We often hear about the benefits of alcohol in the media — but we don’t always get the full story. For instance, the benefits to heart health apply to just small amounts of alcohol — about half a standard drink a day, not half a bottle of red.
You may also have heard in the media that drinking too much can be bad for your health. Let’s look at some of the associated health risk linked to excessive alcohol use, both in the short term and in the long run.
Alcohol is linked to a number of health problems such as:
There’s convincing evidence linking alcohol to a higher risk of cancers, particularly of the upper airways and the digestive tract. This includes cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and oesophagus. Up to 75 percent of these cancers can be related to the combined use of alcohol and smoking, so remember — alcohol and cigarettes are a bad combination.
There’s solid evidence linking alcohol to colon cancer in men and breast cancer in women as well. The increased risk of breast cancer is linked to drinking more than 30g alcohol daily (three standard drinks). This is similar to the risk of having a family history of the disease. Alcohol probably increases the risk of colorectal cancer in women and liver cancer as well.
With all these known risks, the advice from the Cancer Council is to limit or avoid alcohol altogether.
If you drink heavily you may develop a tolerance to alcohol, which means you’ll need to drink more to get the same effect. As a result, you may be able to drink large amounts of alcohol without appearing to get drunk. However, the amount of alcohol you drink can still damage your health.
It can be. Alcohol dependence can be a physical or a psychological problem — or both, according to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Many of us are psychologically dependent on alcohol to some degree if we feel that we can’t socialise or have a good time without a drink, for instance.
Someone who is both physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol can experience withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, nausea, anxiety, depression, sweating, headaches and difficulty sleeping if they try to stop drinking or reduce their drinking.
In severe cases alcohol withdrawal may cause convulsions, cramps, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations and even death. Anyone who is dependent on alcohol and wants to quit drinking should talk to their doctor or other health professional first.
Pearson, on behalf of the American Heart Association, looked at studies linking alcohol and coronary heart disease. The evidence suggests that if there are no health reasons stopping a person from drinking, such as pregnancy or a personal or family history of alcoholism, low levels of alcohol consumption may be beneficial and help to slightly reduce the risk of some heart disease and stroke.
However, you may be able to get the same benefits through other means such as regular exercise or eating a heart-healthy diet so talk to your doctor to work out the risks and benefits for you of drinking alcohol.
Australian Drug Foundation www.adf.org.au
National Health and Medical Research Council: Summary of alcohol guidelines to reducing health risks www.nhmrc.gov.au/your_health/healthy/alcohol/index.htm#sum
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Canberra, ACT: AIHW. 2008 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/index.cfm/title/10674
Cancer Council. Postition statement — Alcohol and cancer prevention. Kings Cross, NSW: Cancer Council. 2008 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.cancercouncil.com.au/
DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Alcohol. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2006. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://druginfo.adf.org.au/
DrugInfo Clearinghouse. The effects of alcohol on the young brain: for workers. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2005. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://druginfo.adf.org.au/
National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The Harmful Effects of Alcohol. [online] Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Faculty of Medicine. c2005 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/
National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines: To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/ds10-alcohol.pdf (PDF, 2.3Mb)
Osteoporosis Australia. Osteoporosis. Risk Factors http://www.osteoporosis.org.au/
Pearson TA. Alcohol and heart disease. Circulation. 1996; 94: 3023–3025.
Samson HW. Alcohol and other factors affecting osteoporosis risk in women. Bethseda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2003 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-4/292-298.htmTop of page
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.
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Last published 31 October 2010