Alcohol and how to drink responsibly

I don’t drink that much. Is it still harmful?

It actually depends on your definition of ‘much.’ Alcohol is a toxic substance, and its regular consumption damages your mind and body. However, it’s not that black and white.

Firstly, because there are low-risk doses that can minimize health ramifications.
Secondly, some studies indicate that beer and wine can have positive health effects:

However, contunuous or excessive alcoho use has a lot impacts the body both in long-term and short-term:

  • Short-term risks appear almost immediately after alcohol consumption, and they include nausea, headaches, slurred speech, high blood pressure, and others.
  • Long-term risks appear as a result of continuous alcohol abuse and include diseases and health conditions like liver cirrhosis, nerve damage, gastritis, and others.

As the Dietary Guidelines for Americans say, long-term health risks can be reduced if you stick to1 standard drink per day for women and 2 for men.

A standard drink contains 14 grams of ethanol. It can be found in:

  • a bottle (12 ounces) of 5% strength beer or cider
  • a glass (5 ounces) of 12% strength wine
  • a shot (1.5 ounces) of 40% strength alcohol

Dr. Peter Bull’s research group points out that to avoid short-term health risks women shouldn’t have more than 3 drinks on a single occasion and no more than 7 drinks per week. For men it’s 4 drinks daily and no more than 14 drinks per week.

At the same time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has defined high-risk drinking as 5 drinks a day for men and 4 drinks a day for women. High-risk drinking also includes binge drinking and drinking by pregnant women and teenagers, which leads to developmental problems.

Have you been wondering why women have different risk rates? It’s been proved that women have a greater chance of developing alcoholism than men.

Do people really stay within these norms?

Not always. Philip Cook, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University says in his book ‘Paying the Tab’:

If you reach for a glass of Bordeaux or Chardonnay almost every night, you’re among 30% of Americans that have a drink every day, usually a glass of wine with dinner. If you do the same, but make it up to two drinks per day, you land in the top 20%. Yet you’re not even close to the top 10% drinkers that consume whopping 74 drinks per week, practically more than 10 drinks every day. In terms of wine, it would be 2 bottles on a daily basis.

Scientists from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington examined how drinking patterns vary in different US counties. They found out that most sober Americans live in Madison County, Idaho, where just 11% of residents drink. For heavy drinking, Hancock County, Tennessee, had the fewest heavy drinkers: just 2.4% of its population. At the same time, the highest rate was found in Falls Church City, Virginia, where 36% of residents drink. And Esmeralda County, Nevada, recorded 22.4% heavy drinkers, which was the largest proportion countrywide.

In fact, alcohol consumption is on the rise in our society. The national level of high-risk drinking has increased from 9.7% to 29.9% from 2002 to 2012. 30 million Americans binge drink at least one time a week. At the moment, this number is greater than the population of almost every state of the US.

In reality, our organs react differently to alcohol intoxication. While some organs are able to filter dangerous substances, others can fail pretty quickly.

Do I just harm my liver or is it my whole body that gets damaged?

It is your liver, heart, and stomach that take hit the most,but your other organs won’t thank you either. When you leave the low-risk zone (1 drink a day), alcohol quickly finds its way into your bloodstream and messes with your vital systems.

Surely, most of the alcohol is metabolized in the liver, which can break down only so much alcohol per hour. When you down cocktails faster than your liver is able to metabolize, the concentration of alcohol in your blood rises and you get drunk. The more alcohol has been consumed, the harder it is for the liver to process it. Eventually this leads to a waste buildup in your body and liver diseases: fatty liver or steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. As many as 47.9% of mortality cases due to liver diseases are alcohol-related.

Gastrointestinal tract
Another active participant and the site of alcohol absorption to the bloodstream is your gastrointestinal tract. The stomach releases an enzyme called dehydrogenase that breaks apart an alcohol molecule into toxic byproduct acetaldehyde. Contacting with GI tract, these byproducts damage its tissues and mucus. This results in abdominal complaints like heartburn, nausea, vomiting, flatulence, and stomach pain. Acetaldehyde damages DNA, causes protein disbalance, and provokes non-benign tumours and stomach cancer. The risk of cancer is, however, genetically determined, as the research suggests.

