There is a perpetual myth in American culture that a few glasses of wine are good for your cardiac health. Misconceptions like this promote the idea that moderate drinking has positive health effects and moderate alcohol use is generally considered safe. The fact is that any level of alcohol use can damage both the brain and body, whether a person becomes addicted or not. When you know the truth about alcohol, you can better assess your personal risk and decide the best path forward.
The Myths About Alcohol
Alcohol can cause an impairment that makes everyday activities dangerous, such as driving or navigating stairs. Alcohol can also compromise your decision-making skills; many people can relate to saying or doing things under the influence that they wouldn’t have otherwise done sober. The consequences of alcohol use can range from mildly embarrassing to potentially life-threatening.
Unfortunately, the alcohol industry tends to downplay the potential risk of alcohol use. They push the misconception that alcohol can increase your sociability – that you can’t have a good time without a buzz, and that staying sober is a social misstep.
People drink for various reasons, but excessive or persistent use can lead to dependence, alcohol addiction, and a barrage of health issues.
How Does Alcohol Break Down in the Body?
Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen associated with a variety of health issues. In a healthy body, acetaldehyde breaks down into a less harmful byproduct called acetate, which further breaks down into water and carbon dioxide¹. However, different medications, variations in metabolism, and excessive drinking can impede this process, and that’s where health complications start.
Most people associate heavy drinking with liver damage. Though alcohol affects more than just your liver, this idea is not unfounded. Your liver is the organ responsible for processing any alcohol you consume.
The liver has a limit on the amount of alcohol it can process at one time. You become intoxicated when the amount of alcohol you’ve consumed bogs down the liver to the point when it can no longer metabolize the alcohol. As a result, alcohol floods the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body, making its way to the heart and brain.
To put it simply, by the time you feel drunk, you’ve already had too much alcohol for your liver to process. When this happens, you’ve now impacted other vital organs.
Is Alcohol Safe?
Chronic alcohol use can cause or exacerbate cognitive problems and mental health issues related to learning, memory, depression, and anxiety. Excessive alcohol use is associated with a variety of chronic diseases and other serious health issues, including²:
- High blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Liver cancer
- Colon cancer
- Breast cancer
- Throat cancer
Excessive alcohol use doesn’t guarantee that someone will struggle with adverse cognitive effects from alcohol or develop health issues, and not everyone who drinks will develop alcohol dependence. Other factors aside from alcohol use contribute to a heightened risk for addiction.
With this information in mind, let’s look at the data surrounding alcohol use.
Breaking Down the Statistics
Behind tobacco, alcohol is the second most widely used substance in the United States. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 86% of American adults reported consuming alcohol during their lifetime³.
When we take a closer look at the statistics surrounding alcohol use, the numbers are pretty grim.
In 2018, an estimated 14.8 million adults had alcohol use disorder, yet only 686,000 (5%) received treatment at a specialized facility⁴. An estimated 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States³.
This information contradicts the widely held myths about alcohol being good for heart health, blood sugar regulation, and cognitive function. So, where do those myths come from?
The Health Benefits of Alcohol
Studies that show the health benefits of moderate alcohol use make the common statistical error of confusing correlation with causation. These surveys show that moderate drinkers are in better general health than abstainers, but alcohol use is not the driving factor in these differences.
With most people in the United States using alcohol regularly, moderate drinking is the norm. Abstainers, in contrast, are a unique class. People typically abstain from alcohol for one of the following reasons:
- Religious beliefs
- Pre-existing health problems
- Medications that can’t be taken with alcohol
- Former issues with alcohol use
The last three reasons account for why abstainers seem to be in worse health than those who drink moderately. People who abstain typically have worse general health than the general population, and this skews the data in favor of moderate drinkers.
The Rise of Alcohol Alternatives
Recently, there has been an increase in alcohol alternatives flooding the market⁵. These beverages go beyond the typical nonalcoholic options to deliver a “buzz” from various added supplements and adaptogens.
The marketing from these companies assures people that they are all-natural and don’t cause hangovers, and it implies that they may be safer to use than traditional alcoholic beverages. Some “no-alc” brands position themselves as a health drink, even though there is limited data on the long-term health effects.
Yet we know from decades of experience that there is no such thing as zero consequences with recreational substances. Anything that affects the chemicals in your brain has an opposing reaction when substance use ends. This is a basic fact of neuroscience, as the brain constantly works to achieve homeostasis with its current environment.
If the supplements and adaptogens can trigger a nonalcoholic buzz, there is a chance they can stimulate the same parts of the brain as alcohol use⁶, especially in a social atmosphere. This could be incredibly triggering for someone in recovery and may increase cravings for the real thing.
What Does a Healthy Relationship With Alcohol Look Like?
While there are health risks associated with alcohol, this doesn’t mean that we should demonize alcohol use and alcohol alternatives. Everyone can choose what levels of risk they are willing to take for their own recreation or enjoyment, but the belief that harmful activities are beneficial can cause untold damage. You should know the risks of any activity before you begin.
The CDC is working to make alcohol screening and brief intervention (SBI) a routine part of health care in primary care settings. Alcohol screenings typically include a few questions about alcohol use. A great example is the CAGE questionnaire, which consists of easy-to-remember questions that help screen for alcohol dependency.
The CAGE acronym stands for Cut, Annoyed, Guilty, and Eye-opener, keywords that help you remember each question from the list below:
- Cut: Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- Annoyed: Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Guilty: Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
- Eye-opener: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get over a hangover?
These questions can help you reflect on your relationship with alcohol and see if dependency on alcohol may be a concern. Even if your alcohol use doesn’t feel out of your control, it’s essential to consider the causes of addiction to determine if your casual imbibing is at a higher risk for dependency.
Assess Your Risk
It can be hard to assess your risk objectively or be honest with yourself about your alcohol use. Working with a professional can help you better understand your relationship with alcohol.
If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North Lodge helps people break free from drinking culture and build recovery capital to work through addiction, contact us at (855) 510 4585 or start a to talk to one of our addiction specialists.
- “Alcohol Metabolism: An Update.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2007, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa72/aa72.htm.
- “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Dec. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm.
- “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mar. 2022, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.
- “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Aug. 2019.
- Dingwall, Kate. “The No-Alcohol Industry Boomed Over the Pandemic. Where’s It Going Next?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 Oct. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/katedingwall/2021/10/29/the-no-alcohol-industry-boomed-over-the-pandemic-wheres-it-going-next/?sh=7b4aa6e53daf.
- Ducharme, Jamie. “Synthetic Alcohol Promises to Make Drinking Safer. But Experts Are Wary.” Time, 28 Dec. 2021, https://time.com/6131012/synthetic-alcohol-health-benefits/.