Spirits among us

Alcohol: the good, the bad, and the ugly

By Barbara Pierce

A lot of us drink. Too many of us drink a lot.

And many of us were drinking more to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

Alcohol sales in stores and online were up over 500% at the end of April.

With all this boozing going on, are there any health risks associated with drinking?

There’s no question that drinking too much every day leads to an increase in health risks, say experts.

“Excessive drinking can increase the risk for liver disease, obesity, breast cancer, depression, suicide, accidents and a wide range of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, stroke and heart attack,” according to Kristy Smorol, communications director, American Heart Association, Syracuse.

“Alcohol also can lead to harmful mistakes with prescription drugs, dehydration and poor sleep. It also affects brain functions such as memory, balance and rational thinking,” she added.

“Alcohol use is one of the most important preventable risk factors for cancer, along with tobacco use and excess body weight. Alcohol use accounts for about 6 percent of all cancers in the United States. Yet many people don’t know about the link between alcohol use and cancer,” according to Kim McMahon, communications director, ACS, Northeast Region.

“Alcohol increases the risk of breast, colorectal, esophageal, liver, stomach, and mouth/pharynx/larynx cancers. The more you drink, the more you increase your risk,” she added.

“For breast, colorectal, oral and stomach cancers, the increased risk is seen at even low levels of regular drinking. Even one glass of wine or other alcohol on a daily basis can increase the risk of this cancer,” McMahon added.

Also, people who are alcohol dependent have compromised immune systems, reducing the body’s ability to fight off infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

The more you drink, the higher your risk for these health problems.

Long-term alcohol abuse damages most every part of the body: weakens heart muscles, contributes to high blood pressure, and raises the risk of stroke. It can lead to changes in the functioning of the brain. It causes a range of digestive problems, including liver damage.

“If you’re pregnant, there is no known safe amount of alcohol you can drink,” said April Owens, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Perinatal Network in Utica.

“Scientists have concluded that there is no known safe level,” she said. “One drink can hurt and do severe damage to the developing infant.”

Alcohol is one of the most popular psychoactive substances in the world. It can have powerful effects on your mood and mental state as it is a depressant.

Learn your boundaries

How much is too much?

That depends on a variety of factors, including your weight and gender, experts say. According to the ACS, it is best not to drink any alcohol. People who choose to drink should limit their intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women.

The main ingredient in all alcoholic beverages is ethanol, which is the substance that makes you drunk. Alcoholic drinks contain different percentages of ethanol, but in general, a standard size drink of any type — 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor — contains about the same amount of ethanol (about half an ounce). Of course, larger or “stronger” drinks can contain more ethanol than this.

Overall, the amount of alcohol someone drinks over time, not the type of alcoholic beverage, seems to be the most important factor in raising health risks. Most evidence suggests that it is the ethanol that increases the risk, not other things in the drink.

 If you may be drinking an amount at which health risks outweigh the potential benefits, there are ways to cut back on your alcohol consumption:

— First, keep track of your intake; there are apps for this that may help you drink less.

— Next, set limits. Try slowly cutting back.

— Keep alcohol out of the house. If this is unrealistic, keep it out of sight. Out of sight often means out of mind.

— When you’re out, alternate alcoholic drinks with sparkling water. Adding a lime or garnish can make it feel more special.

— Eating before or with alcohol slows the absorption of alcohol, and it can also make you feel full, so you may drink less.

— Avoid temptations and triggers. Avoid places where it’s all about drinking. Instead, do things you enjoy, like going on a hike or attending events where alcohol isn’t the main attraction.

Remember, changing patterns takes time.

If these tips don’t help you cut down, or if you drink excessively on a regular basis, consider Alcoholics Anonymous or seeking the help of a therapist with expertise in substance abuse problems.