Alcohol and its byproducts weaken heart muscles and affect its ability to pump blood. This condition where the heart stretches and droops is known as cardiomyopathy. Drinking also affects vessels and arteries. Heavy drinking raises blood pressure that damages the artery walls and eventually makes them narrower. Binge drinking leads to the so-called “holiday heart syndrome” — chest pain and irregular heart beating after a party. All together, they increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and premature death. Cardiovascular diseases lead to the death of 191,000 people a year, making it the number one cause of death in the UK.

Alcohol affects you skin, because acetaldehyde causes dilated facial capillaries making the face red and blotchy – hence the rosy coloration of your cheeks – and the eyes whites. Drinking excessively is proved to cause hypoxia of tissues and to slow down the healing of wounds on your skin. As much as 100 mg/dl blood alcohol level — 3-5 drinks for a woman and 5-8 for a man — reduces the gene expression of collagen type I and undermines dermal stability. Result? Bad skin and wounds that won’t go away.

Immune system
Regular drinking undermines the entire immune system, increasing the concentration of pro-inflammatory cytokine [IL-12] and interferon-gamma [IFNγ]. It provokes susceptibility to all kind of bacterial diseases and infections. For example, 7-9 drinks consumed by a 55 kg person or 11-14 drinks had by a 90 kg person would result in a blood alcohol level of 200 mg/dl. This particular level is associated with a 2.6 fold increase in wound-related infections like yeast, erythemas, cellulitis and others.

Practically, alcohol consumption leads to many health complications, some of which are really hard to fix like a weakened heart muscle, disbalanced brain activity, or a damaged immune system. Remember that woman achieve higher blood alcohol concentrations than men because more alcohol passes from a woman’s stomach into the small intestine, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream.

Does booze make me lose brain cells for real?

It’s not completely accurate, yet the damage alcohol causes to your brain is quite noticable. And even if doctors can’t accurately explain why you text your ex after a certain number of drinks, there is a scientific base for other ramifications, like not recalling a thing about last night.

You might know that to function normally your brain maintains a certain balance of neurotransmitters — molecules that regulate your body’s behavior. Drinking distorts this balance: when there is alcohol in the system, your brain begins to alter these neurotransmitters depriving you of control over your own performance. For instance, alcohol is known to jack up dopamine levels in your brain which provokes a feeling of satisfaction. This way booze tricks us into thinking we are having a good time when we get drunk. After that your brain creates “a note” that the right thing to do will be to drink again.

More possible brain impairments that drinking leads to:

  • Sensory loss and depression. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. Even if the first couple of drinks stimulate inhibitory neurotransmitters and have a “pick-me-up” effect, talkativeness and animation will morph into slurred speech, hazy thinking, dulled hearing, sadness, and prolonged reaction time.
  • Lack of coordination. Booze reaches another part of your brain – the cerebellum, which coordinates the work of your muscles. That’s why simply touching your finger to your nose in one movement becomes a challenging task. Drinking makes people clumsy  — that’s why after a party you may discover some bruises on your limbs.
  • Memory lapses and blackouts. Alcohol disrupts the activity of the hippocampus, a brain region central to memories. The more drinks you’ve had, the worse your memory gets. That’s why excessive drinking leads to total blackouts – periods of complete amnesia due to intoxication. University of Kansas Professor Dr. Goodwin and his research group have found that 64 out of 100 alcoholics had a history of blackouts.

For all the havoc that alcohol wreaks on your brain chemistry, there has never been any clinical proof that it kills the brain cells, like many people fear. This notion is an old wives’ tale that presumably traces back to the time of U.S. Prohibition.

How does alcohol make me act weird?

