Alcohol consumption & health – The GOOD and the BAD
Regular and heavy alcohol consumption can cause injury, ill health and premature death. Light to moderate alcohol consumption in older adults may lower the risk of several chronic conditions.
Researchers have linked alcohol consumption to more than 60 diseases.
“Alcohol does all kinds of things in the body, and we’re not fully aware of all its effects,” says James C. Garbutt, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and a researcher at the university’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies. “It’s a pretty complicated little molecule.”
There are severe health risks associated to heavy drinking, however, moderate drinking can actually provide some health benefits. Let’s explore the benefits and impacts of alcohol level intake.
The GOOD | Health benefits as a moderate drinker
The definition of moderate drinking is something of a balancing act. Moderate drinking sits at the point at which the health benefits of alcohol clearly outweigh the risks. The latest consensus places this point at no more than one to two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women.
7 health benefits of drinking alcohol moderately
- It can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease
The School of Public Health at Harvard University found that “moderate amounts of alcohol raises levels of high-density lipoprotein, HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol and higher HDL levels are associated with greater protection against heart disease. Moderate alcohol consumption has also been linked with beneficial changes ranging from better sensitivity to insulin to improvements in factors that influence blood clotting… Such changes would tend to prevent the formation of small blood clots that can block arteries in the heart, neck, and brain, the ultimate cause of many heart attacks and the most common kind of stroke.” This finding is applicable to both men and women who have not been previously diagnosed with any type of cardiovascular disease.
- It can lengthen your life
Drinking occasionally could add a few years to your life. A study by the Catholic University of Campobasso reported that drinking less than four or two drinks per day for men and women respectively could reduce the risk of death by 18 percent, as reported by Reuters. “Little amounts, preferably during meals, this appears to be the right way (to drink alcohol),” said Dr. Giovanni de Gaetano of Catholic University, another author on the study. “This is another feature of the Mediterranean diet, where alcohol, wine above all, is the ideal partner of a dinner or lunch, but that’s all: the rest of the day must be absolutely alcohol-free.”
- It can improve your libido
Contrary to prior beliefs, newer research has found that moderate drinking might actually protect against erectile dysfunction in the same way that drinking red wine might benefit heart disease. In a 2009 study published in the, Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found that the chances of erectile dysfunction were reduced by 25% – 30% among alcohol drinkers. The lead researcher, Kew-Kim Chew, an epidemiologist at the University of West Australia, conducted the study with 1,770 Australian men. In his study, Chew cautiously noted that he and his team in no way are advising men to hit the bottle, and that further research is needed to accurately connect impotence and alcohol consumption.
- It helps prevent against the common cold
The Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University found that while susceptibility to the common cold was increased by smoking, moderate alcohol consumption led to a decrease in common cold cases for nonsmokers. This study was conducted in 1993 with 391 adults. In 2002, according to the New York Times, Spanish researchers found that by drinking eight to 14 glasses of wine per week, particularly red wine, one could see a 60% reduction in the risk of developing a cold. The scientists suspected that this had something to do with the antioxidant properties of wine.
- It can decrease chances of developing dementia
In a study that included more than 365,000 participants since 1977, as reported in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to develop cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. “Small amounts of alcohol might, in effect, make brain cells more fit. Alcohol in moderate amounts stresses cells and thus toughens them up to cope with major stresses down the road that could cause dementia,” said Edward J. Neafsey, Ph.D., co-author of the study, as reported by Science Daily. “We don’t recommend that nondrinkers start drinking,” Neafsey said. “But moderate drinking — if it is truly moderate — can be beneficial.”
- It can reduce the risk of gallstones
Drinking two units of alcohol per day can reduce the risk of gallstones by one-third, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia. The study found that those who reported consuming two UK units of alcohol per day had a one-third reduction in their risk of developing gallstones. “Researchers emphasised that their findings show the benefits of moderate alcohol intake but stress that excessive alcohol intake can cause health problems,” according to the study.
