By Monica Thomas,
MPH, RD, LD
For The Leader
A night of drinking alcohol heavily can lead to that pesky hangover feeling. However, is a hangover really the only side effect we should be worried about? The National Institute of Health assessed the latest research which showed that alcohol consumption both light and heavy can have long term effects on our health. It is important to note that alcohol can affect people differently based on genetics, family history, diet, etc.
Alcohol and Your Organs
The organ most often associated with the negative effects of alcohol consumption is the liver. However, what most people do not realize is that alcohol consumption can also negatively affect the brain, heart and pancreas. When we think of the impact alcohol has on the brain, we often think of short-term outcomes like memory loss and slow response time. But, alcohol can also have long lasting effects by changing the way the brain looks and functions. Research has found that alcohol consumption can interrupt the communication pathways in the brain and physically change brain structure by shrinking its’ cells, leading to an overall smaller brain size. The shrinking can alter your motor coordination, temperature regulation, sleep, mood, and various cognitive functions like learning and memory.
Long term excessive drinking can weaken the heart muscle causing a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This condition ultimately results in the heart not being able to contract effectively or pump enough blood to adequately nourish the organs. Other heart conditions as a result of regular or chronic alcohol consumption include heart arrhythmia in the upper and lower ventricles, as well as hypertension (high blood pressure) and stroke. The pancreas does not receive much focus when thinking about the negative effects of alcohol; however, it plays an important role in metabolic processes and food digestion. Drinking alcohol can damage pancreatic cells, influencing metabolic processes and ultimately causing inflammation. Chronic inflammation can lead to a serious condition called pancreatitis, which can be painful and very difficult to treat.
Alcohol and Cancer Risk
There are many factors that play a role in cancer risk, but our lifestyle choices can have a direct effect on that risk. Numerous studies show that alcohol is a lifestyle risk factor for many cancers including mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver and breast cancer. Additional research found drinking five or more drinks per day can increase the risk for colon and rectal cancer. Also, studies have found that women who have even a few drinks a week have a significantly higher risk of breast cancer, especially if they lack sufficient folate in their diet. Alcohol can increase the estrogen hormone, which may also explain the higher risk. The take home message with alcohol and cancer is the more you drink the higher your risk for cancer.
Alcohol and Your Immune System
Our immune system acts as our armor to fend off disease, bacteria and viruses; but chronic alcohol consumption can weaken the cells that make up this armor, leaving us vulnerable. Those who drink excessively are found to have a higher risk for pneumonia and tuberculosis. Additionally, chronic alcohol abuse can lead to immunodeficiency where the body’s immune system can begin to attack itself.
What about the Benefits of Alcohol Consumption?
Research has found that moderate drinking has its benefits; but what is moderate drinking? For men, moderate alcohol consumption is one to two drinks per day. For women, no more than one drink per day. Drinking moderately has been proven to help keep blood pressure in a healthy range, as well as protect the heart by reducing the buildup of fat in the arteries and increasing levels of HDL, your “good’ cholesterol. While alcohol is very much a part of our culture, a night of relaxation or a treat at dinner, we need to be aware of our intake levels. It is important for us to educate ourselves on the health risks and not just focus on the short-term or “fun” effects we associate with alcohol consumption.