Many of us enjoy the occasional drink. Alcohol consumption has played a central role in almost all human cultures since at least about 4000 BC. The development of agrarian societies was based on the cultivation of grain to make bread and, the evidence tells us, to make alcohol. From the earliest recorded use of alcohol, drinking has been a social activity subject to local cultural norms.
In the 21st century, amid a global pandemic, our relationship with alcohol is changing. Some of us are drinking more, and more of us are drinking in isolation because of the restrictions and loneliness. We drink because we enjoy the feelings of relaxation and intoxication it gives us, but what exactly does alcohol do to our bodies?
The earliest records of intentionally fermented drinks containing alcohol date back to the Neolithic period, which began circa 10,000 BCE. Without exception, all human cultures make use of intoxicating substances, and the most common of these is alcohol. It has been used throughout history in rituals, as medicine, and for payment, among other things. Even now, many of its uses remain unchanged.
Of all mood-altering substances, alcohol is the most socially acceptable—as long as it is used in moderation. But it can be and often is abused. Drinking too much leads to hangovers at best and fatalities at worst. The abuse of alcohol has led to the deaths of many people, young and old. Most countries have laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol, but even so, alcohol-related accidents and deaths are alarmingly commonplace. Many far less dangerous substances are more tightly regulated or even illegal. Understanding the effects of alcohol can help us manage our own consumption.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated life for people around the globe. In many countries, alcohol consumption is on the rise, together with the risk of addiction and other alcohol-induced health problems. The virus has taken many lives and ruined even more livelihoods. Quarantine and isolation put a further strain on our mental health. It is not surprising that some of us have turned to drink to soothe ourselves. But drinking in isolation can easily become problematic. Read on for information that will help you make good decisions about your relationship with alcohol.
A few drinks a week won't do the body much harm, but binge drinking or overindulging can have a serious impact on your mental and physical health. Ingesting large amounts of alcohol overburdens your liver and disrupts your hormones. Although men tend to drink more than women, women have a lower tolerance for alcohol and are more prone to developing an addiction. The amount of alcohol a person can safely consume depends on their body mass and sex. Experts are concerned that the current health crisis is leading people to use drinking as a coping mechanism, which can have long-term negative effects.
The liver is primarily responsible for filtering toxins from the blood. It also produces proteins, enzymes, and hormones that ward off infections. The liver processes 90% of the alcohol we drink. The remaining 10% leave the body as sweat, urine, and exhalations.
The liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol at a time, taking approximately one hour per alcoholic beverage. If you drink too much, the remaining alcohol circulates through your bloodstream, which in turn affects your heart and brain, leading to intoxication. Consistent and prolonged use of alcohol damages the liver and can lead to scarring.
A study analysing mild-to-moderate alcohol consumption in women showed that drinking has adverse effects on girls going through puberty It also disrupts hormone cycles in adult women and can worsen menopause for premenopausal women. The same study demonstrated that drinking alcohol negatively affects bone health and can cause health problems in developing bodies.
Drinking also suppresses the production of progesterone—one of the hormones responsible for ovulation and healthy pregnancy. Moderate to excessive drinking has been linked to low levels of progesterone in premenopausal women.
It was only in the 1970s that drinking during pregnancy was recognised as being damaging to both the mother and foetus. Before that, there was little to no information about the potential hazards of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Now it has become socially unacceptable to drink during pregnancy in many places.
If you do consume alcohol during pregnancy, it reaches the baby through the placenta. The liver develops only in the late stages of pregnancy, which means that the foetus can't process alcohol. Alcohol is hazardous in the first trimester and can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, and congenital disabilities. Drinking later in pregnancy is likely to leave an impact on the baby even after it's born. After the first trimester, excessive drinking can lead to the baby being underweight and having physical and psychological development issues.
Some sources say that drinking tiny amounts of alcohol during pregnancy is harmless. But the consumption of even small amounts of alcohol can raise safety concerns; therefore, the safest option is to refrain from drinking alcohol altogether during this time.
