Is Alcohol Good or Bad for You?
How is your alcohol intake? A glass of wine with dinner? A beer after a hard day of work? It’s not bad to integrate an occasional drink into a healthy lifestyle. Or is it?
In recent years, we’ve read that red wine is rich with antioxidants, like resveratrol. And that an occasional beer can raise “good” cholesterol. But, results from a new study suggest that even moderate alcohol consumption may actually be bad for us. In other words, the much-heralded health benefits of drinking don’t outweigh the risks. Perhaps there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
A recently published research study looks at data collected in almost 700 other studies, spanning 195 countries and territories. Some of the findings are startling:
- Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death in the 15 through 49 age group.
- Alcohol use was responsible for 2.8 million deaths worldwide in 2016.
- For women
inparticular, the health risks increase with age. Alcohol was responsible for over 27 percentof cancer deaths in women over 50.
The authors of the study are firm in their conclusion: “By evaluating all associated relative risks for alcohol use, we found that consuming zero standard drinks daily minimizes the overall risk to health.”
In other words, the only safe amount of alcoholic drinks is none at all. This finding differs from many earlier studies, which often concluded that moderate drinking was the best approach.
Why the Difference in Opinion?
Why did this study reach a more decisive conclusion than previous examinations of alcohol’s effect on health? Several factors come into play. This study was careful to consider the ways they measured consumption. For example, researchers looked at regional variations in alcohol consumption that could be attributed to things like tourism.
In addition, the study looked at alcohol’s impact on 23 different health-related problems. For some of those problems (such as heart disease), mild alcohol consumption had a positive effect. But that positive effect was balanced by a greater negative impact on other health issues (cancer is a good example).
Should I Quit Drinking?
What does this mean for you? If you drink, should you stop? Alcohol consumption is a very personal decision. This study looked at the picture worldwide. It was not studying individuals, but rather analyzing vast amounts of data previously collected, specifically looking at the risks for 23 health issues. That data was conclusive. But it’s up to you how you apply it to your own life. This latest study can’t, for example, tell you if it’s OK to have some wine for New Year’s given your own unique genetics and other lifestyle factors.
Assessing Your Risk from Alcohol
One thing is clear: If you’ve told yourself that drinking is healthy, you may want to reconsider that rationale. That doesn’t necessarily mean you must immediately quit. However, in deciding whether or not alcohol is something you want in your life, it’s best to be realistic about the health risks.
You also want to look at your own medical history and perhaps check out more specific studies. For example, another recently published study concluded that alcohol is the biggest controllable risk factor for dementia. If you have other dementia risk factors that are out of your control, such as genetic history, you may want to take action on the things that you can control.
Similarly, if you have a history of depression, consider alcohol’s impact on mental health. If you are trying to control your weight, the extra calories from alcohol aren’t going to help. Alcohol can also lower your judgment and keep you from making your best decisions.
The nurses’ health study found that moderate alcohol intake places women at higher risk for breast cancer and bone fractures, and higher intake increases your risk for colon polyps and colon cancer. Several studies have noted this same increased risk of breast cancer for women who consume alcohol, even in moderation.
Tips to Stop Drinking Alcohol
If you’re wondering about alcohol, talk to one of our healthcare practitioners. And be upfront about your drinking during the visit. Many people under-report how much they drink, but it’s best
Quitting drinking can be much like quitting smoking for some people. Here are some tips to help you quit drinking:
Set a date
Set a date for when you want to quit and let your friends know. Planning a date can help you get organized and telling your friends helps them help you and keeps you accountable
An affirmation is a positive statement repeated often to create a desired change in your life. Repeating it not only helps to remind you why you are no longer drinking but imprints a new mental image of health so that your body can then produce it. For example: “I am a non-drinker. I choose to be healthy.”
Have a Support Person
The decision to stop drinking is a big one. You may have moments when you really struggle. Ask someone who is fairly available and reliable to provide reinforcement and encouragement when you need it. Much like a sponsor does in AA.
Cravings can feel like they will last forever but in reality, they fade in two minutes. Plan what you will do during a craving. Examples: Have a nutritious snack, take your vitamins; repeat your affirmation; take some deep breaths; go for a walk; hum a song or call your support person. Our naturopathic doctors have lots of other tips to help with cravings.
Make Alcohol Inconvenient
Don’t keep alcohol in your home. Avoid passing by the liquor store or your favourite bar. The more inconvenient it is to drink, the easier it will be to avoid giving in to cravings.
You may have to modify other behaviours to support your new abstainer status. For example, if your usual ritual is to hit the bar with friends on a Friday night, you may want to arrange to meet at a café instead. When possible stay away from situations where you are surrounded by drinkers, such as parties, until you feel more confident with your new non-drinking status.
Use visualization to see yourself in certain situations without drinking – at a friend’s wedding, at a family function, going out for dinner. Seeing yourself in your mind’s eye in those situations successfully abstaining can help them become a reality.
Keep a Journal
Keep a journal or diary where you write down details of when you either had cravings for alcohol or where you lapsed and had a drink. Knowing the circumstances where you run into difficulties can help you avoid those situations in future. Write down your reasons for quitting alcohol and your affirmation.
Refrain from drinking coffee
Research shows that coffee causes cravings and dehydrates you.
Research shows that dehydration causes cravings. Sip water frequently throughout the day. If you are in a social situation where everyone is drinking, having a drink of water in your hand can help.
Find New Healthy Habits
Drinking is a habit. To change a habit, it sometimes helps to adopt a new one that is at odds with the one that you are trying to quit. A healthy habit like a green smoothie or going to the gym can help by replacing less healthy ones.
Put the money you would have spent on alcohol in a separate account to splurge on something fun like a new pair of shoes or a special vacation
Use an app.
Bonus: These same tips can be applied to any habit that you would like to break – coffee, smoking, overeating etc. We can help.
Could the Study Be Wrong?
Some patients express frustration at the different results they see in health studies: One minute something is good for you, then suddenly we need to avoid it! Studies on alcohol use can be proof that when we read an eye-catching health-related headline, we need to look beyond the numbers.
One thing to keep in mind is that the media will typically seize the most dramatic sound bite. It’s almost impossible to convey the nuances of a well-run scientific study in a short headline. For example, a news story doesn’t always mention who funded the study. For the record, the Lancet study on alcohol safety was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While some others that emphasized alcohol’s benefits were funded by companies who produce and sell alcohol. That doesn’t necessarily mean the studies were false. But, we should always remember that those who financed the study, and those who work for them, have a vested interest in how the results are interpreted and reported.
Correlation Doesn’t Equal Causation
As well, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. What that means is that if two behaviours are often seen together, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other. For example, new parents are often sleep-deprived and tired. As a result, they may drink more coffee. It doesn’t mean that babies make you drink coffee. The difference between correlation and causation can sometimes be hard to capture in large studies. In fact, there are studies that show that resveratrol, the aforementioned antioxidant found in red wine, is beneficial to your health. However, if you have other health issues like poor gut function, low energy, sleep issues and more, alcohol will likely have negative impacts and could make your health issues worse.
What Should You do About Alcohol?
Whenever you’re confused about a health issue, the best approach is to consider it from a sample study of one: yourself. Be aware of how alcohol intake makes you feel. Be aware of your own family history and other risk factors that you may have. Then talk to one of our healthcare providers about your own personal history and your current health concerns. We can help you sort through all of the information you face every day and figure out what’s best for your unique self. In fact, we are experts in doing just that! Give our office a call, we are always here to help 416-481-0222.