“Drink Less” didn’t find itself on Time Magazine’s Top Ten list of New Year’s resolutions. This is rather ironic since drinking impacts the top four items on the list: weight loss and healthy eating (#1), life and self-improvement (#2), better financial decisions (#3), and quit smoking (#4). It may not be on the resolution list, but when you factor in all the risks, it should be high on your priority list.
When We Drink
Alcohol has a direct effect on the brain. It changes the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for controlling emotion and behavior. Alcohol slows them down, so the brain is not receiving or sending messages at a normal speed, which explains slurred speech, blurry vision, and slowed reaction time. At the same time, it speeds up the neurotransmitters responsible for regulating dopamine, creating feelings of pleasure or well-being. Greater amounts and shorter timeframe increase these symptoms and can lead blackouts and/or memory loss. Understanding how it interacts with the brain makes it easy to see how alcohol use can get to a dangerous level quickly.
When We Drink Too Much
Now that you see how alcohol interacts with the brain, let’s examine how it increases health risks. To provide a benchmark, moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. However, a “drink” equals five ounces of wine, twelve ounces of beer (at 5% alcohol), or one-and-a-half ounces of liquor. A standard drink you pour for yourself at home can easily go over these measures. Also, the word moderate can imply safe or low-risk, but that is not the case.
The least risk from alcohol consumption is much less than one to two drinks a day—it falls closer to three or less drinks per week. Drinking at all increases your risk of muscle damage, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Several cancers are also linked to alcohol consumption, including breast, mouth, throat, liver, and esophageal cancers. Research shows that the risk of these diseases is directly affected by alcohol consumption, so you can also reduce your risk by reducing how much you drink.
Smoking and drinking have an interesting relationship to one another. This is important because smoking greatly increases your chances of getting almost every life-threatening disease that exists. That sounds exaggerated, but it has been proven time and again that smoking can actually cause serious diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke, cataracts, and aneurysm, to name a few. Studies reveal that most people who are dependent on alcohol are also dependent on tobacco and vice versa. In fact, the number of people who drink excessively that also smoke is as high as 90% in some studies.
Additionally, people who smoke are three times more likely to become alcohol dependent. The most surprising thing might be that although the number of smokers has declined greatly in the U.S. in the last years, the rate of smoking among drinkers has remained quite high. All of this to show that alcohol alone carries risk, but when it is combined with smoking, those risks increase exponentially.
When to Talk About Drinking
Today! The risks from alcohol are high enough that physicians are advised to talk to patients about their alcohol use as part of regular checkups. In fact, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends alcohol screening of adults to check for unhealthy alcohol use. The potential benefits of this include immediate awareness of risk, better understanding of the consequences of unhealthy drinking, and an opportunity for intervention if needed. This could also provide people with information on counselors, programs, or groups that offer ongoing assistance and support. This is such an important topic, that even if your doctor does not bring it up, you should! Having an honest conversation with your doctor could make a huge difference in your health.
If you have questions or concerns about your level of alcohol use, or if you want more information on the risks, visit Dr. Sameer Islam as a first step. No matter your New Year’s Resolution, resolve to make your health a priority. Make an appointment online today.