By affecting your decision-making mechanisms, which are built on the brain’s activity. Scientists point out that brain parts responsible for the evaluation of positive and negative consequences of our actions also fail to function properly in the presence of alcohol. And if you have ever had more drinks than intended, you might recognize these situations:

  • Having no fear of making a mistake
    Booze impairs mechanisms of behavioral self-control. More precisely, it reduces the error-related negativity and error positivity of the event-related brain potential. To put it simply, drunk people know they are making a mess, it’s just they couldn’t care less.
  • Hooking up with someone you wouldn’t normally find attractive
    It’s the so-called “beer goggles effect”. People in general find symmetrical faces more attractive. British research group conducted an experiment with 100 volunteers. It demonstrated that alcohol-intoxicated participants failed to detect facial symmetry.
  • Eating junk food
    Even if you enjoy healthy eating or follow a diet, you might end up with a basket of chicken wings after a couple of beers. Scientists have found out that alcohol makes us crave up to 19% more food, especially fatty savory foods. Researchers at London’s Francis Crick Institute found that alcohol activates brain cells that trigger desire to eat the same way hunger does.

In fact, few cognitive and behavioral functions escape the impact of alcohol. That’s why it’s better to avoid regular drinking. Sometimes when you don’t feel like passing on a drink (we’re all human here), there are ways to make it less detrimental.

It’s better not to drink, I get it. But what if I don’t want to decline a drink at a business meeting?

Just be cautious. Indeed, very few social events don’t include champagne, martinis, vodka on the rocks, and other drinks that perk us up to actively socialize. Sometimes not drinking feels kind of inappropriate. But even within the confines of etiquette, you can drink smart and minimize the side effects that alcohol bears. Here’s what you can do:

  • Stay within a low-risk zone
    The amount of ethanol that your liver can safely break down is about a standard drink in an hour. It can be found in one beer, a glass of wine, or one shot of a stronger drink like vodka or whiskey. It’s better to stop after one drink, while you’re still in control. Even a couple of beers can make you want to keep going and, all of a sudden, you’re a 6-pack in. Stretch out this first drink for as long as you can.
  • Choose wine or beer
    Moderate consumption of some drinks can even bring health benefits. You might have read that drinking red wine is actually healthy. There are studies that confirm it’s true: antioxidant polyphenols found in wine reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. Nevertheless, the trick of limiting your consumption to one drink a day works here too. Similarly, the compounds found in beer have demonstrated various biological activities in enzymatic assays or cell cultures such as antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, estrogenic, and even antiviral properties.
  • Grape or grain, but never the twain
    The old saying is right: sticking to one type of beverage for the night is much better than combining beer with wine or drinking mixed cocktails. First of all, mixed drinks have a stronger effect on you. Then, cocktails that contain sugar syrups are full of carbs that give your liver extra work. Also, there is a risk of getting drunk as you can’t control how much ethanol you consume. What is more, there are studies that say alcohol mixed even with diet soda worsens your condition. It’s better to keep it pure.

In addition to all the health ramifications, alcohol won’t help you make smart career decisions at a work meeting. Remember that the weaker your drink is, the stronger your position will be.

Stick to these rules:

  • one drink in an hour
  • preferably drink wine or beer
  • don’t mix alcoholic beverages
  • drink from a straight glass

Can a meal help me stay sober?

Yes and no. Eating before drinking can slow down the alcohol absorption, but it can’t prevent you from getting drunk. However, eating the wrong foods or having an empty stomach lead to a worse hangover. Try to follow these recommendations:

