There has been a constant debate on the impacts of alcohol on the human body. While some say one glass a day is good enough to keep diseases at bay, others highly disagree. Alcohol has had a long-standing relationship with humankind. Since ancient times, people have been consuming alcohol for pleasure or ritualistic intents. This entwined relationship has made alcohol an integral part of many cultures.
Despite the cogency of alcohol in society, researchers have flagged its excessive use. Many reports have been published stating the ill impacts of alcohol on the human body. Consumption of alcohol has been known to affect many vital organs like the heart, brain, liver, etc.
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In this article, we will learn how alcohol, despite its cultural and social significance, impacts a person’s health and, paradoxically, their social life.
Positive Impacts Of Alcohol
A study published in 1926 outlined the benefits of moderate drinking, especially red wine, as it contains resveratrol. It is a plant compound found in the skin of grapes, berries, and peanuts. Resveratrol can act as an antioxidant that could lower the risk of blood clotting and inflammation, lowering the risk of heart disease. (Source: Mayo Clinic)
Alcohol has also been known to raise your HDL levels (the good cholesterol – high-density lipoprotein), saving you from several diseases. Moderate drinking (beer, in this case) can also eliminate kidney stones. Part of the reason can be that alcohol makes you pee often. That helps clear out the tiny crystals that form kidney stones. Alcohol can also improve your sex life by increasing testosterone levels, making both partners more friskier.
The impacts of alcohol also include keeping severe conditions like Alzheimer’s disease at bay. The same goes for diabetes. While the exact reasons remain uncertain, consuming a drink or two could aid the body in managing elevated blood sugar levels effectively. (Source: WebMD)
However, a 2023 study invalidated the findings from the 1926 study, stating that the favorable health benefits of moderate alcohol use were because of healthier lifestyles. While moderate drinking might offer certain advantages, the drawbacks surpass the benefits.
Negative Impacts Of Alcohol
Research on resveratrol presents mixed results. While some studies suggest a potential connection between resveratrol and reduced inflammation and blood clotting, subsequently lowering the risk of heart disease, other research has not identified any associated heart disease prevention benefits.
Alcohol may encourage people to act without inhibition by reducing self-consciousness and shyness. At the same time, it impairs a person’s judgment and may promote behavior people may regret.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, compelling evidence establishes a connection between alcohol consumption and various cancers, including those affecting the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, breast, liver, colon, and rectum. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has also determined that ethanol, a component of alcohol, and acetaldehyde, a byproduct of ethanol breakdown, possess carcinogenic properties for humans when consumed in excessive quantities. (Source: HSPH)
Alcoholic Liver Diseases
One of the vital functions of the liver is to process and neutralize various toxic substances you consume. For this reason, the negative impacts of alcohol will be one of the highest on your liver. Alcohol undergoes metabolism in the liver, and regular consumption can result in heightened fat accumulation within liver cells. Alcohol abuse has the potential to induce cirrhosis, an extremely severe condition.
Alcohol-related liver diseases are grouped as alcoholic liver diseases. The first stage is fatty liver, marked by excess fat in liver cells. Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking, can inflame the liver. In severe cases, liver cells die and are replaced by scar tissue, causing cirrhosis – a severe condition with various health problems. In advanced cirrhosis, a liver transplant might be the only solution.
Impaired Brain Function
Our brain is a sensitive organ whose functions can be adversely affected due to alcohol consumption. Ethanol diminishes communication between brain cells, resulting in short-term effects that contribute to the symptoms of intoxication. Binge drinking can potentially result in blackouts, where memory loss or amnesia occurs during intense drinking sessions. These effects are transient, yet continuous alcohol abuse could induce lasting alterations in the brain, often impairing brain function.
As our brain is prone to damage, chronic alcohol abuse may cause brain shrinkage in middle-aged and older adults and increase your risk of dementia. In worst-case scenarios, the damage done by alcohol to your brain can take away your ability to lead an independent life.
The Cycle Of Depression
The relationship between psychological conditions like depression and alcohol is complex and dangerous. People with anxiety or depression tend to take shelter in alcohol to escape their intrinsic thoughts. While drinking may relieve a few hours, it may worsen your mental health and spark a vicious cycle. Over time, heavy drinking can deteriorate your condition.
One of the negative impacts of alcohol is obesity. Alcohol is a calorie-rich beverage – about seven calories per gram, enough to substantiate the famous term “beer belly.” Beer contains a comparable number of calories to sugary soft drinks per ounce. On the other hand, red wine has double the amount of calories compared to beer, ounce for ounce.
