Alcohol: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Happy New Year to you! With celebrations over, decorations packed away and the left overs eaten, life now transforms back into normality with a great big bump! Here we are in January, and not just any January, but supposedly ‘dry January’, and no I am not referring to the weather (which we all know has been anything but dry), but to the abstinence of alcohol during this first month of the year. Over indulgence in many things is common over the Christmas and New Year period, but one thing that is consumed in abundance, and often excess during this time period, is alcohol. It is therefore not surprising, that come the New Year and with all the healthy resolutions that people make, many people often decide to have some ‘time off’ from alcohol.  

We know that too much alcohol can have a range of detrimental effects on our health, but many people are not even aware they are drinking too much and give little consideration as to how it’s affecting their long term health. The UK alcohol guidelines are changing this month and the recommended alcohol intake for both men and women will be lowered. January’s therefore a good time to take stock and make changes that better support a healthier lifestyle and to do this effectively it’s good to be armed with the correct knowledge. After all, knowledge is power! With alcohol being seen as both a tonic and a poison,  let’s put it under the microscope and find out what’s good, bad and ugly about it in terms of our health.

 

‘The Good’

Let’s start with the good news, because yes, there is some when it comes to alcohol, but ONLY when it is drunk in moderate amounts. What constitutes ‘moderate amounts’ is actually still very much under debate, but the British Heart Foundation defines moderate as no more than 1-2 units a day, which is actually less than one 175ml glass of red wine! The new alcohol guidelines will actually be advising at least two days a week should be alcohol free ones. Unlike some consumables, when it comes to alcohol it is definitely not a case of the more we have, the more health benefits we reap. Less is definitely more in this case and getting the balance right is paramount. 

One of the biggest health benefits associated with alcohol intake is the cardiovascular protection it can offer. Before you get too excited though, this benefit is particularly seen with red wine, so if you are a beer, spirit or white wine drinker, you don’t qualify quite as much for this benefit, so perhaps you should change your tipple? Over one hundred studies have shown that light-moderate drinking can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in both men and women. This means that your risk of stroke, heart attack and death from any cardiovascular cause, is reduced by between 25-40% with moderate drinking, which is definitely good news! It is still unclear exactly why alcohol could possibly offer this perceived protective effect, but it is suggested it is most probably due to compounds called polyphenols that are found in alcohol, which are particularly high in red wine.

Another possible benefit of red wine is its potential positive effects on our memory and cognitive function as we age. An antioxidant called Resveratrol, found in quite high levels in red wine, may lower the risk of developing dementia, which can often lead to Alzheimer’s disease. In fact moderate drinkers were found to be 23% less likely to develop dementia than non-drinkers, but this must be viewed with some caution, because although a small amount may be helpful in reducing the risk, if the balance tips the other way, we know that too much alcohol increases the risk of dementia.  

Although the above highlights some of the potential positive benefits of drinking small amounts of alcohol, many people are in danger of misinterpreting this information and using it to reassure themselves that there drinking habits are beneficial, when in likelihood they may not be. When it comes to most things diet related, moderation is the key and alcohol should certainly not be consumed daily or in large amounts.

 

‘The Bad’

For those people on a mission to eat more healthily this year, or those on a weight loss mission, remember that alcohol contains ’empty calories’. These are calories which are consumed from foods that contain no nutrients (and no, alcohol definitely doesn’t contain ANY of those!!). With a pint of beer containing 180 calories and a large glass of red wine containing 160, these can soon add up and ruin the healthy eating or weight loss plan you wanted to achieve. Whatever you may tell yourself, alcohol cannot be classed as one of your five a day, despite wine originating from grapes!

For those struggling with fending off those winter bugs, and whose immune systems seem to be lacking luster during these winter months, you could lay some of the blame on alcohol. In fact, drinking alcohol weakens our immune systems within hours of consuming it, leaving us more susceptible to illness. Alcohol also depletes many vitamins and minerals from our body tissues, including Vitamin C and Zinc, both of which are hugely important in supporting our immune systems. So no matter how healthy you may be eating, if you are drinking alcohol regularly, in large amounts or are a binge drinker, your nutrient stores will be impaired leaving you more vulnerable to infection and illness.

With one in five people feeling constantly tired, alcohol could play a big part in this too. Alcohol effects sleep quality, especially when drunk before bedtime. Although alcohol initially makes you fall into a deep sleep quickly, (sometimes in places you don’t want to), after the initial hour or so, this sleep becomes much lighter and more restless and disturbed compared to when sober. This leaves you feeling unrefreshed and lacking in energy the morning after, a pattern which continues if alcohol is drunk daily.

 

‘The Ugly’ 

If you are someone who has an alcoholic drink almost every day of the week, or are a regular binge drinker (drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time), then your liver will almost certainly be impaired or damaged in some way. There is no getting away from the fact that alcohol kills liver cells. The liver is the second largest organ in your body and performs over 400 jobs, needless to say it is a vital ‘bit of kit’ and essential to sustain life, so keeping it healthy should be a priority. 

Although we have stated above that ‘light to moderate’ drinking is ok, it isn’t all good news I’m afraid. In fact even light to moderate drinking has been linked to an increase in cancer, especially breast cancer in women. Just one alcoholic drink a day has been shown to give an increased cancer risk and if you drink two or more drinks a day then the chances of developing breast cancer increases by as much as 41%, which is definitely ugly news!This shouldn’t come as a great surprise however, as we already know that heavy drinking increases the risk of several types of cancer including liver, oesophagus and breast cancer and possibly pancreatic and stomach cancer as well. Heavy drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking 5 or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days’. Many people will have easily fallen into that definition of a heavy drinker during the month of December. Was that you?

Many people often find it hard to admit just how much they are drinking and can often be totally unaware, just how much of a crutch alcohol has become in their lives. The ugly truth about alcohol is that it effects every part of the body, from the tiniest sip to the point of inebriation, alcohol travels throughout your blood stream to every major organ and tissue of your body.  From premature aging, cancers and liver disease, alcohol is definitely more of a poison than a tonic, especially in the high quantities it is often consumed in.

 

Give your liver a ‘holiday’

Guidelines and research results on alcohol will continue to change as more information is gathered. In the meantime there are hundreds of tasty non-alcoholic drinks that you can enjoy instead, including some fantastic non-alcoholic cocktails that will add the touch of exotic into these grey winter days. Why not try making the classic ‘White Russian’ cocktail, in a non-alcoholic way by using a cup of cold espresso, maple syrup to sweeten (as much as desired) and then add Delamere Dairy whole goat’s milk and goat’s plain yogurt to give a creamier flavour. Mix together well and then pour over ice. Serve in a cocktail glass and enjoy, safe in the knowledge that your liver will be enjoying a well-earned holiday and rest from alcohol.

 

RESOURCES:

  • Cardiovascular Protection by Alcohol and Polyphenols, 2002. Alcohol and wine in health and disease.
  • Global status report on alcohol and health, 2014. World Health Organisation. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/112736/1/9789240692763_eng.pdf
  • Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health: The Dose Makes the Poisonor the Remedy, 2014. Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
  • Wine, Beer, Alcohol and Polyphenols on Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer, 2014. Nutrients.
  • Alcohol dosing and total mortality in men and women: An updated meta-analysis of 34 prospective studies, 2006. JAMA Internal Medicine
  • Light to Moderate Intake of Alcohol, Drinking Patterns, and Risk of Cancer: results from two prospective US cohort studies, 2014. British Medical Journal
  • Mechanism by which Alcohol and Wine Polyphenols Affect Coronary Heart Disease Risk, 2007. Annals of Epidemiology

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