Drinking is the in-thing today for those who want to socialise. There can never be a celebration without alcohol. Indeed, ‘lets have a drink’ is the catch phrase for people wishing to connect. And alcohol seems to be in plenty, never mind of what kind. Alcohol consumption among women in this country is rocketing and few know their limit. While moderate drinking can do you some good, such as protecting against heart disease and lowering stress and blood pressure, excessive consumption is dangerous to your health. We tell you in this article the real risks of excessive drinking and guide you on how to stay on the safe side.
What alcohol does to your body
When you drink too much, you first get a huge sugar surge from the alcohol but this drops off the next day leaving you feeling exhausted and may be also nursing a headache. This is commonly known as ‘hangover’. When you drink at a faster pace than the liver can remove the alcohol from the body, the excess becomes toxic and enters the blood, body tissues and brain to cause dis-inhibition, lightheadedness and giddiness. When you are drunk, your brain is affected and the body’s tissues are being damaged.
Drinking high quantities of alcohol will damage the liver, brain tissue and memory. Because brain cells do not grow back, this damage is irreversible. High alcohol consumption causes oxidation and free-radical damage in the blood, contributing to ageing and stiffening of the arteries. This is partly why heart disease risk doubles in people who drink excessively.
People who drink moderately every few days build up enzymes that break down alcohol, meaning that on average, every unit of alcohol does 50 per cent less damage than in someone who drinks irregularly. Binge drinking (exposing the body to large, infrequent amounts of alcohol) is especially harmful, as the body doesn’t build up tolerance. Binge drinking can eventually lead to cirrhosis, where the liver is so scarred it no longer works properly.
How much alcohol is safe?
A unit is the equivalent of 10ml of pure alcohol. Women are advised not to drink more than two or three units a day and no more than 14 units in a week. A single measure of spirits, a small glass of wine (125ml), half a pint of ordinary-strength lager or two pints of low-alcohol lager all contain just one unit.
Why alcohol affects women more than men
Men can tolerate three to four units of alcohol a day, but most women can only safely drink two to three units. This is because women have a proportionally higher ratio of fat to water than men and are, therefore, less able to dilute alcohol within the body. Women will have a higher concentration of alcohol in their blood than men after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol. The menstrual cycle also affects women’s alcohol tolerance. This may be because oestrogen slows alcohol breakdown. So women taking oestrogen-containing contraceptive pills and HRT could be even more susceptible to alcohol’s effect.
Effects of alcohol on your health
Alcohol has a sedative effect on the nervous system, relieving tension and cutting blood pressure. While alcohol consumption above five to six units a day increases the risk of hypertension, a small amount of alcohol – one or two units daily – lowers blood pressure, protecting against heart disease and stroke.
Recommendation: Drink no more than one or two units after a stressful day to help you relax.
Alcohol kills the brain cells in the area at the front of the brain that controls planning, accuracy, social interactions and inhibitions – and women appear to be more sensitive to these effects than men. Researchers say women who drink heavily have significantly more disrupted thought processes than men.
Recommendation: Don’t consistently drink a lot of alcohol. Try to stick to no more than two to three units a day.
Regularly drinking over recommended levels significantly increases a woman’s breast cancer risk. In a study published in the UK journal Cancer, researchers found women who drank 2.8 to 5.6 glasses of wine a day were 40 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer. Researchers believe the female hormone oestrogen increases alcohol absorption and slows its breakdown. With both substances building up in a woman’s system, you become vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of both alcohol and excess oestrogen.
Recommendation: When you drink, eat a high carbohydrate meal to help absorb excess alcohol.
Flavonoids in red wine have been shown to protect the heart and blood vessels from cardiovascular disease. However, numerous studies have shown that women who persistently drink more than three units of alcohol a day have a raised risk of heart disease. This is because, at toxic levels, alcohol depresses the nervous system and raises blood pressure, which strains the heart muscle. Binge drinking can cause abnormal heart rhythms, and regular heavy drinking may lead to enlargement of the heart and breathlessness.
Recommendation: Keep consumption down to one to two units a day.
Researchers say alcohol weakens a range of immune cells, including natural killer cells that attack bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. Regular drinking also weakens the immunity by stressing the liver and placing a toxic load on the body. Not only are heavy drinkers more vulnerable to infection, they are also more likely to develop cancers, especially oesophageal, stomach and colon tumours. Since women generally tolerate less alcohol than men, the weakening effect on immunity will be greater.
Recommendation: If you know you may drink three or more units in one day, take a gram of vitamin C and a multi-vitamin to give your immune system a boost.
Studies have found women are more likely to develop alcoholic liver disease than men. This may be because pathways that break down alcohol are less effective in women, making them more likely to develop fatty, damaged liver.
Recommendation: If you drink regularly, take herbs with proven liver-protective effect, such as milk thistle and artichoke. These have been found to prevent alcohol from destroying liver cells. You can get them in supplement form from pharmacies.
Alcohol destroys B-complex vitamins that are essential to basic body processes. It also causes vitamin A deficiency and blocks absorption of vitamin C, which is vital for immunity. Excessive drinking will strip your body of these vital nutrients leaving you feeling tired and prone to infection.
Recommendation: Take a multi-vitamin and mineral before drinking and repeat the dose the next day.
As alcohol readily passes across the placenta, even small amounts of it can harm a developing foetus – especially if there is a high intake around the time of conception or in the first three months of pregnancy. Drinking just 15 units a week has been associated with a reduction in birth weight. Children may also suffer neurological damage as a result of their mothers drinking in pregnancy.
Recommendation: Don’t drink when pregnant, and if you must, no more than a unit a day and preferably not in the first trimester.
Alcohol temporary promotes GABA, a brain chemical which makes one feel calm and connected, but after an hour, levels start to fall steeply, blocking sleep and dream cycle and making it more likely for you to wake up feeling tired, irritable and stressed.
Recommendation: Stop drinking two hours before you plan to sleep so your liver has time to break down all the alcohol in your system.
One gram of alcohol produces seven calories of energy, compared to five calories produced by sugar. The average serving of wine contains about 98 calories. A shot of vodka with a juice or soda mix contains around 230 calories. Alcohol is very calorific but contains no nutrients. It disturbs blood sugar, but as the body can’t use it, the tendency is to lay it down as fat.
Recommendation: Drink in moderation with a meal. Lining your stomach with food will even out blood sugar surges.