Drink this in: What we should know about alcohol consumption

We humans are social animals. We like to mingle, compete, laugh, love and enjoy life. Consuming alcoholic beverages often plays a fairly significant role in that enjoyment by lowering inhibitions; for relaxing; and when involved in social activities. Many adults feel drinking wine or beer enhances a meal, and people often like how it feels when they are under the influence of alcohol.

In moderation, alcohol consumption isn’t considered bad for your health. But alcohol can fuel dangerous or addictive behaviors and contribute to a variety of life-threatening risks and illnesses, loss of productivity, poor judgment and other activities with potentially negative consequences.

So, how much is too much, and what detrimental effects of alcohol consumption should we know and avoid if we prefer to live a healthy lifestyle?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking for women is considered eight or more drinks per weeks, or 15 or more for men. Binge drinking is when a woman consumes four or more alcoholic beverages in a sitting, and for men, five or more. Although men are more likely to drink alcohol and drink in larger amounts, gender differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol, and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies.

Drinking too much can harm your health. Excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths each year in the United States.  Further, excessive drinking was responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption are estimated in excess of $223.5 billion, or $1.90 a drink.

Over the past several decades, many studies have been published in science journals about how drinking alcohol may be associated with reduced mortality due to heart disease in some populations.

Researchers are examining the potential benefits of components in red wine such as flavonoids and other antioxidants in reducing heart disease and clotting risk. Some of these components may be found in other foods such as grapes or red grape juice. The linkage reported in many of these studies also may be due to other lifestyle factors rather than alcohol, such as increased physical activity, and controlling our weight through a diet high in fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fats. There is no scientific proof that drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage can replace these conventional measures.

How it works, and physical consequences

Alcohol enters our bloodstream as soon as we take our first sip. Alcohol’s immediate effects can appear within about 10 minutes. As we drink, it increases the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level, which is the amount of alcohol present in our bloodstream.  The higher our BAC, the more impaired we become by alcohol’s effects.

Drinking too much — on a single occasion or over time — can take a serious toll on our health.  Here’s how alcohol can affect our body.

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.  Additionally, drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:

  • Cardiomyopathy — stretching and drooping of heart muscle
  • Arrhythmias — irregular heart beat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure

Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including steatosis, or fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis; fibrosis; and cirrhosis. Alcohol also causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. 

Drinking too much alcohol can increase our risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast. And finally, drinking too much can weaken our immune system, making our body a much easier target for disease.  Imbibing, even on a single occasion, slows our body’s ability to ward off infections — even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

Here are a few other items to consider. Even though it may help us fall asleep, alcohol consumption interferes with restful sleep, and promotes dehydration. It can cause or contribute to depression and anxiety, affect sexual performance, may disrupt menstrual cycling, and increase the risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.

So, while there appear to be many negative consequences linked to alcohol consumption, that isn’t necessarily a prescription for teetotaling or avoidance — it’s a personal choice. Alcohol plays a significant role in our culture. As in so many things that we consume and other health- and wellness-related behaviors, it’s about moderation, information, common sense and understanding the risks and benefits associated with anything we do or put in our bodies.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!