Binge drinking and your health
If you go by what the media say, it is very difficult to understand what is good for you in relation to alcohol.
This is made more difficult by the fact that alcohol plays a huge part in social life, calming people down when stressed and helping people sleep when they have insomnia. None of these are healthy ways to use alcohol, but have become the norm in so many lives.
Thousands of words have been written about alcohol, so I looked for something new and updated to create awareness about a problem which is lifestyle- and stress-related and can be a huge part of our lives and a contributory factor inour mortality.
One fact is for sure: avoid binge drinking at all costs. Juergen Rehm, who is the director of social and epidemiological research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, states: “If someone binge drinks even once a month, any health benefits derived from light to moderate drinking disappear”. The definition of binge drinking is more than four drinks on one occasion for women and more than five for men.
Dr Rehm’s own research into alcohol and the heart has revealed that while drinking does appear to protect against heart-related disease and death in general, a protective effect cannot be assumed for all drinkers, not even at low levels of alcohol intake.
The paper (co-authored with Michael Roerecke) was published in the journal Addiction and suggests that drinking patterns may be just as important as the amount of alcohol that is drunk overall.
An interesting comparison came from a study between the French and the Irish. It found that although the French typically drank more than the Irish on a weekly basis – mainly due to their habit of daily drinking rather than drinking higher amounts sporadically (binge drinking) – the French drinkers had considerably less coronary heart disease than the Northern Irish drinkers. Those from Belfast had nearly twice the risk of a heart attack, or death from heart disease, compared with regular, daily drinkers(BMJ, 2010).
However, some experts warn against daily drinking even in moderation. Sir Ian Gilmore,the Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on alcohol,warns there is an increased risk of liver disease in those who drink daily when compared to those who drink periodicallyor intermittently.
A liver expert from the University of Southampton agrees: “If we look at those who get scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), they are pretty much all drinking on a daily basis.” Dr Nick Sheron, the liver expert, emphasises that weekly “dry” days are important for maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol.
He explains that alcohol shares an inherent property with other drugs in that if you use it or drink it regularly,you will develop a tolerance. Therefore you require more to achieve the same effect. The idea of having a rest can help reset the tolerance levels.
Looking at the overall fact file for what alcohol helps and where it creates problems, we can see the following:
Apparently light drinking has been linked to a reduced risk of dementia (J. Alzheimers Dis., 2010); in addition, drinking in moderation compared with not drinking appears to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by about 30 per cent (Diabetes Care, 2005).
A 13-year study found that compared to non-drinkers, normal-weight women who drank one or two drinks a day gained less weight over the course of the study and were less likely to become overweight or obese. Another journal reported that drinking red wine may protect against bone loss in older men, while drinking low-alcohol beer may be protective for women (Eur. J. Clin., 2011).
On the negative side, drinking just one measure of spirits increases the risk of acute pancreatitis, but drinking beer or wine does not seem to have the same effect (Br. J. Surg., 2011). Having a drink can help you fall asleep but may interfere with sleep quality and the restorative role of sleep overall, according to studies in Japan.
Drinking more than one drink a day while pregnant can increase the risk of a low birth weight and other complications (BJOG, 2011).
Finally, heavy drinking can lead to osteoporosis and is bad for bone health in general. A heavy consumption appears to interfere with the genes responsible for maintaining healthy bone growth and development (Alcohol Clin. Exp. Res., 2008).
There are many more studies each justifying the good side and bad side of alcohol consumption. So what have I discovered?
It seems that when deciding whether alcohol is good or bad for you, things get complicated. Although experts differ over what constitutes a “safe” daily dose, it seems a little of what you fancy does you good. Moderation is key.
However, if you don’t drink at all, it isn’t worth starting on the basis of these studies. The same benefits can be gained from a healthy diet and exercise and a stress-free lifestyle.