Alcohol passes through the bloodstream to the mother's milk. Although some studies show that up to one standard drink a day doesn't pose risks to a nursing baby, it is safest to refrain from drinking while breastfeeding. If you do decide to have a drink, timing is important. After one standard-size drink, alcohol can be found in breast milk for up to 2–3 hours, peaking 30 to 60 minutes after drinking.
Any more than that becomes dangerous, increasing the risk of disrupting the baby's sleeping patterns or development issues. Excessive drinking is shown to interfere with the let-down or milk ejection reflex that regulates milk production and duration in breastfeeding women.
Many health associations recommend not consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol—on average, one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. (Again, take into consideration your own body type and size) Heavy drinking and binge drinking cause bone loss, liver damage, chronic inflammation, sexual dysfunction, and heighten the risk of diabetes and cancer. Even moderate drinking can affect your sleep. While it allows healthy people to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply for a while, it reduces REM sleep, which is important for learning, memory, and mood, and may cause you to have to get up in the night to urinate.
Excessive drinking can lead to alcoholism. However, we are now beginning to understand that addiction is not simply substance abuse due to lack of control or some moral failing, but rather addictions come about when people whose basic needs are unmet find that some substance available to them soothes the pain—they self-medicate as a coping mechanism.
Unfortunately, in this context, alcohol can only ever be a short-term escape, not a solution. Addictions have deep roots. To tackle alcoholism, we must tackle the reasons we turned to alcohol in the first place.
If you suspect you are drinking too much and feel ready to make a change, look around for support. We are only human, and while another person can never solve our problems for us, we don't have to go it alone. A big part of recovery is your community, which is why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been so successful. AA meetings provide a safe space without judgement where members can share their pain and grief and celebrate their successes. If AA is not for you, then try some other kind of support—individual counselling, group therapy, and rehab are some of the options. The goal isn't simply to stop drinking, it's to heal the source of the pain, so it no longer needs to be masked with intoxication. There are also support groups for those who are close to someone suffering from addiction.
You don't need to be an alcoholic for alcohol to harm your health. Regular drinking can impact your health without really having any other negative affect on your life. Here are some tips on how to drink safely.
Always eat before drinking. Your liver needs an adequate amount of glucose to filter toxins. Eating before drinking doesn't affect the amount of alcohol you drink, but it does improve your ability to process alcohol. If you do drink too much, eat something before going to sleep; this should limit alcohol absorption and help you avoid a severe hangover.
Drink water in between drinks. Alcohol is a diuretic. When you drink alcohol, your body produces more urine. When you urinate frequently, your body becomes dehydrated, and you lose vital minerals and vitamins. Drinking water or drinks rich in minerals can help you deal better with alcohol damage. The rule of thumb is one glass of water per one alcoholic beverage.
Evaluate your environment. The environment we live in can sometimes have a strong influence on our behaviour. Spending time with heavy drinkers might cause you to drink more than you normally would. Understanding how our environment impacts our decisions and behaviour can help us figure out what we actually want for ourselves and do that, regardless of the environment.
Identify your psychological triggers. Alcohol is often used as a social lubricant. Drinking relaxes us and lowers our inhibitions, which makes it easier to interact with other people. People also drink to help themselves cope with stress, loss, depression, or anxiety. Pay attention to why you drink and be honest with yourself. If you are using alcohol to cope with problems, start taking steps to address those problems truly and to find the support you need to get through the process.
Identify your behavioural triggers. A smoker might crave a cigarette while sipping their coffee after breakfast. In this context, 'sipping coffee after breakfast' is a behavioural trigger. These habitual behaviours differ from person to person. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake, identify a behavioural trigger for drinking and "add friction"—make it a little more difficult to drink. For example, if you habitually have a drink after dinner, keep your alcohol on the other side of the house instead of in the kitchen. We form habits through repetition and can also reprogram our habits through repetition.
Be open and honest, especially with yourself. If alcohol is taking up too much space in your life, you may find yourself hiding how much you drink from other people. Ask yourself what would happen if you did all of your drinking out in the open?
The point is to take a step back to observe your relationship with alcohol and the effect it has on you. It is all too easy to slide into alcohol dependency for one reason or another, especially with the added stress and isolation of the pandemic. Let alcohol enhance your culinary experiences and facilitate socialising, but don't let it damage your health and wellbeing.
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