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Rethinking Your Drinking

By Dr. Sharon McQuillan
Posted On Apr 23, 2020
Rethinking Your Drinking

by Dr. Sharon McQuillan

Invitations to wine tastings, “girlfriend getaways,” social events, fundraisers, and the like… Alcohol is promised at virtually all of the happenings that flood our inboxes and social media pages. Drinking is part of our social culture, and the memories of fun times associated with it often flow as freely as the pours at a wine tasting.Alcohol is thought of as a social ally, helping us to celebrate, unwind, set the stage for romance, get some much-needed sleep, or bond with our co-workers. Or maybe we just sip a glass of wine with dinner, emulating the older generations of our families whom we may have seen live well into their 90s.

Wine Glass with Path
Wine Glass with Path

After all, alcohol can be good for us, right? Some doctors— and scores of studies—tout the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, declaring that it improves heart health thanks to antioxidants, or a substance called resveratrol (found in the skins of red grapes) that raises “good” cholesterol and reduces inflammation. However, a long-term U.K. study released in March 2015 has indicated that the benefits of even moderate drinking have been exaggerated. A survey of 45,000 men and women, age 50 and older, showed no health benefits from a drink a day, except a slight improvement in women aged 65 or older, according to the study by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London.

Others argue that the health risks of alcohol consumption far outweigh the benefits, particularly for women. What makes alcohol more difficult for women to handle than men? The issue is complex, but the short answer is this: Because our bodies are composed of more fat cells and our hormones are different, we metabolize alcohol much more slowly than men. Men also usually weigh more and have an enzyme that helps them metabolize alcohol more effectively than women. If women choose to imbibe, we should know how to manage our intake in a way that supports our health as well as our lifestyles. Accurate information is the key, because alcohol can potentially affect every cell in our body.

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

The National Institutes of Health recommend no more healthy, younger people without illnesses or medications that affect alcohol metabolism. Also, both the daily and weekly recommendations are important. Some experts, including Danine Fruge, M.D., the associate medical director at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Florida, urge all women to be even more conservative. This can get confusing, because the perception of how much we’re drinking can be affected by the sizes of our glasses, the amount of mixers we use, and even the type of beverages we choose. “One drink” actually means either 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Your liver can’t tell the difference between the various quantities of these beverages, for it’s all based on the percentage of alcohol consumed.

YOUR BODY ON ALCOHOL

Binge drinking—drinking that brings your blood alcohol equivalent of four or more drinks over a scant few hours. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about one in six American adults engages in binge drinking about four times a month. Binge drinking has been shown to impact many systems in the body, including the liver, cardiovascular system, brain function, and immune system—and can up one’s cancer risk. The liver is the chemical detoxification center of your body, ridding it of toxins. Your liver is also the control center for the production of many proteins and enzymes that are needed for the body to function properly. Alcohol metabolism produces toxins that cause fat to build up in your liver, making it harder to detoxify. This in turn can result in other health problems such as type II diabetes and liver disease. Too much alcohol affects your cardiovascular system in a number of ways. Binge drinking can cause heart rate abnormalities and raise blood pressure, by encouraging the release of stress hormones.

Table Glass
Table Glass

A 2008 Finnish study published in the American Stroke Association’s journal showed that binge drinking had a direct effect on increased stroke risk. On the other hand, the School of Public Health at Harvard University found that moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day) raises HDL or “good” cholesterol and reduces the build up of plaque in your arteries, all of which can prevent heart attacks and strokes.Binge drinking can have a negative impact on brain function by disrupting the brain’s neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are “chemical messengers” that control much of our brain function. A 2012 study conducted by the Scripps Research Institute showed that binge drinking caused brain impairment such as mood changes, memory loss, and agitation in rats. The good news— these effects can be easily reversed with the cessation of drinking. While there are many lifestyle, genetic, and hereditary factors that contribute to the development of cancer, it’s very likely that binge drinking can increase your risks for certain cancers.

The National Cancer Institute identifies excessive alcohol consumption as a risk factor for many cancers—including mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, breast, colon, and rectal cancer. If you drink as well as smoke, this increases the risk due to the combined cancer-causing characteristics of tobacco and alcohol. Basically, the metabolism of these substances produces certain byproducts that damage the DNA of cells and makes them multiply irregularly, all of which leads to cancer. You can reduce your risk of cancer by drinking less and not smoking. Frequent consumption of too much alcohol can also impact your ability to fight off infection. A study from Loyola University published in early 2015 showed that binge drinking caused an increase in three types of white blood cells that are important to optimal immune function, followed by a decline in these cells. This means that binge drinking disrupts your ability to fight off infection for up to 24 hours after imbibing.

If you are sick or have an infection, drinking could make it worse. Binge drinking also affects our appearance. In the short term, alcohol dehydrates you, accentuating wrinkles, says Ariel Ostad, M.D., cosmetic dermatologist and assistant professor at New York University. “When your skin lacks moisture, it tends to get flaky and the pores become clogged.” This can lead to adult acne, rosacea, and broken capillaries. Too much alcohol, too often, can also wreak havoc on your physique. Alcohol metabolizes in our bodies as sugar, and excess sugar gets stored as fat, which leads to weight gain. You can help prevent this not only by limiting the number of drinks, but the type of drinks you consume. Avoid frozen, fruity, and sugary drinks that have lots of calories.

RETHINKING YOUR DRINKING

The key to responsible imbibing is being aware of the amount of liquor in the beverages ou consume. In terms of calroies and potential health benefits, wine is the best choice. If you’re in for a night on the town with friends, be smart. Make sure you take your vitamins (B vitamins are necessary to metabolize alcohol), eat properly that day, stay hydrated throughout the evening by drinking a glass of water for every drink you have, and watch out for sugary and carbonated beverages, which tend to pack on the pounds and enhance the effects of alcohol. Occasional binge drinking does not an alcoholic make. But if you increasingly find that your drinking is affecting your health, your job, or your relationships, then it should be a cause for concern. Otherwise, the occasional weekend night out to blow off a little steam puts you in the category with many everyday Americans. So eat, drink, and enjoy your life while protecting your most important asset, which is your health.