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Harmful or Healthful: Our Love Affair with Liquor

Dec 02, 2014 01:18PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

Is this a nurturing match or an abusive relationship?

On which side of the fence does drinking alcohol fall? Should humans as a species consume intoxicants at all? Or is it the lubricant we need to survive? And where do you stand personally—because drinking alcohol is a very personal decision influenced by societal, cultural, and religious practices. Putting those considerations aside for a moment, let’s first look at what alcohol does to your body.

A fact that cannot be avoided: alcohol is a mind-altering drug. (It just happens to be legal and easily obtainable for most American adults.) When we drink, alcohol passes right from the digestive track (including the liver) into our blood vessels. In no time at all, alcohol has been transported all over our bodies, including to our brains. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), alcohol (more accurately ethanol—yep, just like the stuff you pump into your car at the Shell station) can affect the parts of the brain that control movement, speech, memory, and judgment. The manifestations of this altered state are the classic signs of drunkenness: difficulty walking, slurred speech, fuzzy recollections, and impulsive behavior. Simply put—if you drink more alcohol than your body can absorb, you become drunk.

According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 15 percent of Marylanders engage in heavy or binge drinking. That’s higher than the national average (as is our suicide rate). A comprehensive CDC study found that excessive drinking cost the United States $223.5 billion in 2006, largely from losses in workplace productivity, health care expenses, and a combination of criminal justice expenses, motor vehicle crash costs, and property damage.

According to a 2013 Fortune Magazine article entitled “The United States of Booze,” we are drinking more—of nearly everything. U.S. per capita consumption increased from 19.7 liters a year in 1997 to 35.2 liters in 2011. Beer sales, except craft and microbrews, have flattened out. Vodka is now king (it’s all those flavors), but whiskey is making a strong comeback. The Wine Institute breaks down the grape side of the ledger for us explaining that we consumed 892 million gallons of wine (2.82 gallons per person) in 2012. That’s up from 519/1.94 gallons in 1997.

But it’s not just an American trend. A recent Chinese survey showed that the average annual consumption of alcohol among Chinese people 15 years of age or older has increased from 0.4 liters of pure alcohol in 1952 to 2.5 liters at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978, to 4.9 liters in 2009. According to the World Health Organization, high-risk drinking behavior has reached epidemic proportions in China. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated by the Alcohol Health Network that one-quarter of the U.K. workforce drinks at “hazardous levels,” causing 40 percent of workplace accidents, and 17 million lost days a year. Studies in Australia and Finland show that alcohol consumption is related to the number of days of sickness absence for both men and women.

In 2020 we will “celebrate” the 100th anniversary of the signing of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibited the manufacture, sale, transport, import, or export of alcoholic beverages. That “noble experiment” didn’t work out too well as Prohibition opened the doors for organized crime on a truly epic scale, as well as forcing the population to cope with the worst economic depression in the history of our country stone-cold sober—or to break the law. One of the first things newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933 was repeal the 18th amendment with the 21st—and removed the threat of ever going dry again. There are countries on this earth, however, that do not permit the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

It is illegal for locals to purchase spirits in Afghanistan for instance; however they do sell them to foreign visitors. It’s similar in Bahrain where booze is only available in hotels for sale to non-Muslims. Bangladesh, Brunei, and India also have strict anti-drinking laws.

Doubtless, you won’t expect to find statistics like this in Brunei: Every day in the U.S. nearly 30 people die in accidents involving an alcohol-impaired driver—that’s one death every 48 minutes. One-third of all traffic-related deaths are alcohol related. And vehicles need not be involved in the mortality stats: According to the CDC, in 2011, there were 16,749 alcoholic liver disease deaths in the U.S.

 Interestingly, gender does make a difference. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that alcohol affects men and women differently. Women’s bodies tend to break alcohol down more slowly. Also women have less water in their bodies than men, so alcohol becomes more concentrated. As a result, women may become more impaired than men after drinking the same amount. The NIAAA also reports that as little as one drink a day can slightly raise the risk of breast cancer in some women, especially those who have been through menopause or have a family history of cancer. (The possible connection between alcohol and breast cancer is currently the subject of several research studies. We will hear much more on this in the future.)

So, could there possibly be any reason to recommend drinking alcohol? Possibly, yes. It’s fairly well known that drinking may have a positive effect on heart health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “more than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction in risk.”

What isn’t fairly well known is the ongoing research that NOT drinking alcohol may cause a health risk. A former World Health Organization expert recently told England’s Daily Mail that, “The weight of the evidence shows moderate drinking is better than abstaining and heavy drinking is worse than abstaining.”

A recent study by the University of Colorado raised more questions. Their findings showed that people who abstained completely from alcohol had a slightly higher mortality risk than light drinkers. They collected data from a 1988 survey on the drinking habits of 41,000 people, investigating which respondents had died. (It should be noted that former drinkers had the highest rate of mortality among the non-drinkers.)

Moreover, “There is evidence to show that drinking small amounts of alcohol (no more than 1-2 units/day) can have protective benefits on the heart especially for over 45 year olds,” says Professor Paul Wallace, Chief Medical Adviser at Drinkaware, a U.K. nonprofit which “promotes responsible drinking and works to reduce alcohol misuse and harm.” However, Professor Wallace continues, “But it’s not a good idea to start drinking for this reason if you are a non-drinker, because any benefits are outweighed by the risks of developing other illnesses, such as liver disease or cancer.”

It looks like we have come back, once again, to the “M” word.

And it is undeniable good advice: All things in moderation. A full-blown, all-out love affair with liquor may not be a match made in heaven. However, it appears that it may be perfectly acceptable to flirt a bit.

—S.H.

What’s Up? does not give medical advice. This material is simply a discussion of current information, trends, and topics. Please seek the advice of a physician before making any changes to your lifestyle or routine.
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