Is it good or bad for you?
Is any amount of alcohol good? Most people partake in having an alcoholic beverage at some point in their lives. For some people, they only drink on special occasions. Other people drink only a few times a year or few times a month. Some drink only on weekends and others have a glass of their favorite beverage after work every evening. Which one of these is the best for your health?
Every time you pull up your newsfeed it seems that there is some article about alcohol being good or bad for you. All these mixed signals make it incredibly confusing as to which is the truth. The reality is that the benefits or detriments of alcohol is individualized based off of a person’s body composition, amount of alcohol ingested, period of time the alcohol was consumed in, type of beverage and frequency of consumption. Due to all of this, the relationship between alcohol and your health is amazingly complex. In order to understand this connection, we need to take a closer look at alcohol and it’s affects on your body. The active ingredient in alcohol is a chemical called ethanol and this is what makes you drunk. Ethanol decreases the communication between brain cells and this causes many people to feel less self-conscious or shy, which is why inhibitions are lower often causing impaired judgement. This leads people to doing things that they regret once they are sober. Ethanol gets absorbed from your stomach into your bloodstream. The only way to get it out of your bloodstream is by the filtration process that takes place in your liver. This is the reason that your liver is particularly vulnerable to intaking large amounts or frequent ingestion of alcohol. If it gets damaged, it can cause a variety of liver complications. Fatty liver disease is one of these complications and occurs in over 90% of people who drink more than half an ounce of alcohol per day. The ethanol causes an increased amount of fat inside the liver cells making them unable to function properly. It is usually symptomless and is fully reversible but requires that the person not drink again in the future to prevent reoccurrence. A very serious complication is cirrhosis. This is when liver cells are replaced by scar tissue, which causes many health problems. This is irreversible and, if severe enough, need a liver transplant to save the person’s life. Your brain is very sensitive to chronic alcohol abuse and when you constantly repress the communication between brain cells, it can lead to permanent damage. Studies have found that alcohol abuse leads to brain shrinkage and increased risk of dementia. Both of these can cause people being unable to function independently. There is also a strong link between alcohol abuse and anxiety/depression. Part of this is thought to be that people who are anxious or depressed use alcohol as a way to escape stress or improve their mood. Obviously, this only lasts for a little while and to continue to suppress their feelings, these individuals need to continue to drink. This cycle becomes unrelenting and can easily get out of control. Alcohol is a toxin to your body and this increases your risk of certain types of cancer significantly, specifically mouth, throat, colon, breast or liver cancer. The risk is high enough that just one drink per day is thought to increase your risk of mouth and throat cancer by 20%. Also, it is calculated that 3.5% of all cancer deaths in the United States can be traced back to alcohol. Excessive consumption of alcohol increases your chance of not only cancer, but developing pancreatitis, heart muscle damage, stroke high blood pressure, liver diseases and sudden death. It also puts you at risk for accidental injury/death, suicide and alcohol withdrawal syndrome. For women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, the effect of alcohol on the unborn child are numerous and completely preventable. The defects that alcohol cause can affect development, growth, intelligence and behavior not only in the short term, but over the child’s entire life.
When talking about alcohol the terms use, abuse, moderate and excessive are utilized, but what do they actually mean? Alcohol use is consuming it in light to moderate amounts; whereas, alcohol abuse is consuming excessive amounts of it on a frequent basis. Moderate amounts of alcohol are one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men. Excessive amounts of alcohol are three or more standard drinks per day (seven or more standard drinks per week) for women and four or more standard drinks per day (fourteen or more standard drinks per week) for men. The definition for standard drink depends on where you are. In the United States, this means one of any of the following: 12 fluid ounces of beer (5% alcohol), 8-9 fluid ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol), 5 fluid ounces of table wine (12% alcohol) and 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits, or hard liquor (40% alcohol). Binging drinking is when you purposely drink large amount of alcohol to get drunk and it is a form of abuse. Typically, it is when women consume four or more drinks in a two-hour period or men consume five or more drinks during the same time frame. Alcohol is addicting and it is estimated that 12% of Americans will be dependent on alcohol at some point during their life. Excessive drinking is the most common form of “drug” abuse in the United States and it is the third main cause of preventable deaths when you take into account chronic diseases, traffic accidents, injuries and social problems caused by it. There are numerous factors that can predispose you to alcohol dependence, such as family history, social environment, mental health and genetics. Alcohol dependence can be defined in a variety of ways, like having alcohol cravings, inability to abstain and loss of self-control while drinking.
There is no question that excessive alcohol abuse is tied to numerous health problems. Besides serious injuries and death, it has been shown to cause weight gain, increases risk of cardiovascular disease, perpetuates the development of Type 2 diabetes, suppresses your immune system, raises blood pressure and many more. On the other hand, moderate alcohol use has been shown to cause weight loss, decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce insulin resistance (main symptom of Type 2 diabetes), reduces chances of having a stroke, decreases risk of dementia, lowers blood pressure, increases HDL (good cholesterol) levels in your bloodstream and reduces stress/anxiety temporarily. Light to moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce the chance of premature death. While all of theses health benefits seem like they would be great to have, there are somethings to keep in mind if you are going to consume alcohol. After fat, alcohol is the most energy rich nutrient with 7 calories per gram. This means one glass of beer has the same number of calories as a glass of soda and wine, due to the amount of sugar, has twice as many calories. Rum, vodka and whisky are also extremely high in sugar. Even though wine has sugar in it, red wine is high in antioxidants that are beneficial. Overall, it doesn’t matter what you drink, but how much and frequently you drink. It is important to avoid any alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, have alcoholism, a family history of alcoholism, have liver or pancreatic disease, have heart failure, take any medications (prescription or over-the-counter) that interact with alcohol or had a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. If you don’t drink, don’t start because you feel that you gain health benefits from drinking without consulting with your doctor first. If you do drink, doing so in moderation is key. This means don’t over-indulge, which is easier to do if you sip and don’t gulp. It is important to eat food while drinking this helps you feel full without the need to ingest a large volume of alcohol to get to the same level of fullness. Always remember to not drink and drive! If you know you are going out to have drinks, plan ahead by having a designated driver or use a taxi or some other service to get to and from where you will be.
The benefits of moderate alcohol intake seem to be promising, but there are still several things that need to be evaluated when considering results. Most people who drink in moderation are self-aware and able to regulate their intake. Typically, this means they are also aware of other things that would be important to having good health, such as exercise, healthy eating, etc. So, this begs the question does moderate alcohol ingestion lead to healthier lives or do healthy lifestyles lead to moderate alcohol intake? In any regard, it is well known that excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to significant health problems, therefore, it should be avoided. In consuming alcohol, it is essential to do it not only in moderation, but safely that protects yourself and others around you. Alcohol is not a bad substance, it is our use, or misuse, of it that causes so many problems. Remember, alcohol use is fine, but alcohol abuse isn’t!