Alcohol and your health: less is more when it comes to healthy living

Wondering what to make of the claim that drinking alcohol leads to a healthier heart?

You’re not alone. The media is abuzz with both good and bad news about alcohol, making it hard to know which facts are worth swallowing. But rather than pound back the pale ale in either celebration or confusion, consider this fact: while alcohol does indeed have some health benefits, the scope of those benefits is limited. The harmful effects of alcohol – on the body as well as on society – far outweigh the good.

What alcohol can add to your health

  • Heart help

    Moderate alcohol consumption – one or two drinks per day – raises good cholesterol and blood protein levels, thus lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, in men over 45 and women over 55. In France, where red wine plays a regular role in the everyday diet, researchers note consistently low rates of heart disease among the population.

  • Stress relief

    Alcohol also serves as a stress reliever for a great many people in our ever-on-the-go society. After one drink, at a blood alcohol concentration of 0.02% (0.02 grams per 100ml of blood), many people feel a bit more relaxed and at ease with the world.

Women’s bodies more vulnerable to harm from alcohol

When it comes to alcohol consumption, men and women are anything but equal, and women are particularly vulnerable to the physical effects of alcohol.

  • Lower body weight and less water in the body mean women cannot safely consume the same amount of alcohol as men.
  • Women drinkers develop liver cancer and damage to their brain structure after fewer years of heavy drinking than men.
  • Drinking during adolescence and the young adult years can dramatically compromise bone quality and may increase risk for osteoporosis.
  • Women with alcohol problems can have a variety of sexual and reproductive health problems.
  • Drinking during pregnancy can negatively impact fetal brain development, growth, physical appearance, learning and intelligence.
  • Drinking during lactation exposes a breastfed baby to alcohol and can cause deficiencies in infant nutrition, growth, motor development, early learning and behaviour.

With more at stake than men, women in general gain more by drinking less or not at all.

So, what’s wrong with kicking back with a cool one after a long day? Nothing, say alcohol experts. It’s what happens after more than one drink that is troubling. And all too often, ‘having a drink’ in fact amounts to two, three, or even more visits to the liquor cabinet. Additional drinks can boost confidence levels in some people, and can free others from the shackles of shyness. But most consumers experience the depressant effects of alcohol, leading to fatigue and negativity.

Alcohol shouldn’t be considered a health measure. If you’ve never been much of a drinker, there’s no health-related reason to add the substance to your routine. According to health experts, a strong heart and stress-free existence are better achieved through adequate exercise and a healthy diet.

How alcohol can compromise good health

Despite the benefits noted, the harmful effects of alcohol far outweigh the good. This is particularly true for women.

  • Harm to the body

    Drinking alcohol increases a person’s risk of developing several types of cancer and other chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Long-term alcohol use can lead to diseases of the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, digestive system and reproductive system.

  • Harm to society

    The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission reports: “Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of alcohol-related death, and alcohol consumption is a major contributing factor in injuries and fatalities due to falls, drowning and fires; work-related accidents, absenteeism and illness; and crimes of violence including spousal abuse and physical assault.”

    Equally serious are the social implications of alcoholism-job loss, relationship failure, disintegration of the family unit, and the passing on of unhealthy drinking habits to the next generation. Teen alcoholism is more likely in families wherein parents struggle with alcohol addiction or simply drink too often.

    One of the most serious harms to society is caused by the effects alcohol can have on a growing fetus. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the medical term used to describe a combination of abnormalities that result from the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. A fetus exposed to alcohol can have life-long disabilities and health problems. The effects are permanent. Some people with FASD will need a lifetime of extra health care, education and social services. All alcoholic drinks are toxic to a growing baby, and the safest pregnancy is the one that is alcohol-free.

  • Fatal choices made by so-called ‘social’ drinkers

    It’s not just alcoholics who can cause harm. Social drinkers also put their lives, and the lives of others, at risk by making bad decisions after they’ve been drinking. Dr. Tim Stockwell, director at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, says that alcohol-related violence and accidents account for approximately 6000 deaths per year in Canada.

