By Dr. Cory Couillard
Alcohol has been named the world’s third greatest risk factor in the development of premature disease. This seemingly innocent drink is a staple in social gatherings but its effects often spills over into society as a whole. Alcohol’s intoxicating, toxic and dependence-producing properties play a role in violence, child neglect and abuse, shattered relationships and poor job performance.
The harmful use of alcohol is a global problem that claims at least 2.5 million lives per year. The sad reality is that many of the lives lost are caused by an intoxicated person’s poor choices that ultimately resulted in the harm of others. Alcohol use is very similar to the concept of secondhand smoke; it impacts everyone around you.
Alcohol’s causing more than a buzz
Very few people realize that the short-term abuse of alcohol can result in long-term, severe health conditions that include but are not limited to heart disease and cancer. These conditions are often called non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) as they cannot be passed from one person to the next but are greatly dependent on our personal choices.
Communicable diseases or ones that can be passed from person to person are also affected by the use of alcohol. Alcohol use is associated with diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as alcohol can compromise one’s immune system.
“320,000 young people between the age of 15 and 29 die from alcohol-related causes, resulting in 9% of all deaths in that age group” according to the World Health Organization.
Nearly everyone knows someone that has been harmed intentionally or unintentionally by risky drinking practices. Fatal accidents resulting from traffic accidents, violence and suicides tend to occur in younger age groups but are not limited to youth or any gender group.
Alcohol is not man’s best friend
According to statistics, men are more likely than women to drink excessively and make poor decisions that can result in serious injury or death. Examples may include reckless driving, violent behavior and other questionable decisions associated with alcohol consumption.
The use of alcohol can alter one’s mood significantly. Depression – the opposite of aggression – can occur as well. Men are more likely than women to have alcohol induced depression that increases the risk of committing suicide or doing other forms of self-harm.
Alcohol can cause cancer
Studies now demonstrate the damaging effects of alcohol on hormones of the body. Hormones have a direct impact on weight gain, diabetes and cancer. Alcohol has been found to decrease testosterone in men and increase levels of cortisol. The imbalance of these hormones and other altered processes has been linked to the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon in men and women.
Studies have linked the risk of breast cancer to increase proportionally in relation to the amount of alcohol use in women. The more alcohol consumed, the greater the cancer risk.
Alcohol consumption is also associated with poor dietary food choices. Less than optimal food items that are fried, in a bag or made with highly toxic fats and sugars will exacerbate the risk of developing cancer. In general terms, one’s cancer risk increases with the processing of food items with nitrates, food colorings and preservatives.
Alcohol affects women more
Recent studies have shown that women who drink excessively are at an increased risk for damage to the heart muscle in comparison to men. The findings highlighted that women were at greatest risk even if they had lower levels of consumption.
Men are more likely to drink in larger quantities but what really matters is trying to understand how gender differences and body structures will impact the body’s response. Women commonly have smaller structures and breakdown alcohol slightly different than men. This will result in higher alcohol levels in the blood that ultimately will impact a female longer despite drinking an equal amount.
6 out of every 10 women drink
The consumption of alcohol is very common despite the known side effects. Excessive drinking has not only been linked to memory loss but also brain shrinkage. Research suggests that women are more vulnerable once again to alcohol’s damaging effects to the brain and liver.
Alcoholic liver disease does not necessarily affect only heavy drinkers. Once again there is a direct relationship between the amount of alcohol, the length of consumption and the rate of cirrhotic liver. The important item to understand is that alcohol-induced liver disease is irreversible and steps must be taken to prevent complications.
Alcohol and pregnancy
Recent surveys reveal that about 7.2% of pregnant women still consume alcohol. These figures are low as many women are unaware that they are pregnant early in the pregnancy. Alcohol consumption will have its greatest damage on the fetus in the first few weeks of development. Sometimes the damage is already done without knowing it.
Women who drink alcohol while they are pregnant will increase the risk of having a baby with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). The most severe form of FASD is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which will cause mental retardation and birth defects. Stop drinking immediately if you find out you are pregnant as you will lower the risk of having a child with physical, mental, or emotional problems.
Excessive drinking may disrupt the menstrual cycle and increase the risk of infertility or more serious – miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery. These outcomes are still very common in developing countries.
Improving lifestyle choices
The first step of any addiction or destructive lifestyle habit is identifying that there is a problem. This is often the most difficult component as alcohol is involved in our social gatherings and our cultural definition of what is acceptable. Coping with problem drinking requires that you change your habits and make different lifestyle choices. The following are items to consider:
• Your social situation. Make it clear to your friends and family that you are not drinking.
• Develop healthy habits. Good sleep, exercise and a healthy diet will help your body respond to alcohol if you choose to quit or not.
• Get involved. Commonly people drink as their social release. Find social activities that don’t involve alcohol such as community events, programs or volunteer activities.
Preventing alcohol catastrophes
Don’t wait until you have a problem to try to fix it. Alcohol abuse is a portal of entry for many serious health conditions. It has direct links to heart disease, diabetes and cancers – the major disease killers in the world. We must understand that our personal choices today will impact our overall health tomorrow.
The purpose of this column is not to say one cannot drink alcohol but to understand the effects and take self-responsibility to prevent overuse. Alcohol impairs our ability to make good decisions and unfortunately we cannot change the past. Improving your choices will improve your decisions and ultimately improve your future.
Dr. Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
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