Heavy consumption of alcohol has been known to cause many heart diseases, coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. Drinking over time can lead to high blood pressure, weakened heart muscles, irregular heartbeats, and an increased risk of stroke. It can also contribute to abdominal fat accumulation, which is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, excessive alcohol intake can raise triglyceride levels, contribute to obesity, and interact with medications used to manage heart conditions.
Cancer is a severe disease caused by the abnormal growth and division of body cells. Drinking is a proven risk factor for liver, throat, mouth, breast, and colon cancers. Even light alcohol consumption, defined as up to one drink per day, is associated with a 20% higher risk of developing mouth and throat cancer.
One of the severe negative impacts of alcohol is irreversible congenital disabilities in the fetus. It can lead to low birth weight, abnormal facial features, issues with the nervous system, and many more severe problems. Alcohol consumption during the early stages of pregnancy can adversely affect the fetus’s growth and development, like impaired intelligence, abnormal behavioral traits, etc. These changes can affect a child for the rest of their life.
Alcohol tends to act at chromosomal level, which can lead to these adverse changes in the fetus.
When You Should Not Drink Alcohol?
There are times when you should altogether avoid alcohol, like:
- Have a personal or strong family history of alcohol use disorder.
- Have a liver or pancreas disease associated with alcohol use.
- Have heart failure or a weak heart.
- Take certain medications
Myths On the Impacts Of Alcohol
There are certain myths surrounding the impacts of alcohol. These myths have been deeply embedded in our social fabric, making it impossible to separate myth and reality. We will discuss here five significant myths surrounding the consumption of alcohol. These myths have become so mainstream that people find it hard to believe if told otherwise.
Myth: Consuming alcohol keeps you warm
Fact: Alcohol provides temporary warmth to the body by dilating the blood vessels. This dilation increases the blood flow to the skin, which can lead to a feeling of warmth. But it also leads to increased heat loss from the body, resulting in a drop in the core body temperature and subsequently increased risk of hypothermia.
Myth: Alcohol helps you sleep better
Fact: Many assume that one of the impacts of alcohol is helping you sleep faster as it makes you feel drowsy. In reality, alcohol disrupts your sleep cycle by reducing rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM is essential for restorative sleep, which prepares you for the next day. Reduction in REM sleep leads to fragmented sleep, leading to the feeling of lethargy.
Myth: Beer is less alcoholic than complex beer
Fact: Beer, wine, and spirits can all have equal alcohol concentration per standard drink since alcohol content is measured by volume. It is the amount of alcohol drank that is important, not the sort of beverage.
Myth: Eating a big meal before drinking prevents intoxication
Fact: Eating a heavy meal before drinking can only slow down the absorption of alcohol into our bloodstream, not altogether prevent it. Despite food consumption, consuming alcohol can lead to intoxication.
Myth: Drinking coffee or cold showers sober you up quickly
Fact: A cold shower or coffee consumption doesn’t accelerate the processing of alcohol by our liver. The metabolism of alcohol happens at a fixed rate, regardless of external catalysts. You have to give time to your body to process the alcohol. Ample rest will also be required for the body to be fit again.
Balancing The Negative And Positive Impacts Of Alcohol
Ultimately, it all boils down to how you manage your health. The impacts of alcohol can either be negative or positive, depending on your physical and mental health. Due to our distinct individual and familial backgrounds, alcohol presents a diverse range of advantages and potential drawbacks.
The decision to consume alcohol, particularly for supposed medical reasons, demands a thoughtful evaluation of these pros and cons to ensure a balanced approach.
- Being thin, maintaining an active lifestyle, avoiding smoking, adhering to a wholesome diet, and lacking a family history of heart disease are all positive factors for cardiovascular health. In such cases, the addition of alcohol consumption might not significantly contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- If you are a non-drinker, there is no necessity to initiate alcohol consumption. Achieving comparable advantages is attainable through exercise (commencing physical activity if you haven’t already or enhancing its intensity and duration) and a healthier diet plan.
- For men without a history of alcoholism and facing moderate to high heart disease risk, a daily alcoholic drink might lower this risk. Moderate consumption could be particularly advantageous if your HDL levels remain stubbornly low despite diet and exercise efforts.
- For women without a history of alcoholism and with moderate to high heart disease risk, the potential advantages of a daily drink must be weighed against the slight rise in the risk of breast cancer.
If you’re currently consuming alcohol or considering starting, stick to moderation—limit it to no more than two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women. Additionally, ensure you get sufficient folate, at least 400 micrograms daily. (Source: HSPH)
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