Alcohol and Health
Would my health improve if I stopped drinking alcohol?
Do I have to stop drinking to change my body? Or – could alcohol actually be good for you?
Maybe I should give up alcohol?
Have you ever asked yourself this question?
Many of my clients have.
At the same time, like many of my clients, I have never felt that I should give up alcohol entirely because we consider our alcohol consumption to be “moderate”.
However, different drinks with more or less alcohol content appear pretty often in our lives – some like to have a beer to celebrate the end of the working day or to treat themselves to a glass of wine or a cocktail at the weekend …
The drinks can start to add up …
If we think we are living a healthy lifestyle – it’s easy to justify drinking alcohol – we exercise, we try to eat healthy …
Are we okay?
Maybe we are justifying something we shouldn’t be justifying?
Are we telling ourselves that beer or red wine are healthy because they are full of antioxidants?
And, you know, the answer is not simple.
In this article, let’s try to understand the real risks of drinking alcohol.
You may have heard that moderate drinking is actually good for you.
Moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, gallstones and coronary heart disease.
Indeed, it seems that light to moderate drinking is good for the heart and circulatory system, helping to reduce the risk of cardiac arrest and thrombotic stroke by 25-40%.
Several studies suggest that drinkers – even heavy drinkers – actually live longer than non-drinkers.
This topic is often in the headlines of magazines and various online media.
What is not mentioned is that health experts recommend not to start drinking if you haven’t started yet.
Why? If moderate alcohol consumption is already so beneficial – and even studies confirm this – then why not add a glass or two of antioxidant-rich red wine to your menu?
The answer is simple – No one knows what amount of alcohol is or is not healthy for each of us.
Despite all the headlines and studies on alcohol consumption – Most of the studies on the possible health benefits of alcohol are large, long-term epidemiological studies.
These types of studies never prove anything!
Instead of proving that X causes Y, they simply point out that X seems to be related to Y.
Therefore, although many studies show that people who drink alcohol in moderation have fewer health problems like those mentioned above than non-users, this does not necessarily mean that these benefits are caused by alcohol consumption.
In particular, on the basis of these studies, we cannot say that alcohol reduces specific risks of cardiovascular disease.
For example, it is possible that alcohol consumption raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol, but it is equally possible that moderate alcohol consumption reduces stress, and it is stress reduction, not alcohol, that is the cause of the increase in ‘good’ cholesterol.
Or – alcohol in small doses does not affect our bodies at all.
It’s more likely that other things are going on in the lives of people (who consume alcohol moderately) that keep them healthy and that are not related to drinking, such as:
- They have strong and resilient genes.
- They are less stressed.
- They have good social connections and support.
- They have a healthy lifestyle.
- Or simply and frankly – We just don’t know exactly.
Any physiological effects of alcohol could vary from person to person – an amount of alcohol that may help your heart health may harm someone else’s, for example, if they have high blood pressure.
Most studies show that these health benefits only occur with light to moderate drinking (even without some heavy binge drinking).
And here we come to the question:
What is moderate drinking anyway?
Definitions vary, but on the average, “moderate drinking” means:
- For women, up to seven drinks a week, but no more than three drinks per day.
- For men, up to 14 drinks per week, but no more than four drinks per day.
As a guide, one drink is:
- 355 ml/12 oz beer with an alcohol content of 4.2-5%.
- 236-297 ml/8-10 oz flavoured malt beverages with an alcohol content of ~7%.
- 148 ml/5 oz wine with an alcohol content of 12%.
- 89-118 ml/3-4 oz fortified wine (port, sherry …) with an alcohol content of 17%.
- 59-89 ml/2-3 oz liqueur or aperitif with an alcohol content of 24%.
- 44 ml/1.5 oz cognac, brandy, gin, tequila, whisky, vodka … with an alcohol content of 40%.
Excessive drinking is considered:
- For men, five or more drinks in two hours.
- For women, four or more drinks in two hours.
When did you last put wine in the measuring cup or count the total number of drinks at the end of the week?
Research shows that people generally underestimate their alcohol consumption
In other words, the line between light, moderate and “heavy” drinking is easily crossed without even realising it.
For example, if a woman drinks:
- 1 glass of wine with lunch on weekdays.
- A couple of Martinis on a Friday night.
- On Saturday, with friends, a glass of gin and tonic and two glasses of wine.
It seems not like much, but that’s 10 drinks per week (moderate drinking – 7 drinks per week).
This can become a problem because excessive drinking definitely comes with serious health risks.
Risks of moderate alcohol consumption
Risks of excessive alcohol consumption
High blood pressure.
Changes in cognitive abilities.
Infectious diseases/impaired immune response.
Cancer (mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, breast).
Damaged intestinal barrier.
Increased risk of inflammation/outbreaks of autoimmune disorders.
Impaired sexual function.
Impaired reproductive function.
Diseases of the thyroid gland.
Exacerbation of existing diseases such as hepatitis.
Weight gain. **
Impairment of certain medicines.
Decrease in bone density.
Changes in fat metabolism.
* Especially if there is a family history of alcoholism.
** If alcohol makes you want to eat more or choose energy-dense foods.
Especially in young men, even moderate drinking increases the risk of accidental injury or death caused by “Hey, y’all, hold my beer and watch out!” – the effect of youthful bravado combined with weaker impulse control and things like motor vehicles etc.