- Lowers the chance of diabetes
Results of a Dutch study showed that healthy adults who drink one to two glasses per day have a decreased chance of developing type 2 diabetes, in comparison to those who don’t drink at all. “The results of the investigation show that moderate alcohol consumption can play a part in a healthy lifestyle to help reduce the risk of developing diabetes type 2,” researchers said in a statement to Reuters.
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…and the BAD | Health impacts as a chronic heavy drinker
The relevance and severity of these impacts will vary signficantly depending on the current health conditions, previous health issues, body type, body mass / weight and hereditary conditioning etc.
12 health impacts linked to heavy drinking.
Heavy drinking can cause the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be abnormally low. This condition, known as anemia, can trigger a host of symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness.
“Habitual drinking increases the risk of cancer,” says Jurgen Rehm, PhD, chairman of the University of Toronto’s department of addiction policy and a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, also in Toronto. Scientists believe the increased risk comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen. Cancer sites linked to alcohol use include the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region. Cancer risk rises even higher in heavy drinkers who also use tobacco.
- Cardiovascular disease
Heavy drinking, especially bingeing, makes platelets more likely to clump together into blood clots, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. In a landmark study published in 2005, Harvard researchers found that binge drinking doubled the risk of death among people who initially survived a heart attack. However, moderate drinking can actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and many heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, a sometimes-lethal condition in which the liver is so heavily scarred that it is unable to function. But it’s hard to predict which drinkers will develop cirrhosis. “Some people who drink huge amounts never get cirrhosis, and some who don’t drink very much do get it,” Saitz says. For some unknown reason, women seem to be especially vulnerable.
As people age, their brains shrink, on average, at a rate of about 1.9% per decade. That’s considered normal. But heavy drinking speeds the shrinkage of certain key regions in the brain, resulting in memory loss and other symptoms of dementia. Heavy drinking can also lead to subtle but potentially debilitating deficits in the ability to plan, make judgments, solve problems, and perform other aspects of “executive function,” which are “the higher-order abilities that allow us to maximize our function as human beings,” Garbutt says.
It’s long been known that heavy drinking often goes hand in hand with depression, but there has been debate about which came first — the drinking or the depression. One theory is that depressed people turned to alcohol in an attempt to “self-medicate” to ease their emotional pain. But a large study from New Zealand showed that it was probably the other way around — that is, heavy drinking led to depression.
Heavy drinking can cause epilepsy and can trigger seizures even in people who don’t have epilepsy. It can also interfere with the action of the medications used to treat convulsions.
A painful condition, gout is caused by the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints. Although some cases are largely hereditary, alcohol and other dietary factors seem to play a role. Alcohol also seems to aggravate existing cases of gout.
- High blood pressure
Alcohol can disrupt the sympathetic nervous system, which, among other things, controls the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature, exertion, etc. Heavy drinking — and bingeing, in particular — can cause blood pressure to rise. Over time, this effect can become chronic. High blood pressure can lead to many other health problems, including kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke.
- Infectious disease
Heavy drinking suppresses the immune system, providing a toehold for infections, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases (including some that cause infertility). People who drink heavily also are more likely to engage in risky sex. “Heavy drinking is associated with a three-fold increase in the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease,” Rehmn says.
- Nerve damage
Heavy drinking can cause a form of nerve damage known as alcoholic neuropathy, which can produce a painful pins-and-needles feeling or numbness in the extremities as well as muscle weakness, incontinence, constipation, erectile dysfunction, and other problems. Alcoholic neuropathy may arise because alcohol is toxic to nerve cells, or because nutritional deficiencies attributable to heavy drinking compromise nerve function.
In addition to causing stomach irritation (gastritis), drinking can inflame the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis interferes with the digestive process, causing severe abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea –and “it’s not fixable,” Saitz says. Some cases of chronic pancreatitis are triggered by gallstones, but up to 60% stem from alcohol consumption.
Read more on the importance of keeping health over 60 in volume 2.
Volume two: Looking after your health and well-being after 60
– Medical Daily Healthy Living, 7 Health Benefits Of Drinking Alcohol. Sabrina Bachai. July 10, 2013. Read full article here.
– WebMD, 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking. Read full article here
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