Body

What experts REALLY want you to know about alcohol

It’s our most popular legal drug, but alcohol is linked to a range of health concerns, even when drunk in small amounts. THIS is what experts want you to know in order to keep you well.

By Larraine Sathicq

For most of us, alcohol is part of every celebration and major event in our lives, as well as a stress-relief strategy, but are we really making an informed decision every time we imbibe?

We asked some of Australia's most respected health experts what they wish you knew about drinking.

1. Too much alcohol shrinks the brain

You don't have to drink every day to put yourself at risk for brain shrinkage that starts as subtle memory loss, leading over years to early-onset dementia. Three or four drinks most days or bingeing a couple of times a week is enough to cause irreversible damage. The damage is small at first but it slowly accumulates over years.

There is some evidence that a small glass of red wine daily could benefit brain health but the benefit is not profound and most people do not stop at one small glass. My advice would be that it's much better to steer clear of drinking. This is a serious issue – a person who wants to live a long and healthy life needs to have the strength to resist drinking too much.

™ Dr Bryce Vissel, neuroscientist and head of the Neurodegeneration Research Laboratory at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research

2. Alcohol increases your risk of breast cancer

Alcohol consumption is a known cause of cancer but unfortunately awareness is very low – only about half of all Australians know that drinking causes cancer. These include cancers of the mouth and throat, which have a lower survival rate and tend to leave survivors debilitated. If you smoke as well as drink your risk is much greater than either of those two risk factors alone.

Alcohol can also cause oesophagus, liver, bowel and breast cancers. For women, alcohol consumption is one of the very few changeable risk factors for breast cancer. Even small amounts of alcohol increase your risk but if you do choose to drink, our advice is to stay within the official guidelines of no more than two standard drinks per day.

™ Kathy Chapman, dietitian and Director of Cancer Programs at Cancer Council Australia

3. Your liver is an incredibly sturdy organ - as long you treat it well

Excessive drinking can lead to fatty liver disease, scarring (cirrhosis), and death. And if you have an underlying liver injury, such as viral hepatitis or fatty liver, the risk of liver failure is increased.

The problem is, many people are unaware of early-stage liver injury because most symptoms don't occur until late, often when it is too late to heal a scarred liver. Women are increasingly drinking at the same levels as men and because of differences in body size and liver metabolism, they're at an increased risk of getting and dying from liver injuries such as alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis.

We're seeing women in their 30s diagnosed with cirrhosis and liver failure. Most people start drinking thinking they are in control, but for many there is progressive alcohol abuse, leading to liver damage. Yet many people refuse to recognise that they have a problem.

But in the absence of cirrhosis, most of the liver's function recovers as soon as you stop drinking.

™ Dr Paul Clark, hepatologist and board member of The Australian Liver Foundation

4. Alcohol isn't that good for your heart

There is some evidence that a small amount of alcohol isn't bad for your cardiovascular health, but that's a long way from saying it's actually good for your heart. The social nature and enjoyment of moderate drinking does have other health benefits, but drinking too much or binge drinking increases your risk of cardiovascular death and stroke.

Women are at higher risk for alcohol-related cardiovascular disease than men because they are generally smaller and have a different body composition. Alcohol adds to your total kilojoule intake no matter what you mix it with or whether or not you choose 'low-carb' drinks.

It also increases blood pressure and triglyceride levels, all known factors in coronary artery disease. The immediate heart-related effects of binge drinking, which include chest pain, irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath, are reversible if you stop drinking but not many people are aware that continued heavy drinking can lead to a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, characterised by serious damage to the heart muscle.

™ Dr Andrew Rochford, emergency doctor and DrinkWise ambassador

5. If you wouldn't give wine to a baby, don't drink during pregnancy

When you drink during pregnancy, so does your baby. There's no safe level of drinking if you're having a baby. Alcohol can disrupt brain development in an unborn child and may lead to learning and behavioural problems due to irreversible brain damage.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are potentially 100 per cent preventable but are still prevalent in Australia. Because some women aren't immediately aware they're pregnant they may continue to drink in the early weeks, so the best approach is to avoid drinking if there's any chance you might become pregnant.

We encourage expectant fathers to avoid alcohol too, because research shows a partner's drinking is a big determinant in helping women to remain alcohol-free.

™ Professor Elizabeth Elliott, consultant paediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Westmead and child health advocate

6. You could be at risk, even if you're not an alcoholic

It's easy to see alcohol as just another consumer product when actually it's a drug. It affects your mood, relationships and physical health. We've seen an increase in the normalisation of alcohol consumption over recent years. Today it's much more socially acceptable to drink at any occasion, even at brunch get-togethers, kids' sporting events and school fetes.

Despite popular belief, most of the harms of drinking aren't about teenagers or 'alcoholics' but occur in the over-40s who are more likely to drink every day and simply consume too much alcohol.

It's important to be aware of why you're drinking, when you're drinking and how much you're drinking. Accept feedback from family and friends, be mindful about your drinking habits and ask for help if you need it.

™ Professor Dan Lubman, psychiatrist and director of Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre

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