  • Have a meal before getting a drink
    Never drink on an empty stomach, as it will make you drunk in an instant. Don’t try to compensate for the carbs and calories that you will get from the booze by eating a neat low-fat salad before going out. To slow down alcohol absorption, you need to consume some of the healthy fats and proteins to be found in salmon steak, stewed turkey, or chicken breast. In fact, any proteins from beans, meat, or fish will be a godsend, as they form a base layer.
  • Munch on snacks rich in protein and good fats
    Grab some healthy snacks while having a drink. Olives, unsalted nuts, or whole wheat crackers will do just fine. French fries, fried cheese sticks, bacon strips, and other heavy snacks might be calling your name, but they won’t do your metabolism any favors. Carbohydrates and trans fats in them slow down the alcohol breakdown in your body and give your liver a really hard time.
  • Stay away from sugar
    Alcohol accompanied by sugar-laden treats like chocolate, fruit, or soft drinks is double trouble. The thing is, your body reacts to booze as a toxin and directs all its energy to expel it. During this time, production of glucose and the hormones regulating it is interrupted. As a result, your blood sugar level fluctuates, while insulin activity decreases. Not only does it lead to worse general health the morning after, but in the long term, it also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. What is more, sugars provide a quick burst of energy followed by a crash.

All in all, the right food slows down your alcohol metabolism, so proper nutrition can help you avoid getting wasted and waking up with a horrible hangover. However, no food can guarantee you won’t get drunk if you keep downing one drink after another.

Stick to these rules:

  • Eat smething before drinking: healthy fats and proteins – salmon steak, stewed turkey, beans, or chicken breast
  • While having a drink eat: olives, not salty nuts or whole wheat crackers
  • Never, ever combine drinking with: french fries, fried cheese sticks, bacon strips, chocolate, fruit or soft drinks

I don’t want to have a hangover. What can I drink?

The most reliable way is still to have no alcohol at all. If not drinking is not an option, there are some tips that can brighten up your morning after. Make sure you:

  • Choose light over dark
    Dark drinks contain a higher number of congeners – chemicals created during the fermentation process says Dutch researcher Joris C. Verster from the University of Utrecht. They are known for producing a more severe hangover.  That goes for rum, whiskey, gold tequila, and other drinks with a darkish hue. It’s believed that antioxidant properties of wine and beer rise in dark beer and red wine making them a healthier choice. There are studies that actually confirm that, for instance, white wine does not contain as many polyphenols that help against the heart diseases. Yet if you have to drink and function properly the day after, scientists suggest you choose white wine over red wine and vodka over Bourbon.
  • Avoid bubbly drinks
    Carbon dioxide in sparkling drinks accelerates alcohol absorption in your stomach making you drunk faster and setting you up for a worse hangover. Researcher Fran Ridout of the University of Surrey in Guildford conducted an experiment that shows that alcohol levels rise much faster when you choose sparkling drinks. Five minutes after a glass of bubbly, champagne drinkers had 0.54 milligrams of alcohol per millilitre of blood. Drinkers of flat champagne (that is practically regular white wine) with the same body weight averaged just 0.39 milligrams of alcohol.
  • Drink water
    Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes your body lose liquids. You can feel the dehydration caused by booze in the form of dry mouth, shakes, and headaches the next morning. It worsens our cognitive functions and general wellness, so it’s crucial to help your body stay hydrated while drinking. Always accompany your tipples with H2O – drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage. There are mobile applications like Hydrate Now that can help you keep a tally of your water consumption.

Choose your drink wisely to avoid a miserable morning. Even if you love champagne or a dark stout, remember that you need to be fresh next day and go for this sacrifice. After all, it can’t hurt more than a telltale hangover headache.

So stick to the rules:

  • Drink light-coloured beverage
  • Don’t drink sparklers
  • Alternate each alcoholic drink with a glass of water

Any other tips on avoiding a hangover?

Okay, you’ve chosen a drink that doesn’t come with a morning headache. But that’s not all. Make sure you also follow these tips:

  • Don’t smoke
    Even if you’re not a bif smoker you might feel an urge to light up after a couple of drinks. The reason is that nicotine affects the same reward centers of the brain prolonging the feeling of satisfaction. Studies say nicotine also helps offset the sleepiness that alcohol induces. Yet research shows that cigarettes intensify the severity of hangovers.
  • Don’t drink painkillers with alcohol
    It might seem tempting to pop an aspirin after a party and stave off a thudding headache of tomorrow. For all the appeal, it’s something that just won’t help. The effect of the medicine will wear off long before you wake up – over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin last for about four hours. Taking a pill of aspirin while still drinking is an even worse idea. It decreases the metabolism of ethanol by gastric alcohol dehydrogenase and increases the level of alcohol in your blood. You might end up feeling drunker than you were.
  • Get enough sleep
    Scientists from the USA, the Netherlands, and Australia have pointed out that sleep deprivation worsens the severity of your hangover. When you realize that only 8 hours stand between you and your morning alarm, the best decision would be to go home and get some good sleep. Getting sufficient sleep is essential, because it gives your body a chance to channel all its energy to breaking down the alcohol.

