Women

What The Experts Wish You Knew About Alcohol

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We all know that drinking to excess is bad for our health – but knowing just how it affects our bodies, and what is a safe quantity, may have you re-evaluating your favourite tipple.

You may have heard of the French paradox, that is, the low incidence of heart disease and obesity among the French despite their love of cheese and wine. Some studies have concluded that the secret is their consumption of red wine and that’s led to it being touted as something of a health tipple. It’s not unusual for many of us to share a bottle of wine over dinner but are we really improving our health in the process?

We’ve asked the experts to give us the lowdown on what we really should know about alcohol and our health.

Alcohol and cancer

The International agency for Research on Cancer has classified alcohol as a group one carcinogen. That means the link between alcohol and cancer is as strong as other group one carcinogens such as tobacco and asbestos, says Professor Ian Olver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia. “It’s not saying that alcohol causes as many cancers but the research linking alcohol is very strong. It definitely causes cancer.

Researchers have identified a cellular pathway that may explain the link between alcohol consumption and cancer

Researchers have identified a cellular pathway that may explain the link between alcohol consumption and cancer

“Although alcohol has always been linked to relatively rare cancers like liver, oesophagus and head and neck cancers, it’s now clear that it’s also a risk in bowel and breast cancer,” says Olver. “In fact, alcohol is probably implicated in around 22 per cent of breast cancers, so if you have a family history and want to reduce your risk, you could reduce alcohol consumption.”

A US study found that even a low level of alcohol consumption – three to six glasses a week – was associated with a 15 per cent increased risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile, Mexican scientists have been researching a protein (CYP2E1) found at different levels in breast tissue, which seems to make women more susceptible to breast cancer if they consume alcohol.

Alcohol and your brain

 “Alcohol on its own is a toxin. We put it on skin to kill bugs. It kills your brain cells,” says Professor Gordian Fulde, director of the emergency department at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. “If you’re sharing a bottle of wine every mealtime, that’s at least three standard drinks a day and in time that will cause brain deterioration. It’s not something that kicks in quickly but you’ll notice your concentration and memory going and people around you will observe you’re not as quick as usual.”

Alcohol kills your brain cells

Alcohol kills your brain cells

Around 2500 Australians are treated for alcohol0related brain impairment (ARBI) every year, with approximately 200,000 undiagnosed. Around two million Australians are potentially at risk of developing ARBI as a result of their drinking habits. Alcohol causes brain injury through falls and accidents, its toxic effect on the central nervous system, the changes it causes to metabolism, heart function and blood supply, and the way it interferes with the absorption of vitamin B1 (thiamine), an important brain nutrient. ARBI is most common in people who drink heavily over a sustained period but binge drinkers are also at risk.

Alcohol and your gut

If you down a nip of spirits then do a gastroscopy, you’ll see a little bit of bleeding, says Fulde. “That’s why you get that hot feeling. It’s not benign.”

Just one drink a day for women, and two for men, could lead to abnormally large numbers of bacteria growing in the small intestine. This can prevent absorption of nutrients from food and cause malnourishment.

It can also lead to bloating, gas, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea, according to a study unveiled at the American College of Gastroenterology annual meeting in 2011.

Alcohol and your liver

If you do blood tests on someone who drinks regularly, you’ll find the liver enzymes are raised, which indicates the liver is suffering a constant trickle of damage, says Fulde. “As you age, with a damaged liver you’ll age a lot quicker. If you get sick, you’ll be sicker, if you get a viral infection you’ll be less resilient. It affects appearance, you’ll have redness on the skin, your hair will lose texture and you won’t be as fit. There’s a popular belief that the liver regenerates but if you drink constantly it never has time to heal properly.”

Women don’t metabolise alcohol as well as men and some metabolise it very, very slowly. “Their liver doesn’t chop up the alcohol at all,” says Fulde. “They’re the ones who have a few drinks at night, get pulled up in the morning and are over the limit.”

Alcohol and heart disease

 “Studies have shown that people who drink a moderate amount of red wine regularly have a lower incidence of cardiac disease than either those who are teetotalers or those who drink more than four standard drinks a week,” says Dr Rob Grenfell, director of clinical issues at the Heart Foundation. However, that may be because people who drink in moderation usually eat, exercise and do other things in moderation. “A lifetime of moderation and good sense would assist anyone in achieving a longer life,” says Grenfell.

UCalgary study finds that moderate consumption of alcohol is good for health

UCalgary study finds that moderate consumption of alcohol is good for health

Although scientists have looked for substances in red wine that decrease heart attack risk, studies so far are conflicted, says Grenfell. Currently the best proven way to reduce the risk of heart disease is to quit smoking, exercise, reduce salt and saturated fats in your diet and have blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked.

Excessive alcohol consumption can increase the amount of triglycerides in your blood, which can reduce good cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.

Alcohol and weight gain

Alcohol is high in kilojoules – 29kJ per gram – and has little nutritional value. Two small glasses of wine (200ml) contain 600kJ, equal to four teaspoons of butter.

Alcohol and sleep

Although alcohol can sedate you and help you fall asleep, it disrupts sleep during the latter part of the night, especially for women. Tests have shown they have fewer hours of sleep, wake more frequently and for more minutes during the night, and have more disrupted sleep than men.

Alcohol and balance

Alcohol dilates the veins in your abdomen so there’s less blood circulating, your blood pressure goes down and you feel light-headed and can fall over. Even small amounts of alcohol can affect the central nervous system and make you wobbly, so it’s particularly dangerous for bike riders.

Alcohol and fitness

Alcohol reduces blood flow to the muscles. That’s why, when you recover from a hangover, you’ll notice your muscles ache. A British study also found that a night of heavy drinking – around seven standard drinks, the equivalent of a bottle of wine – affected aerobic performance by an average 15 per cent. Alcohol can also lead to dehydration and increased swelling when injured.

Too much intake of alcohol not only decreases blood flow to the muscles, but also reduces testosterone levels in the blood while increasing the transformation of testosterone to estrogen, resulting in increased fluid retention and fat deposits

Too much intake of alcohol not only decreases blood flow to the muscles, but also reduces testosterone levels in the blood while increasing the transformation of testosterone to estrogen, resulting in increased fluid retention and fat deposits

Alcohol and violence & death

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, alcohol is the second largest cause of drug-related deaths and hospitalisations after tobacco and the main cause of deaths on Australian roads.

Research by the foundation for Alcohol Research & Education found that almost 70,000 Australians report being victims of alcohol-related assaults every year including 24,000 victims of domestic violence.

Red, red wine

Suggestions that red wine can be good for health are due to resveratrol, a plant chemical with anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-bacteria and blood-sugar normalizing effects. It can also protect against heart disease and decrease the risk of kidney stones and Alzheimer’s. the best source is red wine grapes. The way the grapes are grown and fermented affects resveratrol levels.

Resveratrol can also be obtained from red grape juice (so long as it hasn’t been pasteurized at a high heat and had sugar and preservatives added) as well as peanuts, blueberries and dark chocolate with at least 70 per cent cocoa.

 

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