Is any amount of alcohol good? Most people partake in having an alcoholic beverage at some point. Some people only drink on special occasions. Other people drink only a few times a year or a 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, there seems to be 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 are individualized based on a person’s body composition, amount of alcohol ingested, length of time the alcohol was consumed, type of beverage, and frequency of consumption. Due to all of this, the relationship between alcohol and your health is amazingly complex.
To understand this connection, we need to take a closer look at alcohol and its effects on your body. The active ingredient in alcohol is a chemical called ethanol, which can make you drunk. Ethanol decreases the communication between brain cells, causing many people to feel less self-conscious or shy. The lowered inhibitions often result in impaired judgment, leading people to do things they regret once sober.
Ethanol gets absorbed from your stomach into your bloodstream. The only way to get it out of your bloodstream is through the filtration process in your liver, which is why your liver is particularly vulnerable to consuming 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 daily. The ethanol causes an increased amount of fat inside the liver cells, making them unable to function correctly. The condition is usually symptomless and is fully reversible but requires the person not to drink again in the future to prevent reoccurrence. A severe complication is cirrhosis, which is when liver cells are replaced by scar tissue, causing many health problems. The disorder is irreversible. If serious enough, the person will need a liver transplant to save their life.
Your brain is susceptible to chronic alcohol abuse because alcohol represses the communication between brain cells. Over time, 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 to be 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. However, this only lasts a little while. To continue to suppress their feelings, these individuals need to continue to drink. The cycle becomes unrelenting and can quickly get out of control.
Alcohol is a toxin to your body and increases your risk of certain types of cancer significantly, specifically mouth, throat, colon, breast, or liver cancer. The risk level is high enough that just one drink per day is thought to increase your chances 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 effects of alcohol on the unborn child are numerous and entirely preventable. The defects that alcohol causes 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 discussed, but what do they actually mean?
Alcohol use is consuming light to moderate amounts, whereas alcohol abuse is consuming excessive amounts of it frequently. Moderate amounts of alcohol are one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men. The definition of a “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), or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits, or hard liquor (40% alcohol).
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. Binging drinking is when you purposely drink a large amount of alcohol to get drunk. It’s a form of abuse. Typically, it is when women consume four or more drinks in two hours, or men consume five or more drinks during the same time frame.
Alcohol is addicting. It’s estimated that 12% of Americans will be dependent on alcohol at some point during their life. Alcohol dependence can be defined in various ways, like having alcohol cravings, inability to abstain, and loss of self-control while drinking. Numerous factors can predispose you to alcohol dependence, such as family history, social environment, mental health, and genetics.
Excessive drinking is the most common form of “drug” abuse in the United States, and it’s the third leading cause of preventable deaths when you consider chronic diseases, traffic accidents, injuries, and social problems caused by it. Besides serious injuries and death, excessive alcohol abuse has been shown to cause weight gain, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, perpetuate the development of Type 2 diabetes, suppress your immune system, raise blood pressure, and many more.
On the other hand, moderate alcohol use is shown to have some health benefits, like weight loss, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, and reduced insulin resistance (the main symptom of Type 2 diabetes). It also reduces the chances of having a stroke, decreases the risk of dementia, lowers blood pressure, increases HDL (good cholesterol) levels in your bloodstream, and lowers stress/anxiety temporarily. Light to moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce the chance of premature death.
While all of these health benefits seem like they would be great to have, there are some things to keep in mind if you consume alcohol. After fat, alcohol is the most energy-rich nutrient, with 7 calories per gram. So, one glass of beer has the same number of calories as a glass of soda. 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 beneficial antioxidants. Overall, it doesn’t matter what you drink, but how much and frequently you drink.
If you don’t drink, don’t start without consulting your doctor because you feel you might gain health benefits from drinking. It’s essential 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 do drink, do so in moderation. Don’t over-indulge, which is easier if you sip and don’t gulp while drinking. Eat food while drinking to help you feel full without needing to ingest a large volume of alcohol to get to the same level of fullness. Always remember not to 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 promising, but several things still 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’re also aware of other things that would be important to having good health, such as exercise and healthy eating.
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’s 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, protecting yourself and others around you. Alcohol is not an evil substance. It’s our use, or misuse, of it that causes so many problems. Remember, alcohol use is acceptable, but alcohol abuse isn’t!