Drinking alcohol is always associated with possible health effects
After all, alcohol is a kind of poison that we can enjoy relatively safely because it is converted into less harmful substances in our bodies:
- Using the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), we convert ethanol to acetaldehyde, and then to acetate. The body breaks acetate down into carbon dioxide and water.
- A second system for processing alcohol, the microsomal ethanol oxidizing system (MEOS), involves cytochrome P450 (CYP), an enzyme group that chemically affects potentially toxic molecules (such as medications) so they can be safely excreted.
For people who consume alcohol in small quantities, MEOS only recycles about 10% of ethanol. But the more and the stronger alcoholic drinks we consume, the stronger this system works.
This means that MEOS may be less available to recycle other toxins. In other words, oxidative cell damage and other harms caused by high alcohol consumption increase.
The essence is as follows:
- To avoid alcohol poisoning, our bodies need to convert alcohol into compounds that are harmless or less harmful;
- Our ability to process alcohol depends on many factors, such as:
- Our natural individual genetic resilience.
- Our ethnic origin and genetic background (for example, many people of East Asian ancestry have a genetically linked deficiency of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, which affects their ability to process alcohol properly).
- Our age.
- Our body size.
- Our gender.
- Our individual combinations of conversion enzymes, etc.
- Dosage is important, however – any amount of alcohol must be processed by our bodies.
What the conclusions are?
What amount of alcohol balances pleasure with our body’s ability to react and recover after processing the poison?
You know – this is different for everyone, so there is no definitive answer.
The above moderate drinking guidelines for men and women are the experts’ best guess about the amount of alcohol that most people can consume with statistically minimal risk.
This does not mean that moderate alcohol consumption does not pose risks.
But what if I like to have a drink?
Some people tend to separate physical well-being from emotional pleasure, others don’t. However, the truth is that quality of life, pleasure and social contact are important components of our health.
In continental Europe, wine is drunk at lunchtime (for the Scandinavians, it is lättöl, a light beer). In the UK and Japan, it’s common to have a pub or two after work. Northern Europeans love their brennivin, glögg or akvavit (not to mention vodka). South America and South Africa are famous for their red wines.
In other words, for a large part of the world’s population, alcohol – whether beer, wine or other spirits – is an almost inseparable part of life.
And if you consume it in moderation, your life is more likely to be filled with convivial evenings with friends, champagne toasts etc.
And there are undeniable benefits:
- Pleasure. Assuming you don’t drink a kind of homemade moonshine or anything like it, alcoholic beverages are usually quite tasty.
- Relaxation. A little alcohol in the blood helps us to feel relaxed. And a glass of good wine, like a good meal, allows us to relax a little for a while.
- Creativity. There is evidence that when we are tipsy, we are sometimes more successful at solving problems because our out-of-the-box/creative thinking is enhanced.
- Social connection. Drinking wine can promote social bonding through so-called ‘golden moments’ when we all smile and laugh together at the same joke. This feeling of togetherness, belonging and joy can contribute to both our health and longevity.
If you drink, enjoy the drink!
If moderate drinking adds value and pleasure to your life – drink.
Don’t drink because:
- You are stressed.
- Out of habit.
- Others don’t want to drink alone.
- It’s “healthy”.
Forget the potential health benefits of alcohol
There are many other and definitely more effective ways to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as a healthy lifestyle, a balanced diet, sports, and not smoking …
At the same time.
The desire to enjoy a perfect Old Fashioned, a rare sake or a good wine is probably the best reason for alcohol consumption.
Like food, drinks should be enjoyed and preferably in small quantities 😊.
Drinking or not drinking is neither healthy nor unhealthy
This is about trade-offs.
Alcohol is just one of many factors that affect our health and physical performance.
Whether to continue or reduce your drinking depends on what your goals are, how much you drink and what you drink.
Only you know what you are or are not ready to change in your life and why.
Sometimes, you just have to make a choice – say “yes” or “no”:
- Saying “yes” to a nice 6-Pack Abs can mean saying “no” to a few drinks at the bar.
- Saying yes to a Friday happy hour can mean saying no to a workout on Saturday morning.
- Saying “yes” to marathon training can mean saying “no” to drinks at the weekend.
- Saying “yes” to better sleep (and better concentration and better mood) can mean saying “no” to a daily glass of wine with lunch or dinner.
- Saying “yes” to moderate alcohol consumption can mean finding a way to say “no” to stress triggers – people or situations that make you want to drink.
Or what you are or are not ready to do to reduce your alcohol consumption:
- Even if you are not prepared to reduce your overall alcohol consumption – perhaps you can drink more slowly and mindfully?
- Maybe you are trying to lose weight, so consider drinking a little less, for example – 2 beers instead of 3.
- You may be prepared to avoid alcohol at most social events, but you may not be prepared to avoid a glass of wine at your partner’s birthday party.
Maybe in the future, there will be a “better” answer to the question of how much alcohol is healthy or unhealthy.
We do not know this for now.
At least, we don’t know for sure.
That’s good 😊.
The alcohol guidelines do not tell us what the effects of alcohol are for each of us. We are different!
So, forget the advices of the “experts” for a moment.
Instead, listen to yourself, to your body.
Listen to what it tells you. Watch yourself carefully, collect data and assess how alcohol works or doesn’t work for you.
Write your own “Owner’s Manual” – for yourself as a unique person, set priorities and try to follow them.