Find out the damage alcohol is doing to your body

Our high intake of alcohol could be more damaging to our health than we realise, Peta Bee looks at the hard facts.

IT’S a well known fact that Ireland’s alcohol intake is among the highest in Europe.

And it shows no signs of slowing down with figures from Alcohol Action Ireland showing that, in 2014, the average Irish person aged 15 and over drank 11 litres of pure alcohol, an increase from 10.6 litres in 2013. 

Campaigners have called for new guidelines more in keeping with the latest recommendations in Britain which state there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, and that women should avoid drinking any alcohol in pregnancy. 

Whereas British men and women are now advised to limit their intake to 14 units of alcohol — or 11 standard drinks — each week, current Irish advice is that men should have no more than 17 standard drinks a week, and women fewer than 11, to be considered at “low risk” of illness and disease.

But what is a regular drink really doing to your body? 

Here we take a look at the evidence:

Brain

Men’s brains are more likely to suffer than women’s as one of the largest studies ever into the long-term effects of alcohol consumption a couple of years ago showed. 

It found that chronic heavy drinking to be linked to a significant cognitive decline in men, but not in women who, for reasons that aren’t clear, seemed to be protected against some of the toxic effect. 

Researchers from University College London, reporting in Neurology journal, found that middle-aged men (average age 56) who drank 36 grams, the equivalent of at least two shots or pints of booze a day for a decade, experienced greater memory loss and slowing of brain function compared to ‘occasional’ or ‘moderate’ drinkers. 

Female participants were classified as ‘heavy drinkers’ if they consumed around one shot a day, but didn’t show nearly the level of cognitive decline as the men, possibly due to the protective effect of the hormone oestrogen.

Bones

According to the Irish Osteoporosis Society, “excessive alcohol may increase your risk of osteoporosis” and you should try to stick to recommendations made by the Health Promotion Unit in Ireland, which suggests no more than 14 standard drinks/week for women and 21 standard drinks/week for men. 

A moderate intake of alcohol is not necessarily harmful to bones. 

One report from Oregon State University involved 40 postmenopausal women under the age of 65 who reported drinking up to two drinks per day in the year before the study. 

When the women were asked to stop drinking, their blood showed higher levels of biomarkers linked to bone turnover, a process that leads to more bone being lost than is replaced, ultiomately causing osteoporosis. 

When the women resumed their moderate drinking, their bone turnover seemed to improve even after one day.

Heart

Dr Angie Brown, medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation and consultant cardiologist, says: “Many people don’t realise that alcohol can damage the heart”. 

While small amounts of alcohol are considered low risk, higher quantities increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmias — heart conditions where there is an irregular heartbeat — as well as an increased risk of developing an enlarged heart muscle.

“These conditions affect how efficiently the blood is pumped around the body and, if they are not monitored they are more likely to lead to serious heart problems,” Dr Brown says. 

Long term heavy drinking and binge-drinking episodes — defined as eight units of alcohol in one sitting for men, which is three pints of 5% alcohol beer or three and a half standard glasses (175ml each) of 13% alcohol wine — can raise the risk of a heart attack sharply. 

Last year, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston found binge drinking raised the risk of a heart attack by more than 70 per cent and that the dangers are greatest within the first hour of heavy drinking.

Spirits like vodka, whiskey, or gin posed the greatest threat with beer and wine considered less risky possibly because of the blood-vessel relaxing polyphenols they contain. 

And those most at risk were those who drink little or nothing during the week but overdo it at the weekend.

Weight

Two ciders equal an overall calorie intake of 648, around 32 per cent of a woman’s recommended daily allowance. 

Add four beers and a double G&T and it amounts to 1,284 calories, the equivalent of four burgers, and would require a 128-minute run (around 9-10 miles for most people) to work it off. 

But it’s not just the calories in alcohol — substantial in themselves — but the lax approach to diet when drinking that spells bad news.

Two years ago, a study by the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that men consume an extra 433 calories (equivalent to a McDonald’s double cheeseburger) on the days when they drink a moderate amount of alcohol with only about 61% of the increase accounted for by alcohol itself. 

Men also report eating higher amounts of fats and meat but less fruit and milk, on the days when they were drinking. 

All of which heightens to risk of that waistline widening.

Stomach

A single episode of binge drinking can result in bacteria leaking from the gut and increased levels of toxins in the blood. 

Gyongyi Szabo, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says these bacterial toxins, called endotoxins, could trigger the body to produce immune cells involved in fever, inflammation, and tissue destruction. 

“We found that a single alcohol binge can elicit an immune response, potentially impacting the health of an otherwise healthy individual,” says Szabo. 

“Our observations suggest that an alcohol binge is more dangerous than previously thought.”

Previous studies have shown how chronic alcohol consumption also causes greater gut permeability and the release of potentially harmful products that can travel through the intestinal wall to other parts of the body. 

Risk of stomach cancer is also higher in men who drink heavily.

Muscles

All that effort at the gym could come to nothing if you drink too much outside of it. 

An Australian study revealed that alcohol can interfere with muscle growth in sporty types. 

Athletic men were put through three vigorous workouts including weights, hard cycling, and high-intensity sprints. 

After two of the sessions they were given what the scientists deemed “optimal” post-exercise nutrition in the form of high protein and carb-rich meals. 

After the third trial, they were given only alcohol and carbohydrate. 

Results showed that drinking 1.5g/kg of alcohol after exercise suppresses the signals that would normally tell the muscles to adapt and grow stronger.

Prostate

According to the Irish Cancer Society, there is not enough direct evidence to link a heavy alcohol intake to the disease in men. 

However, the charity states that: “It is still important to drink in moderation so as to lower the risk of getting other cancers and to help control your weight and keep your bones healthy. 

"If you have had prostate cancer treatments and have bladder problems such as bladder irritability, then taking alcohol may make these symptoms worse”. 

Some studies suggest that heavy drinking, especially when it’s beer, increases the risk for highly aggressive prostate cancer. 

Findings from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center suggested that heavy drinking reduced the cancer-preventing effect of finasteride, a drug prescribed to prevent prostate cancer.

Fertility

Men and women who drink to excess can experience a sharp downturn in fertility. 

One Danish paper showed drinking between one and five drinks a week reduced a woman’s chances of conceiving, and 10 drinks or more decreases the likelihood of conception even further. 

For men, as few as five alcoholic drinks a week could reduce the quality of their sperm. 

Danish researchers examined 1,200 male recruits aged 18-28, asking them about their diet and drinking habits and asking them to provide sperm and blood samples. 

Results showed that drinking alcohol in the week prior to the samples being taken was associated with distinct changes in reproductive hormone levels and the more alcohol consumed, the weaker the quality of the men’s sperm. 

The effects were evident in those who drank five or more units a week but most pronounced in men who drank 25 units or more.

Breasts

According to Alcohol Ireland’s Submission on a National Cancer Strategy, 12% of all breast cancers in Ireland are associated with alcohol consumption. 

And just one glass of wine a day can raise a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer according to one recent study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

Examining data from two large studies — the Nurses Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study — they found that one standard drink was only linked to a small risk of most types of cancer. 

However, for breast cancer, the risk was significantly higher, regardless of if they were smokers or not. Alcohol is known to raise levels of some hormones, including oestrogen, high levels of which are linked to some forms of breast cancer.


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