I am a teetotal. Almost. Apart from the few rare occasions on holiday or at birthday parties when I feel so relaxed that I actually enjoy half a pint of beer, I am avoiding alcohol. There are many reasons for that – I don’t like what alcohol does to my brain chemistry (even in very small doses), I do feel a dip in my energy levels the day after and I am aware of the fact that despite the proclaimed health benefits for the cardiovascular system, alcohol is simply always toxic to your liver.
This week, I have come across some further interesting studies that show that even very moderate drinking is actually associated with negative health effects. I feel it’s important to talk about these studies since the ‘oh, I am just drinking a little and that’s healthy’ excuse is all to frequently floated by people with borderline addiction problems.
That’s an issue I am quite sensitive to. I grew up in the Czech Republic, the country with the highest consumption of beer in the world where getting drunk once or twice a week is considered cool and perfectly social acceptable. I have witnessed the damage alcohol does to people and relationships in my own family and my mother’s inability to admit her ‘functioning alcoholic’ problem has been a major contributor to the poor quality of our relationship.
So what does the new research actually have to say on the topic of alcohol?
- Even moderate drinking speeds up brain decline
It’s known that alcoholics’ brains sort of turn muddy. I have seen that in my grandfather – a life-long ‘moderate’ drinker who towards the end of his life turned into a first grade drunk whose brain virtually melted within a year.
But a new study published in June in the journal BMJ finds that even people drinking 14-21 units per week in the long term are three times more likely to develop hippocampal atrophy compared with abstainers. Hippocampal atrophy is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease and some other forms of dementia and leads to lapses in memory and spatial navigation.
Let’s have a look at what those 14 to 21 alcohol units actually represent. One standard alcohol unit equals to 10ml or 8 grams of pure alcohol. This amount can be found in 250 ml of standard beer or in 76 ml of wine.
I guess many of you have heard the ‘one glass of red wine a day for health story’. So let’s do the maths. A glass of red wine usually means 200 ml – divided by 76 is almost 3. One glass of wine gives you almost 3 units of alcohol. If you drink it every day, you will reach 21 units of alcohol per week, which puts you pretty much at the upper edge of what is considered moderate drinking.
But what if you only have those 250 ml of beer a day? Does that have benefits? According to the study, which was carried out jointly by Oxford University and University College London, the answer is NO. The study did not find any protective effects (lower rates of hippocampal atrophy) compared to abstainers. Those drinking over 30 units of alcohol per week were obviously at the highest risk (I know many people who would fight tooth and nail to prove that 30 units a week is still OK).
The study ran for over 30 years and involved 550 healthy men and women who were on average 43 years old when the study began. The cognitive performance of the subjects was periodically evaluated. At the end of the study, the researchers used MRI to look at the state of the participants’ brains.
Higher consumption was also associated with poorer white matter integrity (critical for efficient cognitive functioning) and faster decline in language fluency.
The researchers say they adjusted for other possible interfering factors such as education, social class, smoking, medical history and physical and social activity.
“Our findings support the recent reduction in UK safe limits and call into question the current US guidelines, which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men, as we found increased odds of hippocampal atrophy at just 14-21 units a week, and we found no support for a protective effect of light consumption on brain structure,” the team wrote.
“Alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late,” they conclude.
- Just one drink a day increases breast cancer risk
A study by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) published in May found that when it comes to the chances of developing breast cancer, even one glass of wine a day increases the risk.
The report analysed 119 studies, including data on 12 million women and 260,000 cases of breast cancer. The data showed that consuming about 10 grams of pure alcohol a day (the standard alcohol unit is 8 grams so we are at a little over 250 ml of beer per day), increases the risk of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women by 5 percent and by 9 percent in post menopausal women.
On the other hand, the study found that intense exercise decreases the risk of breast cancer. Of the pre-menopausal women involved in the study, those who were the most physically active had a 17 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer. Among the post-menopausal women the risk reduction was 10 percent compared to their less physically active counterparts.
On top of that, the study found that non-starchy vegetables could further reduce the risk of a certain type breast tumours known as the estrogen-receptor negative. According to the researchers, this type of tumours is more difficult to treat. Foods high in calcium and carotenoids (such as carrots, apricots, spinach and kale) may also be beneficial.
- Alcohol consumption leads to muscle loss in post-menopausal woman
The older you get, the better care of yourself you need to take and that applies to being cautious around alcohol as well.
A study published in June in the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) found that women who drink the most have the highest incidence of sarcopenia (the loss of skeletal and muscle mass that is usually attributed to ageing).
The results are not surprising, the researchers said, since alcohol is known to inhibit the synthesis of some skeletal muscle proteins.
The study, by a Korean team, included 2,373 postmenopausal women, 8.2 percent of whom were previously diagnosed with sarcopenia. Participants were categorized into three groups according to alcohol-drinking patterns, as assessed by the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test questionnaire. In the most heavily drinking group, the researchers found a four times higher incidencence of sarcopenia.
Women in the high-risk, alcohol-drinking group also showed worse blood pressure and total cholesterol. Surprisingly, they were on average significantly younger then the rest of the participants.