The Trouble with Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is fun, but what are the health effects?

Drinking alcohol is fun, but what are the health effects?

Alcohol is undoubtedly an integral part of Western society. Not only is it a great social lubricant at parties, but plays a part in the work environment when building rapport with potential business partners or simply “fitting it.” This is how our society is run. Everyone drinks. It is the norm.

What is less known, or perhaps known but ignored, is the devastating health effects of alcohol.

It causes more disability than Unclean Water

DALYs (000) lost in the world due to different risk factors in 2004. Data from WHO 2009 report. Graph from Dr Adrian Reynolds' presentation at GHC Hobart 2013

DALYs (000) lost in the world due to different risk factors in 2004. Data from WHO 2009 report.
Graph from Dr Adrian Reynolds’ presentation at GHC Hobart 2013

A DALY stands for disability-adjusted life year, and is a measure of overall disease burden. It is used by public health researchers to compare the impact of say, road accidents, to something completely different like chicken pox.

I wanted to show this graph to compare the emotional reaction people have to safe unclean water and unprotected sex to alcohol consumption. Unclean water and diarrhoea is the biggest killer of infants in developing countries. Surely you have felt an emotional reaction whenever you have seen such an advertisement displaying such poverty. Similarly, the notion of contracting HIV provokes a huge emotional response from people, and there are numerous charities and research facilities established in order to slowly combat this problem.

Alcohol is just as burdensome as unclean water, or HIV in this world. In Australia alone, it causes 3,000 deaths per year and 65,000 hospitalisations. And yet there is no emotional reaction- it is simply part of society.

Alcohol is a Risk Factor for every bad disease in the book


  • Cardiovascualr Disease (like stroke, high blood pressure). Some have said that moderate drinking actually decreases risk, but I will get to that later…
  • Cancer. Heaps and heaps of cancer. Breast cancer (risk increases by 1.5 if you have 2-5 drinks a day) which doesn’t sound like too much but you definitely want to cut back if you have a family history. Also mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectal cancer. It seems like anything alcohol touches through your digestive tract has an increased cancer risk.
  • Pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer. Pancreatitis is quite awful. Your pancreas holds all the enzymes that break down the food in your stomach. In pancreatitis, these enzymes leak out into your body and can cause a lot of damage. Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest prognoses and has very poor detection.
  • Liver disease. Your liver is the beautiful gorgeous organ in your body that needs to deal with the toxins of alcohol. Severe and long-term alcoholism causes permanent liver damage, and the only cure is transplantation.
  • Alcohol Related Dementia. In sever alcoholics, the lack of nutrition and the liver damage means that the brain can’t get the vitamins it needs to function.

Alcohol is a Neurotoxin

  • Alcohol binge drinking is associated with poorer performance of executive functions. This study of university students found that binge drinkers (people who consumed 6 or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion, at least once a month, and drank 3+ drinks per hour) had worse working memory. Note that this doesn’t prove that binge drinking causes the worse working memory, it just means that binge drinkers were associated with it.
  • Alcohol blocks messes with the normal stimulation of the brain. It blocks stimulatory receptors called NMDA receptors. By doing so, the normal stimulation that happens in your brain is blocked. Imagine you have water channels from a lake to your crops. You aren’t getting enough water so you build more channels. Little did you know there is an upward blockage. When that blockage is removed, your crops are flooded. That’s what happens in the brain with alcohol, your brain thinks there is not enough normal stimulation and makes more receptors. But when the alcohol block is removed, your brain is flooded with stimulation and excitation. This is called excitotoxicity and can cause permanent brain damage.
  • Alcohol can disrupt brain development in adolescence. We have a drinking age for a reason! A teenager’s brain is still developing, a lot of growth and change is happening in the brain. Alcohol blocks those NMDA receptors like I talked about before. Besides stimulation of the brain, the normal activation of NMDA receptors causes growth of neurons. This study showed that the hippocampus was smaller in people who had alcohol abuse problems that started in adolescence (the hippocampus is important for memory). This study also showed a smaller pre-frontal cortex (important for planning) in the same group of people.

But I drink in moderation. That’s ok right?

Instead of red wine, why not eat red grapes!

Instead of red wine, why not eat red grapes!

Drinking more is obviously worse and yes, many of the above mentioned studies are taken in people who drink over a certain threshold (although, “6 or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion, at least once a month, and drank 3+ drinks per hour” definitely would fit into a number of people I can name).

I need to make clear that any amount of alcohol is neurotoxic.

The effect of alcohol on memory is a continuum- meaning that a small amount of alcohol will cause you to lose your memory. An increase in alcohol will cause an increase in memory impairment. If you can’t create memories- clearly there is something wrong happening in your brain.

The health benefits of red wine is due to its antioxidant content. But that’s kind like eating rat poison if there are also antioxidants in it! Ok well perhaps not to the same extent, but why not get antioxidants from another source- like grapes, or dark chocolate!

So are you telling me I should quit drinking?

My favourite drink... Lemon Lime and Bitters!

My favourite mocktail… Lemon Lime and Bitters!

First of all, make a decision. How much risk are you willing to accept? Most people would say that the temporary neurotoxicity and associated memory loss is acceptable for a great night with a few standard drinks. You start heading into danger zone the more you drink however. If you decide to continue drinking, you must monitor yourself so you don’t heard towards that slippery slope of dementia, liver disease, cancer, and death.

Can you quit alcohol completely? If you do I commend you. You are a true leader. Peer pressure to drink doesn’t stop in high school. It continues on throughout your life.

The inspiration for this post was when I was at a Global Health Conference in Tasmania, Australia. The conference was in early September and I received a talk by Dr Adrian Reynolds, the Clinical Director of the Alcohol & Drug Service in Tasmania. He is a true leader and as someone so well acquainted with the devastating effect of alcohol, he wanted to change the burden of alcohol on society. He does not drink at all.

After listening to his talk I decided that I wouldn’t drink for the rest of the conference. Which was difficult, since there were parties every night of the conference. The first social night was particularly hard at the beginning- but I believe that the social lubricant effects of alcohol is just a placebo. A friend of mine did a little social experiment/played a prank on his friend, but they held a birthday party for a friend and served only non-alcoholic (but alcoholic tasting) drinks. Everyone was in on the prank, except the birthday boy, who continued get increasingly “wasted,” taking off his shirt and slurring his words and everything. He later found out about the prank and was exceedingly embarrassed.

If you decide that you don’t want to drink for sometime or cut down on your drinking, you might be met with confusion from your friends. Choose a reason for yourself and stick by it. Alcohol is neurotoxic. It’s expensive. It is a lot of calories and I’m trying to lose weight. I read a blog about all the health effects of alcohol and am challenging myself to abstain for a while.

I haven’t quit alcohol completely- I did for a number of months but then I gave in to peer pressure. Far from ashamed, I was quite proud that I managed to reject all alcohol drinks for that period of time. Now when I go out, I usually order a lemon lime and bitters. They’re pretty delish, and are way cheaper.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s