Many of us enjoy having a drink occasionally, sometimes with dinner, and sometimes just when we’re socializing with friends. But what is alcohol and how bad is it really? Is it totally safe to have the occasional drink or could it pose some dangers to our long-term health?
What is Alcohol
Most of us know that it’s found in our favorite beer, wine, or spirit but what exactly is alcohol? Essentially, alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is formed when yeast ferments.
Fermentation is what happens when yeast breaks down sugars in various foods without the aid of oxygen. Thus, wine comes from the sugar in grapes and beer from the sugars found in malted barley. It’s classed as a ‘sedative hypnotic’ drug. In plain English, this simply means that it acts to depress the central nervous system when consumed in high doses. In lower doses, alcohol simply acts as a stimulant that can cause excessive talkativeness and feelings of euphoria. However, when you drink too much, the euphoria ends, and instead, you can go into a depressive episode. Overconsumption can also lead to “drowsiness, respiratory depression (where breathing becomes slow, shallow or stops entirely), coma or even death”. It’s the ethanol that is the psychoactive substance which causes addiction. It is also the substance that makes you ‘drunk’.
Alcohol – how little or how much?
When it comes to alcohol, it’s difficult to know what to believe. Some argue that in small amounts it’s okay or even healthy. On the other hand, others say
the exact opposite, claiming that no matter how little or how much you drink, it’s bad for you. It is true of alcohol, as, with anything, that large amounts are not good for you and could indeed be toxic. It is also an addictive substance which also makes it dangerous. One of the main issues when it comes to alcohol is that its effect differs from person to person. The impact has also differed depending on the type of alcohol being consumed.
The answer to whether or not a moderate amount of alcohol, particularly red wine, has any health benefits will differ depending on whom you ask. There is no consensus even amongst experts. In the short term, alcohol carries many risks including but not limited to
- Car accidents as a result of drunk driving: The issue here is that it can affect you even when you aren’t the one driving drunk.
- Violence: not everyone gets violent when they drink but the people who do may lash out at strangers or go home and become abusive with partners and/or children.
- Engaging in risky behavior: This may include engaging in sexual acts with strangers, taking drugs, or otherwise acting riskily.
- Drinking when pregnant may also result in miscarriage or stillbirth
According to the CDC, long-term health risks of heavy drinking include
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immune system
- Memory problems including dementia
Alcohol and the Liver
When it comes to bodily functions, the liver plays a massive role. One of its main functions is to rid the body of toxins and neutralize toxins that cannot be excreted immediately. It is because of this role that the liver is particularly vulnerable when it comes to alcohol consumption and the diseases it causes.
The most prominent of all the so-called ‘alcoholic liver diseases’ is a fatty liver. This is very common and affects about 90% of people who drink more than 1/2 ounce (15 ml) of alcohol per day. It is not a death sentence and in the majority of cases at least it is fully reversible.
Heavy drinkers and those that engage in binge drinking are at risk of an inflamed liver. Though this is not always a huge problem, over time it can worsen. If it goes untreated or the person continues to drink heavily, it can result in the liver cells dying and being replaced by scar tissue. This is more commonly known as cirrhosis of the liver.
Alcohol and the brain
Drinking alcohol is particularly bad for the brain. Ethanol, the main component of alcohol, reduces communication between brain cells. Though this effect is only short-term, it can have detrimental effects and is what causes many of the common symptoms of drunkenness. Binge drinking can also lead to blackouts and amnesia, which, though they may not be fatal or illness-inducing, can be dangerous and disconcerting. The above-mentioned effects are just temporary ones, chronic abuse of alcohol can have far more devastating effects.
Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to permanent brain damage and can impair the body’s ability to perform basic tasks. The brain is incredibly sensitive to damage and abusing alcohol for an extended period of time is likely to increase your risk of diseases like dementia. It may also cause brain shrinkage in middle-aged and older adults. At its worst, chronic alcohol abuse can have such substantial effects that it may “impair people’s ability to lead an independent life”.
On the other hand, and some better news, drinking in moderation has been linked to a reduction in the risk of developing dementia and other similar diseases.
Other negative effects of drinking too much
Drinking too much is not good for your health in general, most specifically the brain and kidneys. However, it can have other negative effects
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and alcohol intake are closely related and one seems to have a direct and negative impact on the other. This is because people who experience depression and anxiety often drink in an effort to make themselves feel better and/or conversely more in control. In the short term, drinking may reduce stress and seem to make the user feel less depressed. However, once the initial alcohol-induced euphoria ends, feelings of depression kick in again. This causes a vicious cycle.
After fat, alcohol is the most calorie-dense food available. With obesity already being such a big issue, this is a problem. However, what you are drinking does have some impact on this. For instance, beer contains about as many calories as your average soft drink and red wine, amazingly, contains twice as many. Drinking habits also play a role here: moderate drinking isn’t really linked to weight gain at all. It’s binge drinking and consistent heavy drinking that cause the problems.
As the number one cause of death in modern society, heart disease is a big problem. Heart disease is an umbrella term used to describe all manner of heart-related diseases. The most common types are strokes and heart attacks. As with the brain, the heart also seems to benefit from moderate consumption of alcohol. However, similarly, when alcohol consumption becomes heavier, the risk of contracting heart disease increases quite drastically. Some reasons why moderate drinking might improve heart health are:
- Moderate drinking raises ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol
- Can help to decrease blood pressure
- Reduce the risk of blood clots
- Reduce your risk of diabetes
- Temporarily reducing stress and anxiety
How much is too much?
So now you know the answer to the question. To be sure though, here are some guidelines on how much is really too much.
In the United States, a standard drink constitutes
- 12-ounces (about 350 ml) of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 8-ounces (about 230 ml) of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 5-ounces of wine (about 230 ml) (12% alcohol content)
- 1.5-ounces of 80-proof (about 44 ml) (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)
Excessive drinking, including binge drinking, is classified as:
- For women, 4 or more drinks during a single occasion
- For men, 5 or more drinks during a single occasion
- Heavy drinking is defined as consuming
- For women, 8 or more drinks per week
- For men, 15 or more drinks per week
Who shouldn’t be drinking alcohol
The CDC recommends that the following people refrain from drinking alcohol
- Anyone under the age of 21
- Pregnant women
- Anyone who is driving or planning to drive
- People who operate heavy machinery
- If you are taking prescription medication or antibiotics
- Recovering alcoholics