New guidelines on alcohol consumption published in Canada have sparked a fresh debate on alcohol consumption and what it really means for people’s long-term health.
The guidelines, funded by Health Canada and published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) recommend that Canadians limit themselves to just two drinks a week or, ideally, cut out alcohol altogether.
According to experts, the announcement was prompted by research which showed that even moderate drinking could pose a serious threat to health, including an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, and certain cancers.
They also warn that no amount of alcohol is safe when pregnant or trying to conceive.
In the wake of intense debate following their publication, Peter Butt, a member of the panel that drafted the guidelines and a professor of family medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, said: “We simply wanted to present the evidence to the Canadian public, so they could reflect on their drinking and make informed decisions.
“This isn’t about prohibition. This is simply about reducing the amount one drinks.”
What happens in your body when you drink alcohol?
When a person consumes ethanol – the intoxicating agent in alcoholic drinks – it is absorbed into the bloodstream, and more than 90% of it is broken down by the liver.
How alcohol affects the body can depend on a variety of factors, including age, gender, weight, and the type of alcohol the person has been drinking i.e. beers, wines or hard liquor.
As the alcohol travels to different parts of the body, including the brain, it begins to affect basic functions, such as movement, breathing and temperature control.
People who continue to drink for several hours may also experience psychological effects including mood swings, reduced inhibitions, increased aggression, and paranoia.
A reduction in inhibitions can lead to increased risk-taking when a person is under the influence of alcohol.
Alcohol and related illnesses
According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, published by the US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services, adults of legal drinking age who choose to drink alcohol should drink in moderation.
Men of legal drinking age should limit their intake to two drinks or less per day, while women of legal drinking age are advised to limit their intake to one drink or less per day, on days when alcohol is consumed.
However, the new guidelines published in Canada suggest that even moderate drinking can be dangerous to health.
So, what exactly are the health risks when you consume alcohol? Here are a few of the links that have been made between alcohol consumption and more serious health concerns:Read about alcohol poisoning
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD)
The liver is one of the most complex organs in the body, responsible for several important tasks, including filtering toxins from the blood, regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and helping to fight infection and disease.
A person who drinks alcohol excessively over a prolonged period may develop alcohol-related liver diseases (ARLD), although they may not know that they have the condition until the liver has been severely damaged.
This is because, before that time, people with ARLD will not usually have any symptoms.
Physical signs of ARLD can include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), confusion or drowsiness, weight loss and loss of appetite, and swelling of the ankles and stomach.
According to the Liver Foundation, alcohol is the second most common cause of liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) in the US, contributing to approximately 20% to 25% of cases.
Alcohol and stroke
According to a study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, titled Cumulative Alcohol Consumption Burden and the Risk of Stroke in Young Adults, young people in their 20s and 30s who were considered to be moderate to heavy drinkers were more likely to have a stroke than those who were light drinkers or drank no alcohol at all.
During the study, people who drank 105 grams or more of alcohol per week were considered moderate or heavy drinkers.
It is well documented that drinking to excess can cause high blood pressure, which increases your risk of stroke.
Furthermore, people who drink heavily may find it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight and, in turn, maintain blood sugar levels, because alcoholic drinks tend to be higher in calories.
This can increase your risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes – both of which can contribute to the risk of stroke.
Links to cancer
According to findings published by the American Association for Cancer Research®, alcohol consumption was linked to more than 75,000 cancer cases and 19,000 cancer deaths per year between 2013-2016.
Several specific types of cancer have also been directly linked to alcohol use, including stomach, liver, mouth, breast, and colorectal cancer.
Despite this however, few Americans are aware of the cancer risks associated with alcohol consumption.
Results from the 2020 Health Information National Trends Survey showed that more than 50% of US adults did not know that these beverages affected cancer risk.
Although the above health concerns are troubling, it is important to remember that there are many techniques you can use to cut down on alcohol and to start seeing the benefits of reduced alcohol consumption.
For individuals struggling with more severe alcohol addiction, reducing alcohol intake, or quitting drinking altogether can be extremely challenging, meaning that professional support is required.
Learn more about managing your alcohol intake
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