The concept of “drinking is okay in moderation, even good-for-you” has long been the mantra for many of us. But is it? And what is considered moderation?
Has your drinking increased during the pandemic? If so, you’re not alone. A nationwide survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in February found that one in four adults reported drinking more this past year to manage their stress.
Yet, prior to the pandemic, there was a rise in Americans’ drinking. Alcohol consumption increased about 8% over the last 20 years, according to data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (N.I.A.A.A.), part of the federal National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.).
While both genders are imbibing more, women who reported binge drinking – consuming about four or more drinks in about two hours – increased by 23 percent.
The downsides of alcohol
- It increases inflammation and blood pressure and may alter gene expression, leading to various types of cancer.
- In high amounts over many years, drinking can damage your liver, blood vessels and heart.
- While you may fall asleep faster after drinking, alcohol interrupts your sleep and you will often wake up feeling sluggish.
- Drinking alcohol adds empty calories to your diet and may contribute to weight gain.
- Pregnant women (and women who are trying to get pregnant) who drink could cause their babies to have fetal alcohol syndrome.
Women and alcohol
Women process alcohol differently than men. Even one drink affects women more rapidly and more severely.
There are two reasons why:
- Women lack a particular enzyme in their stomach, so alcohol isn’t metabolized there before getting into the bloodstream.
- Women typically have less water per pound of body weight than men. When they consume alcohol and it disperses in the body’s water, the ratio of alcohol to water is higher, increasing the toxic effects on women’s organs.
Does a daily cocktail or beer protect against heart attack and stroke?
In 2014, a 10-year international, randomized clinical trial began that hoped to answer that question. It was led by the N.I.A.A.A., and was to examine the effects of alcohol on adults aged 50 and old who were at high risk for heart disease. But in 2018 the study was stopped for a variety of reasons, including that the N.I.H. had lobbied beer and liquor companies for funding and other possible industry influence on the research agenda.
The American Heart Association states that “no research has established a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health.”
Also, research that associates moderate drinking with less cardiovascular disease often includes people who eat a Mediterranean diet, so the health effects may come from the foods eaten, not the alcohol.
Alcohol and cancer
Even moderate alcohol consumption may increase your risk for cancer. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. If not, you’re not alone. A 2017 study by the American Society for Clinical Oncology found that fewer than a third of those surveyed recognized alcohol as a risk factor for cancer.
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of six types of cancer. Four of them are more common in men than in women – esophageal, stomach, live and head and neck. One drink a day can increase breast cancer risk in women who are post-menopausal or have a family history of the disease.
How much is considered risky and how much is reasonable consumption? And where did alcohol’s “health halo” come from? Part II will cover that.