    Social drinkers who sip a few too many on a single occasion cause more physical damage or death than those with an alcohol dependency. This is what researchers call the prevention paradox – because social drinkers vastly outnumber heavy drinkers, the negative impact of their drinking on society is much more costly overall.

How alcohol causes harm

When an alcoholic beverage is consumed, ethanol is absorbed in the bloodstream, depressing the central nervous system and altering the function of cells and organs throughout the body. When more than one drink is consumed, a person’s thinking and judgment can be impaired. Their speech, vision, balance, and coordination can also be affected.

Most people associate alcohol-related harm with alcoholism, also referred to by health professionals as alcohol dependence. Excessive long-term drinking can, of course, lead to chronic health problems and early death. But more significant are the risks associated with a single bout of excessive drinking.

Teen drinking involves special risks

Teens who use alcohol are exposed to higher risks than adults and the consequences are often more extreme.

  • Alcohol affects the developing brain, making young people more vulnerable to alcohol-induced learning and memory impairments.
  • Early alcohol use is linked with the development of problems with alcohol and other drugs at a later age.
  • Early alcohol use has been linked with the development of other problems such as crime.
  • Young people have a lower tolerance to alcohol but an increased tendency to risk-taking behaviour which combine to create much higher risk of accidents, violence, and unsafe sexual behaviour.

Most Canadian teens do use alcohol:

  • 62% of 15-17 year old Canadians used alcohol in the past year.
  • 91% of 18-19 year old Canadians used alcohol in the past year.

The risks to health and safety rise rapidly with each additional drink. According to Dr. Stockwell, “Most acute harm is from intoxication, not just injuries and accidents, but also strokes, overdose, poisoning and pancreatic problems.” As well, intoxication is a leading factor in the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as a result of unsafe sexual practices. Overdrinking can also lead to unplanned pregnancies.

According to analysis of the recent Canadian Addictions Survey, soon to be published by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, at least one third of the people who drink have put themselves at significant risk of harm in the past year.

How much is too much?

The effects of alcohol depend on a range of factors – the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream, age, weight, gender, metabolism, and previous experience with alcohol. Women, for example, are affected differently than men.

Some people should not drink at all. For example, pregnant women are advised not to drink, as no amount of alcohol is known to be safe for fetal development.

People who use alcohol are urged to drink with caution. The best way to keep your alcohol consumption in check is to follow low-risk drinking guidelines. According to these guidelines developed by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and endorsed by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, you can minimize your risk by having no more than two drinks a day with a weekly maximum of nine drinks for women or 14 for men.

Good advice to keep in mind

  • Fill your stomach with food before reaching for your first cold one. Food slows down the absorption of alcohol in the stomach, thus reducing peak alcohol levels and the feeling of intoxication.
  • Don’t exceed your limit. Heavy drinking is defined as having consumed five or more drinks on one occasion, twelve or more times in one year. According to a nation-wide survey in 2004, just over 20% of Canadians drink much more than is healthy for either the body or society – they have five or more drinks in one setting at least once a month.
  • Don’t mix alcohol with medication. People taking certain prescription medications or depressant drugs, such as sleeping pills or tranquilizers, should avoid adding alcohol to the mix, as the results could be deadly. Even the combination of alcohol and small amounts of cannabis or over-the-counter antihistamines (cold or allergy medicines) could make a person dangerous behind the wheel of a vehicle.
  • Forget driving if you’ve been drinking at the office party or your friend’s birthday bash, especially if you’re anywhere near the legal limit of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08.

When it comes to alcohol and health, less really is more to stay healthy and safe. Does this mean steering clear of the punchbowl at the staff barbecue this summer? Not exactly. Most people can handle having a drink or two on social occasions. But if you do choose to add alcohol to your summer plans, do so with caution.

Do yourself and others a favour by drinking sensibly and responsibly.