Drinking Alcohol: Health Boost or Health Risk?
By Beth .W. Orenstein| medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
When it comes to alcohol, how much is too much? Find out what the experts recommend and how to recognize the signs that you’re drinking too much. A large number of studies have shown that moderate alcohol intake can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in men and women. Moderate drinking means one drink per day for women and one to two for men, says Donald Novey, MD, an integrative medicine physician with the Advocate Medical Group in Park Ridge, Ill. “The difference in amounts is because of how men and women metabolize alcohol,” Dr. Novey explains. “When you say one drink, the size of that drink matters,” Novey adds. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture one drink is equal to:
1. 12 ounces of beer or
2. 5 ounces of wine or
3. 1½ ounces of spirits (hard liquor such as gin or whiskey, 80-proof)
The Dangers of Drinking Too Much
Unfortunately, some people can’t stop at just one or two drinks. Too much alcohol can result in serious health consequences. Heavy alcohol intake can damage the liver, causing cirrhosis, a fatal disease. Excessive drinking also can raise blood pressure and damage the heart, and is linked to many different cancers, including mouth, esophagus, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers. The health risks are even greater for those who not only drink but smoke as well.
The consequences of excessive drinking can be serious not only for the alcoholic, but also for their friends, family, and even innocent bystanders. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 16,000 people die each year in automobile accidents that involve drunken drivers. Other data indicates that one in three violent crimes involves the use of alcohol and as many as three out of four violent incidents against a spouse involve alcohol. “Alcohol is a depressant. It makes people sad over time, not happy,” Novey says. When depressed, people can do some rather unfortunate things to themselves and their loved ones.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
How can you tell if you or someone you know might have a drinking problem? Physicians often use the CAGE test, which involves four simple questions, Novey says:
1. Cutting down. Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
2. Annoyance by criticism. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
3. Guilty feeling. Have you ever felt guilty about drinking alcohol?
4. Eye-openers. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (an “eye-opener”)? If the answer to just one of these questions is yes, a drinking problem is likely and professional help is needed, Novey says.
Other signs of a drinking problem:
1. You find you can’t stop drinking once you start.
2. You’re having problems at work or at school.
3. Other people notice your drinking and comment on it.
4. You can’t remember what you did when you were drinking alcohol.
Consuming no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks for men is safe and perhaps even heart healthy. On the other hand, excessive drinking can have serious consequences. If you think you may have a drinking problem or suspect that someone you love does, seek professional help. Contact your family physician or a support group for substance abuse before irreparable damage is done.