Erika Niedernhofer, Registered Dietitian

Do you feel like your alcohol consumption has increased over the past year, particularly
during the pandemic? You may not be alone. New research suggests that alcohol
consumption in the United States has risen 14% during pandemic shutdowns. Binge
drinking, according to reports, has risen as well. Between 2019 and now, during the
pandemic, men and women both reported increasing the frequency of their binge
drinking episodes, defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for
women within a couple of hours.

Many people give alcohol a passing grade because of its association with lower heart
disease risk—although even this association pertains to moderation – 2 drinks per day
for men and 1 drink per day for women. How does excess consumption affect you, your health-physical and/or mental, your relationships? Let’s take a look.
Injuries

Studies indicate alcohol plays a significant role in serious car accidents, trauma injuries, and deaths from burns, drownings, and homicides. Furthermore, a study published
online on March 3, 2020, by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that a significant amount of motor vehicle deaths involve people who’ve consumed alcohol but
whose blood alcohol levels do not exceed the legal limit.

Sleep

Alcohol disrupts the important REM stage of sleep and may also interfere with your
breathing. Alcohol may initially make you drowsy, but it can potentially interrupt your
sleep during the night. You also may need to get up more often to pee.

Heart

You might think that a regular glass of red wine or other alcoholic beverages might be
good for your heart. But that may not be true, or true only for light sippers (less than one
drink a day). For example, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association in
2016 found that even one drink a day can be “cardiotoxic” and increase the risk of atrial
fibrillation and enlargement of one of the heart’s chambers, with the risk rising with each
daily drink.

Keep Immunity in Check

Your immune system is constantly fighting off viruses, even more so during the cold and
flu season as well as during this pandemic. According to the Cleveland Clinic, once you
take a sip of alcohol, your body prioritizes breaking down alcohol over several other
bodily functions. The body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol as it does with protein,
carbohydrates, and fats, so it has to immediately send it to the liver, where it is metabolized. Even just one bout of drinking too much may weaken your body’s germ-fighting power for up to 24 hours. Over time, large amounts of alcohol blunt your immune system and your body’s ability to repair itself. Ease up on drinking so you may
better ward off illnesses.

Your Liver May Heal

Your livers’ job is to filter toxins. Alcohol is toxic to your cells. Heavy drinking — at least
15 drinks for men and eight or more for women a week — can take a toll on the organ
and lead to fatty liver, cirrhosis, and other problems. The good news: if you abstain from
alcohol for 4-6 weeks, your liver can repair fatty liver disease. Unfortunately not true for
cirrhosis. So it’s always worth drinking less.

Weight Loss

A glass of regular beer has about 150 calories, and a serving of wine has about 120. On
top of those mostly empty calories, alcohol ramps up your appetite. It also can make
you more impulsive and less able to resist other temptations on the dinner menu. If
you stay away from alcohol, you avoid the double whammy of empty calories and
possibly higher calorie menu choices.

Socially

Alcoholic beverages, such as wine, beer, and spirits, have been enjoyed by people
throughout history, and they remain a popular choice even now. Enjoying alcohol socially
in reasonable amounts can boost your mood and help you bond with others. But if you
drink alone or down multiple drinks a day, it could turn into an unhealthy habit. If you
can’t control it, it may lead to a condition called alcohol use disorder.

Lower Cancer Risks (Maybe)

Considering overall cancer, which may include some forms that are less influenced by
alcohol, cancer risk in men who consume less than two alcoholic drinks per day and
women who consume less than one drink per day is 6% lower than in people with
higher alcohol consumption, according to analysis conducted for the European Code
Against Cancer project. It’s clear that alcohol, and heavy drinking, in particular, can up
your chances of several types of cancers, including in your esophagus (food pipe),
mouth, throat, and breast. What’s less clear is if quitting alcohol lowers your chances for
cancer and, if so, how long it might take. Some studies suggest potential benefits, but
scientists don’t know for sure.

Blood Pressure

Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels. Having more
than three drinks in one sitting temporarily raises your blood pressure, but repeated
binge drinking can lead to long-term increases. Talk to your doctor about your numbers.
Normal blood pressure is below 120/80. You have high blood pressure if yours is above
130/80.

Are there benefits of alcohol?

While the list of health risks related to excessive alcohol consumption is long, there may
also, be health benefits associated with moderate drinking. Studies suggest that
moderate drinking may be linked with a lower risk of:

  • heart attack
  • the most common type of stroke
  • death due to cardiovascular disease
  • diabetes

Despite these potential health benefits, most doctors don’t recommend that someone
who doesn’t drink start drinking or a moderate drinker to drink more. Bottom line, if
you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. If you do not drink alcohol, there is no
evidence to suggest you should start.

Erika Niedernhofer, RD

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