Many people drink red wine ‘for the antioxidants’, beer to ‘unwind’, and hard alcohol ‘to relax’. Cracking open a bottle of wine, champagne, or scotch often means festivity and fun. Strangely, many of us don’t know – and would never even consider – how to celebrate without a bottle of something alcoholic. But alcohol affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally – and it’s not positive. Scientific studies have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that alcohol consumption damages our bodies and our moods. So why are we so attached to the idea that alcohol is fun?
Alcohol is sold to us via sexy ads featuring good looking people having a great time in glamorous locations. It’s always a party when there’s alcohol involved. But as we all know, what we see on the screen rarely represents real life. And that’s especially true when it comes to alcohol. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older had AUD or Alcohol Use Disorder. This includes 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women. AUD is the clinical term for alcohol addiction or alcoholism. People with AUD exhibit compulsive behavior around alcohol use and continue to drink despite negative consequences. And, many of these consequences are health related.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States (the first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity). While that may not seem like a lot, consider that, in 2010, alcohol misuse cost the United States $249 billion. And, three-quarters of that total cost of alcohol misuse is related to binge drinking – which many people see as nothing but a good ol’ time. But binge drinking results in unintentional injuries such as car crashes, falls, burns, and alcohol poisoning. It increases the possibility of violence including homicide, suicide, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault. Binge drinkers are at higher risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases. And binge drinking can affect pregnancy (especially unintended) and poor pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage and stillbirth.
Globally, alcohol misuse was the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability in 2010. Among people between the ages of 15 and 49, it is the first. For people aged 20 – 39 years old, approximately 25 percent of total deaths are alcohol attributable.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which conducts the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), defines binge drinking as 5 or more alcoholic drinks for males or 4 or more alcoholic drinks for females on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) on at least 1 day in the past month.
But not me, you say. I just have a few glasses of wine or beer here and there. But do you? One glass of red wine is 5 fluid ounces. If you can drink a bottle of wine in one sitting, that’s 5 glasses of wine. That’s also binge drinking. As much as we’d like to tell ourselves that moderate drinking of red wine, for example, has antioxidant benefits, any benefit is mitigated by binge drinking or overuse. And not only does binge drinking mitigate the ‘nutritional’ benefit, it is harming our bodies more than we might want to admit.
It’s not surprising the we don’t discuss the dangers of alcohol because the normalization just doesn’t happen in media, our government is also complicit. In 2014, the National Institute of Health – considered one of the world’s foremost medical research centers – started a ten year study on the benefits of moderate drinking on adults aged 50 and older who were at high risk for heart disease. But recently, the study was shut down. Why? Because the $100 million study, with the intention to be able to recommend one to two drinks per day as part of a healthy lifestyle, was funded by Anheuser Busch, InBev, Heineken and other alcohol companies through donations to a private foundation that raises money for the National Institutes of Health. And, scientists consulted these companies when designing the study, making it most unlikely that results would be unbiased.
Alcohol has been linked to heart disease and is known to damage the immune system. In fact, your immune system becomes compromised for approximately 24 hours after you drink to drunkenness. The brain, liver, and pancreas are all also affected by alcohol use. And there is undeniable scientific evidence that alcohol increases risk for many types of cancers.
When alcohol is metabolized by the body, the byproducts include several toxins. One, Acetaldehyde, damages the genetic materials in cells and renders those cells unable to repair the damage. It can also compel cells to grow too quickly, resulting in genetic changes and mistakes. Both scenarios are fertile ground for various cancers – when cells contain damaged genetic material, cancer can more easily develop.
Acetaldehyde is common; it is found in ripe fruit, coffee, and bread. But the body avoids a build up thanks to glutathione. But binge drinking overloads the body and the resulting metabolization creates more Acetaldehyde than can be flushed out due to the body running out of glutathione.
Alcohol also increases estrogen levels, which is linked to the development of breast cancer in women. A recent study found that drinking the equivalent of a small glass of wine or beer a day (about 10 grams alcohol content) increases premenopausal breast cancer risk by 5 percent and post-menopausal breast cancer risk by 9 percent.
For both men and women, alcohol has been linked to the development of head and neck cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity (mouth), pharynx (throat), and larynx (voice box) because alcohol makes direct contact with those parts of the body. The risk of liver cancer, esophageal cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer are not only increased by alcohol use but impacted by how nutrition is disrupted by alcohol use. Alcohol destroys vitamins and minerals such as vitamin c, folate and zinc.
So, why do we keep drinking and telling ourselves it’s harmless?
There is a connection between anxiety and alcohol consumption. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older. The American Psychiatric Association reports anxiety is up 5 points from 2017. If you drink to manage your anxiety, you may be stuck in a vicious loop you cannot get out of. According to Murray Stein, MD, MPH, and John Walker, PhD, in Triumph Over Shyness: Conquering Social Anxiety Disorder, alcohol can temporarily reduce symptoms of social anxiety – which is the reason many turn to it. But alcohol can also increase anxiety, irritability, or depression the next day which continues a dangerous cycle. If you notice you are experiencing anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor and consider abstaining.
Drinking is easier than exercise, cheaper than a therapist, and legal. If you suffer from anxiety, exercise can help to reduce symptoms, as can cognitive behavioral therapies. But buying a bottle of wine takes much less effort and costs much less – initially. Although many people report relief from anxiety symptoms from marijuana, it is not legal in all parts of the United States.
Consuming alcohol is so normalized that non-drinkers are judged harshly. In 2015, a writer named Andy Boyle published an article describing how his life had changed since he stopped drinking two years prior. Of how it affected his relationships he said:
I’ve had friends who’ve stopped hanging out with me because I don’t drink anymore. I’ve had relationships end (or not even start) because of it. It’s weird. But it makes you realize the bad relationship with booze other folks must be having. And for that, I have empathy. And I hope they figure it out.
There is a growing movement of people who have decided to live life without alcohol. Not because they are addicted, but because they simply feel better without it. If you are curious about how alcohol affects you, try abstaining for thirty days. Or sixty. Maybe you won’t see much of a difference, and that’s just fine. But maybe you will. And maybe that difference will take you on journey of self discovery in which you realize that you never needed alcohol in the first place.