at least once in the last 12 months at levels that placed them at risk of an alcohol-related injury.1

 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that alcohol was the direct cause of 1,366 deaths, and a contributing factor in 4,186 deaths in 2017.

Alcohol was also the most common drug that Australians undertook a phase of treatment for in 2017-18 and was the principal drug of concern in 34% of all treatment episodes.3

This fact sheet outlines some of the ways that alcohol can affect sporting performance and provides some strategies that can be used to minimise the risk of harms.

 

Immediate and short term impact of alcohol

Alcohol can affect a person’s sporting performance and recovery afterwards.

Hangovers: If a person drank a lot at night they may still have a high concentration of alcohol in their bloodstream the following day. They may experience a range of symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, shakiness, nausea and vomiting.

Slower reflexes and reduced coordination: Drinking even a small amount of alcohol before, or during, a game can affect a person’s reaction time, reflexes, balance, hand-eye coordination and motor skills. This can affect a person’s speed and performance and increase the risk of injury.

Dehydration: After exercising, the body needs to be rehydrated. Alcohol can cause further dehydration by suppressing a hormone that affects the efficiency of the kidneys to reabsorb water.

Reduced performance and stamina: To perform at its peak, the body undergoes a number of processes, including releasing glucose into the blood stream for energy and removing waste products generated by muscles. If a person has consumed alcohol their body also needs to break down the ethanol, this process combined with dehydration can decrease a person’s performance and stamina.

Increased risk of inappropriate behaviour: Alcohol can cause people to become more relaxed and make them feel more confident. This can increase the likelihood that they may respond to a situation in an inappropriate way during a match. For example, they may become aggressive or violent towards other players/competitors, officials or spectators.

Soft tissue injuries take longer to repair: Treating a soft tissue injury involves reducing blood flow to the area, however alcohol increases blood flow and swelling to the area and as a result can increase recovery time.

Impact on general recovery: Drinking alcoholic drinks before, during or after a game can affect a person’s ability to make decisions. For example, a person may not carry out the appropriate recovery strategies to help their body refuel, rehydrate and repair itself after exercise. Injury management strategies and rehabilitation may also be neglected.

 

Longer term impact of alcohol

Over the longer term, alcohol can cause a number of health and social problems that can impact on a person and their sporting performance.

General health: Heavy consumption of alcoholic drinks over time can cause many health problems and damage many parts of the body. For example, it can cause heart and liver disease and increase the risk of various types of cancers. There is also evidence that heavy alcohol consumption can cause muscle weakness and loss of muscle tissue.

Weight management: Not only is alcohol high in kilojoules it is also associated with poor food choices. There is also evidence that if a person eats high-fat foods while drinking alcohol, the fat in these foods is unlikely to be used or stored properly in the body as the body prioritises the metabolization of alcohol.

Social problems: Alcohol can affect relationships. There may be conflict among team mates if a person continuously misses training, turns up with a hangover, performs poorly or embarrasses the team/sport through poor behaviour.

Mental health issues: There is a relationship between alcohol and poor mental health. Some people may use alcohol in an attempt to cope with their mental health issues; however, there is evidence that for some people, alcohol can increase the risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Minimising the risks

To help people make informed decisions about their drinking and the risks to their health, the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) has developed a set of guidelines.

In general, the guidelines state that there is no safe level of drinking and the more a person drinks, the greater the risk of harms. More specifically, the guidelines provide the following recommendations:

  • For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the risk of an alcohol-related disease or injury during their lifetime. With every drink above this guideline, the risk increases substantially.
  • 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. With every drink above this guideline, the risk of injury increases dramatically.
  • For children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol is the safest option. Young drinkers are at a greater risk of alcohol related harm as the brain continues to develop and undergoes many changes throughout adolescence. Drinking alcohol can affect brain development and may lead to alcohol-related harms later in life.
  • For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option. Alcohol crosses the placenta to the unborn baby, this can affect the development of the baby and may also cause problems such as bleeding, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. Alcohol can reduce milk supply and also passes through the blood stream into breastmilk, affecting the baby’s feeding and sleeping patterns, and development.

 

Some helpful strategies to manage drinking

Whether having a quiet drink with team mates or celebrating a win, there are a range of practical strategies that can help people manage their alcohol consumption. Some examples are outlined below.

  • Look out for each other: Let your team mates know if they’ve had enough to drink.
  • Plan ahead: For example, how will you get home safely? Who will you call if you need help?
  • Set limits for yourself, and stick to them: Be aware of how alcohol affects you as an individual and don’t let other people pressure you into drinking more than you want.
  • Alternate an alcoholic drink with water: This a good tactic to avoid drinking too much too soon, it also keeps you hydrated and can help you avoid an unwanted hangover the next day.
  • Eat before and while you are drinking: If you have a full stomach, alcoholic drinks will be absorbed more slowly. Try to avoid salty snacks, which will make you thirsty.
  • Pace yourself and have one drink at a time: Don’t let people top up your drinks as it can make it hard to keep track of how much alcohol you have consumed.
  • Know what you are drinking: Not all drinks contain the same concentration of alcohol. Some drinks, such as the sweet flavoured ready-to-drink or pre-mixed spirits/wine, can be quite strong, even though they don’t taste like it. If you are not sure, read the label.
  • Try the low-alcohol alternative: A wide range of light beers as well as some non-alcoholic beers are available. Low-alcohol or non-alcoholic wines are also becoming more available. Most bars or pubs that serve cocktails also serve non-alcoholic versions (mocktails).
  • Avoid “shouts”: Drink at your own pace—not someone else’s. If you do get stuck in a shout, consider a non-alcoholic drink for yourself when it’s your turn.
  • Stay busy: If you have something to do (such as playing pool, games, dancing or listening to music) it can take the focus away from drinking.

More information

If you are worried about your drinking, and would like help, information, counselling, advice and referral to treatment contact:

  • Your family doctor
  • Your local community health service
  • DirectLine on tel. 1800 888 236
  • Counselling online on web counsellingonline.org.au
  • Family Drug Help on tel. 1300 660 068

For more information on drugs and drug prevention contact:

  • DrugInfo on tel. 1300 85 85 84, email druginfo@adf.org.au

 

References

  1. 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008. Available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/illicit-use-of-drugs/ndshs-2016-detailed/contents/table-of-contents
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Causes of Death, Australia 2017. Available at: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2017~Main%20Features~Deaths%20due%20to%20harmful%20alcohol%20consumption%20in%20Australia~4
  3. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2017-18: Key Findings. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019. Available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/alcohol-other-drug-treatment-services/aodts-2017-18-key-findings/contents/drugs-of-concern

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