Rethinking Drinking: Know the Harmful Effects of Alcohol
Many people associate having a drink with a feeling of relaxation or a warm ‘buzz’, essentially using alcohol as a means of harmless fun. Whilst one or two glasses of wine, or a few beers, can be a nice way of unwinding, excessive consumption can have a significant impact on your health. So how does alcohol affect your body? Slurred speech, poor coordination, nausea, vomiting, lack of judgement, volatile emotions, and blackouts can all follow excessive alcohol consumption. Most people will have experienced one or more of these effects at some point, crossing the line from a moderate intake to an unhealthy consumption.
For most people, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a drink now and then, but it’s important to be mindful of how much you consume. Drinking more than two standard drinks per day is associated with an increased risk of alcohol-related disease or injury while drinking more than four standard drinks at any given time is classified as binge-drinking, which can have damaging effects on your physical, mental and social health.
Although excessive consumption is harmful to everyone, long-term alcohol misuse affects each person differently and can impact the following:
- Brain: Alcohol negatively affects the way the brain, central nervous system, and body communicate with each other, leading to symptoms of impaired cognitive function, such as slurred speech and poor coordination. If alcohol is misused over a number of years, it can even lead to brain and nervous system damage;
- Liver: The liver is responsible for detoxifying and eliminating potentially harmful substances from our body, including alcohol. Regular intake can burden the liver’s detoxification pathways and cause inflammation that may damage liver cells, reduce liver function and, in extreme cases, cause liver disease;
- Pancreas: The harmful effects of alcohol can cause inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis, which negatively affects digestive processes, leading to gut symptoms including recurrent abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. The pancreas also produces hormones that control blood sugar regulation (such as insulin) and in extreme cases, chronic alcohol abuse can contribute to diabetes;
- Stomach: Excessive alcohol intake can cause the stomach to produce more acid than usual, which may lead to bouts of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea;
- Microbiome: Alcohol harms beneficial gut bacteria, promoting inflammation of the gut lining that can lead to a condition known as ‘leaky’ gut. A healthy gut lining acts as a barrier, keeping toxins and other potentially harmful substances within the gut, and out of the bloodstream. If the gut lining is ‘leaky’, these substances can cross the gut barrier increasing the risk of a diverse number of chronic diseases, such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, arthritis, and obesity. For more information about the microbiome contact us.
- Heart: Alcohol can disrupt the electrical signals sent to and from the heart, which can affect the heartbeat. This can increase the risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, ischaemia (restricted supply of blood to the heart), heart disease and stroke;
- Cancer: Alcohol consumption has been shown to increase the risk of many different types of cancer, including cancers of the oesophagus, pancreas, gallbladder, stomach, bowel, endometrium, ovary, kidney, breast and prostate.
Alcohol is a big part of many people’s social lives. Whether it’s relaxing at home with your partner over a glass of wine, ending the working week with a few drinks, or celebrating special occasions, it can be hard to moderate your drinking. Whatever the scenario, employing these strategies can help you reduce your alcohol intake:
- Keep track of standard drinks and avoid exceeding four drinks (preferably consuming two or less) on any given occasion;
- Drink slowly and put your glass down between sips to avoid continual drinking;
- Don’t let people top up your drinks as this makes it hard to keep track of how much alcohol you have consumed;
- Avoid ’rounds’ to ensure you drink at your own pace;
- Avoid salty snacks as these increase your thirst and stimulate you to drink more;
- Pace yourself by having a ‘spacer’, such as water or another non-alcoholic drink between drinks;
- Try low-alcohol alternatives, such as light beers and low alcohol premixed drinks;
- Volunteer to be the designated driver for the night;
- Aim for at least three alcohol-free days each week to give your body a break from drinking, or better yet
- Participate in Dry July and have an alcohol-free month. Click here for more information about how you can use Dry July as an opportunity to ‘spring-clean’ your liver and get your health on track.
Skip a drink now and then.
Indulging in a drink or two may be a way to unwind from life’s pressures, however, before those two drinks turn into four, take the time to consider the detrimental impact alcohol has on your health when you next reach for a drink.
Harper C. The neuropathology of alcohol-related brain damage. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 2009:136-140.
Shield KD et al. Chronic diseases and conditions related to alcohol use. Alcohol Res. 2014;35(2):155-171.
Engen PA, Green SJ, Voigt RM, Forsyth CB, Keshavarzian A. The gastrointestinal microbiome: alcohol effects on the composition of intestinal microbiota. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):223-36.
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