The Demon Drink?
Alcohol is a tricky topic. It’s often tied up with lots of emotions - around our own consumption as well as that of others. The fact that it’s linked to so many occasions and surrounded by social expectations, means that it can be tempting to downplay the possible health impacts of drinking.
If you do drink alcohol, the good news is that there do seem to be some mild health benefits around heart disease and diabetes risk if you are a light drinker (having less than one drink per day). We’ve all also heard of the ‘French Paradox’ whereby relatively low rates of heart disease in France were attributed to the population’s intake of red wine - but sadly, this has been largely debunked, with the credit for healthier hearts going to Mediterranean-style eating patterns.
UK government guidelines were updated in 2016, recommending that both women and men should avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week, and that these should be spaced out - not banked for a heavy session, and interspersed with alcohol-free days.
A key reason why alcohol impacts our health relates to the way it gets broken down. As we know, this happens in the liver, and it goes in two stages. In the first, alcohol is converted into a substance called acetaldehyde. This is a very toxic molecule which our body really doesn’t want to have around for long, so the liver gives huge priority to the second stage of alcohol breakdown where the acetaldehyde is transformed into safer substances.
Problems, such as increased cancer-risk, arise when the liver can’t keep up with this second stage, so there’s a backlog of acetaldehyde waiting to be processed. Also, because the liver has to prioritise this task, its other important jobs, like processing hormones and regulating blood-sugar get sidelined (hence those big carb-cravings that happen with a hangover).
I’m not going to go on to list all of the potential negative health impacts of alcohol, but there are a couple of situations in which it works to be very mindful of our booze intake. One is the menopause. As an immediate trigger, alcohol is linked to hot flushes, but more generally, heavier consumption seems to be linked to more debilitating symptoms, e.g. night sweats and mood swings. This is why I get a bit pissed off that marketing departments seem to think that the only things that 40 - 50- something women are interested in are prosecco and gin...
The other area where alcohol can have a massive effect is sleep, because although it can help us to fall asleep, the quality of this sleep is massively compromised, especially Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep that helps us to feel rested. So if you’re having a couple of drinks in the evening to unwind and drop-off, but find that you’re dragging yourself through the day, why not experiment with some more alcohol-free days?
On a very direct level, alcohol is a known irritant of the stomach, so if you have gastric pain or discomfort, it’s worth having a look at how those symptoms link to having a drink.
So what’s the strategy if you’re trying to reduce your intake? Personally, I try to avoid the ‘just because’ drinks - the ones where it doesn’t take much effort to say no or have something else. Also, I realised that my first glass of red was by far the one that I enjoyed the most, so I aim to really enjoy that one glass, but switch to something else afterwards. Small bottles of wine are also an option. There are alcohol-free gins and vermouths which deliver the taste and ritual of drinking - and it’s often the rituals around alcohol that we’re attached to.
Everyone’s approach will be different, but by viewing the government guidelines as the top end of a low-risk level of drinking (not a goal to reach each week…) and by aiming for more alcohol free-days than not, you’ll be on the right tracks.