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Alcohol and Your Health: When Are You at Risk?

Alcohol is ingrained into our culture. It has been a part of our socialization and celebration for centuries. It is used in religious ceremonies and consumed as toasts to honor those who are getting married or retiring from a job. It is used as a gesture of goodwill or welcome, and as an ice-breaker to put people into a party mood. Most of all, alcohol is legal, easily accessible, and useful as a relaxant to loosen “uptight” inhibitions.

Despite its ubiquitous presence, the use of alcohol as a social activity, as well as the norms regarding its consumption, have always been subject to self-imposed societal restrictions. According to the nonprofit cultural research organization, The Social Issues Research Centre (Oxford, UK), “rules” regarding who may drink, how much is acceptable to drink, when and where and in what context drinking may occur, and with what effects, are all parameters governed by the prevalent society and culture.

Most people recognize that problems resulting from having “too much of a good thing” are certainly possible to occur when one violates the social norms for drinking. But do we always know how much is too much? And are we, as members of society in general, adequately informed regarding the pitfalls of these commonly consumed beverages?

What Is a “Standard” Drink?

You are going to a social event. You plan to have “just one” drink. But what does that mean? It is one beer? That would seem easy enough to plan for…until you stop and realize that there are different kinds of beer, and the alcohol content varies widely.

Most popular American beers contain between four and five percent alcohol. But if you are drinking some of the more specialty type beers, such as ales, malted beers, ”stout” beers or other beers created specifically to contain more alcohol than average, you may consume up to 14-15% alcohol in a single drink, the equivalent of three “regular” beers. So all drinkers would be wise to really know how much alcohol they are drinking and how much they can consume before the drinking would become risky.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) and its National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggest the following constitutes one “standard” drink, with each containing about .6 ounces of alcohol.

  • 12 fluid ounces of beer (about 5% alcohol)
  • 5 fluid ounces of table wine (about 12% alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 fluid ounces of malt liquor (about 7% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol)
  • 2-3 ounces of liqueur (approx. 20-40% alcohol)

Gage Your Risk

Aside from the alcohol content of the beverages you are consuming, you also need to consider whether your drinking is “low risk” or “high risk.”

For men, low risk drinking means consuming no more than 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks in a week. For women, low-risk drinking means consuming no more than three drinks on any single day, and no more than seven drinks in a week. (You must stay within both the single-day and weekly limits.)

Even within the limits listed above, you can have problems if you drink too quickly, have health conditions, or are over age 65. The NIH recommends that older adults have no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks per week. However, based on your health and how alcohol affects you specifically, you may need to drink less, or perhaps not at all.

People who should abstain from alcohol completely include those who:

  • Plan to drive a vehicle or operate machinery
  • Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • take medications that interact with alcohol
  • Have a medical condition that alcohol aggravates

Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

We all know that alcohol affects brain function. What most of us don’t realize, however, is the serious impact alcohol has on our brains.

Alcohol mainly impacts our brain function by interfering with brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that regulate many of our body responses, including emotions, mood, motor control and coordination, memory, decision-making and problem-solving. Heavy alcohol consumption—even on a single occasion—can throw off the delicate balance of neurotransmitters, causing them to relay information too slowly.

Disruption of neurotransmitter balance can trigger mood and behavioral changes including:

  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Memory loss
  • Possible seizures

Long-term, heavy drinking causes an even wider range of problems, including problems with:

  • Motor coordination
  • Temperature regulation
  • Sleep problems
  • Problems with cognitive (thinking) functions

Alcohol’s Effects on the Liver

The liver must break down any alcohol that is consumed. Unfortunately, this process generates toxins that are even more harmful to the body that the alcohol itself. These toxins damage liver cells and weaken the body’s natural defenses. Heavy drinking, even over a short period, causes fat to build up in the liver. A “fatty liver” is the first stage of alcoholic liver disease.

Excess fat makes it difficult for the liver to function normally and can lead to:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver caused by alcohol consumption)
  • Enlarged liver
  • Bleeding and clotting problems
  • Fibrosis (scar tissue forming in the liver)
  • Cirrhosis (deterioration of the liver due to built up scar tissue)
  • Vulnerability to certain cancers

Alcohol’s Effects on the Pancreas

The job of the pancreas is to send out enzymes to aid in digestion and regulate blood sugar. Alcohol disrupts this process, causing the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes internally, rather than passing them into the small intestine.

When alcohol is consumed over a long time this can result in:

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Diabetes (resulting from chronic inflammation)

Alcohol’s Effects on the Immune System

The immune system protects the body from infection and disease by making white blood cells, T-cells and antibodies that recognize and kill invasive organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Alcohol suppresses this protective process and reduces the ability of these protector cells to do their jobs.

Chronic drinkers with compromised immune systems are more vulnerable to contracting diseases such as:

  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis

It is important to remember that alcohol is not a liquid that the body is set up to easily metabolize. In fact, the body treats alcohol as a poison and reacts accordingly to protect itself.

If we choose to drink, we must take responsibility for balancing this lifestyle choice with the effects it may have on our health.

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