Nevertheless Raj Dasgupta, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Pulmonary/Critical Care/Sleep Medicine division says that you will wake up more sober, but not feeling better, and that you really can’t just sleep off your hangover if you have already got too drunk.

  • Have some pear juice
    Researchers from Australia’s CSIRO have found that drinking 220 mL of Asian pear juice reduces the side effects of alcohol by up to 20%. Have a pear or some pear juice before you go out for a drink and it will speed up your body’s ability to flush alcohol out later. Notice that it’s a preventative measure and won’t work after you already had a drink.

Hangovers are nasty: they make your productivity, work, and life performance decline dramatically. They cost the U.S. alone some $224 billion a year in absenteeism, poor work performance, drinking-related health care expenses, law enforcement, and accidents. Do your best to avoid them.

Is “hair of the dog” a good idea?

Absolutely not! If you didn’t manage to dodge a hangover and woke up with your head spinning, hands shaking, and mouth dry, the last thing you want is to extend this condition any longer. And this is exactly what the “hair of the dog” drink does.

As Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin of the Mayo Clinic says, having another drink in the morning “will provide a numbing effect, but all you’re doing is prolonging the inevitable, and it will likely make your headache worse.” If you have a Bloody Mary at breakfast, the hangover will just come later during the day. Generally, 75% of all drinkers report experiencing the same feelings as you. Luckily, there are other things to improve this condition:

  • Restore your water balance
    After the binge is over, especially if you had to throw up, your body is left without liquids. Drink a lot of water to counter dehydration. If you want to drink something else besides water, have some peppermint and ginger tea. They can reduce nausea and alleviate stomach pain.
  • Don’t count on coffee
    For all the temptation to boost yourself with a hot aromatic espresso, don’t fall for it. Coffee can temporarily relieve just one side effect of your hangover — sleep deprivation. Yet caffeine is a known vasoconstrictor: it can narrow your vessels and exacerbate your headache. What is more, it has a mild diuretic effect, that is normal for healthy people, but can promote further dehydration for people in the throes of a hangover. Waterless, you will suffer longer.
  • Have a breakfast
    If you’re not sure what your stomach can handle, eggs can be a good choice. Eggs can help you break down the alcohol byproduct acetaldehyde, as they are packed with amino acids like cysteine and taurine necessary for this process. They are also rich in protein. What is more, it’s like the easiest product to cook and you won’t need to slave in the kitchen with a hangover. Kiwi and bananas can help you restore lost electrolytes, like magnesium and potassium, as can mom’s chicken soup.
  • Be careful with painkillers
    Your liver has done a great job metabolizing all that booze you had last night. Remember that and don’t overload it with medications. They can make your headache go away, but taking this medicine would contribute to liver abuse. The only absolutely good thing about the pill that you take is the water you drink to chase it down.
  • Exercise a little
    Your hangover is not that intense and you can even get yourself together for some activity? Cool then! A 15-minute workout can boost the release of endorphins – hormones that relieve pain and reduce stress. It won’t fix your other symptoms in an instant, but it will give you a good kick in the butt. Exercising outdoors or going for a stroll is even better, because fresh air increases the rate of the breakdown of alcohol byproducts and toxins.

All of the above can alleviate your suffering a little bit, but the only true fix for a hangover is time. Your body can take up to 48 hours to recover. Before that you are likely to feel nauseous, miserable and ehxausted.

Drink safe! 🙂

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