A good friend and colleague of my husband just recently passed away after a long battle with alcoholism and I sit here writing this blog in reflection of his life and the precious lives of the kids and wife he left behind. Confusion racks my mind as I wonder about the why behind letting himself allow alcohol to consume his every being. He died of acute liver failure, and in as little as 1 year we watched him go from a handsome middle-aged man, the funniest in the room, to closed off, distant, and even mean at times. He took on the look of jolly old St. Nick with his long white beard and shocking white hair plus 50 extra pounds. Alcohol has touched my family too in many devastating ways and yet I sit here writing this with a glass of wine next to my computer. What compels us to drink? Is it because we were told it’s healthy for us? Is it because it takes the edge off the hard parts of our lives we don’t want to face? Is it for pleasure? Social acceptability?
Today nearly 73% of Americans regularly consume alcohol, up from 65% in 2002, according to recent research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The study found that not only as a whole society we are drinking more but each person is drinking more heavily. High risk alcohol consumption among women is up 58% since 2002, and alcohol use disorder has shot up 84%. For men, high-consumption is up 16% and 35% for disordered drinking. According to an article written for Eating Well magazine, drinking light is defined as 1-6 drinks per week, moderate as 7 drinks for women/week. High risk/heavy alcohol use as 3 drinks or more on a single occasion or more than 7 drinks/week for women. Alcohol use disorder is considered the inability to stop or control alcohol consumption.
In the fall of 2018 a global review of studies published in The Lancet declared “No amount of alcohol is safe to consume.” Yikes, this goes against previous studies telling us that 1 glass a day of red wine or serving of alcohol in general was actually heart healthy! Well, not all is lost, as we dig further into other research done in light of this review we find some old truths still bubbling to the surface or at least a different way of looking at the data.
The Lancet review basically found that across the globe alcohol was the seventh leading cause of premature death and disability. For people in the 15-49 year old age range the team found that alcohol was the leading risk factor for disease; it is also the leading cause of premature death. For those 50+, cancer accounted for 27% of alcohol related deaths for women, and 19% for men.
So why do some people get sick from alcohol while others can live well into their 80’s and 90’s having drank like a fish? Ever heard of alcohol dehydrogenase (AD)? It’s a gene that we possess, some people have a higher genetic expression than others, and men express it about twice as much as women. AD breaks down ethanol, helping our body process alcohol more or less readily, from ethanol we further break the molecule down into acetaldehyde. The more AD genetic expression the better we are at the whole breakdown process and ultimately the less reaction we get overall from alcohol. This can be viewed as a good or bad thing. The better alcohol metabolizer you are the more you can drink and not feel the effects. Interestingly, I have alcoholism on both sides of my genetic circle of influence with my grandparents and after looking at my 23 and Me results it was confirmed I share this pre-disposition. I rarely feel terrible the day after I drink, and I don’t get the negative consequences of drinking while I’m two glasses in either. Alcohol flushing, nausea and headaches are typical reactions from people who don’t process ethanol out of their system very fast. So, if I know all this why do I pick up a drink 3-4 times a week? We’ll get to that in a little bit.
So, what does this mean for you in the grand scheme of your health destiny? According to David L. Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. The Lancet study only looks at statistics and not at all at the risk factors associated with drinking. While there is still a slight benefit to 1 serving a day of alcohol to heart health, the non-drinkers are still overall going to live longer due to the fact that they don’t engage in the risk-taking behaviors while drinking. Things such as driving under the influence, smoking and binge eating. As women, we are also at an increased risk, according to the study, for breast cancer. So, if you have a strong family history of breast cancer but no cardio risk factors than you are more likely to be harmed by alcohol. If you have no breast cancer family history but do have heart disease that runs in the family you might see a slight benefit. Katz does point out however that exercise and healthy food choices are far safer choices when mitigating the risk of heart disease and cancer than considering alcohol as the way to reducing health risks. Zero alcohol/day keeps the doctors away when we take into account how alcohol affects risk of all health and accident related complications.
Taking all complications with drinking aside and the reasons for or against, If I’m being completely honest the real reason I drink a couple times a week isn’t for heart health, it’s for pleasure. My brain and yours is evolutionarily hard wired to crave things like food, sex and alcohol. When we drink it can release feel-good endorphins and increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that lights up the reward center of your brain. Lots of things cause dopamine spikes (cue the sugar when we are stressed out), and this spells trouble for those among us with addictive personalities. I’m a pleasure-seeking creature, hence the name of my business, No Bad Days! I love to feel good and loathe conflict and the harsh realities of life. Seeking contentment and joy are the name of the game in my world! Contentment, joy and fulfillment are linked to lower levels of depression and anxiety, inflammation and overall disease. According to Dr. Morten Kringelbach a professor of neuroscience at the universities of Aarhus (in Denmark) and Oxford “if you were to construct an argument around the benefits of alcohol, it would really be about the social experience of being around others.” He argues that if alcohol helps you be around others a little easier than by all means bottoms up! All joking aside Kringelbach goes on to say that the real medicine is the people not the alcohol. He quotes this great proverb “Man is man’s medicine.” Ultimately what keeps you well long term is being in a loving trusted relationship with other people. Don’t be lonely and you will live longer. Science can even prove this! More often than not I find myself with a small pour of red wine about 4 nights a week just after we say goodnight to the girls and I’m ready to begin my “bonding” time with my husband. Alcohol is like the “second” lubricant in the bedroom for me. The enhanced dopamine response is amazing!
The fact however that alcoholism runs in my family is not lost on me, I am very consciously aware that this could be a problem. The slippery slope from occasional drinking to hard drinking is a very real problem for a lot of people. The question is why? As a cultural norm drinking is celebrated and considered a joke in many media outlets. Women can be encouraged to drink to cover up a bad day or an emotionally trying afternoon of raising kids. What I’ve found through my health coaching practice is that whether it’s alcohol or food my clients tend to fill up on those vices when other parts of their lives are empty. Typically, when they are bankrupt in areas of spirituality, career, relationships or physically not being fulfilled. The key is being consciously aware and awakened to the need for attention to be placed in filling the tanks back up with a healthy outlook on those four areas. Only then can they find freedom from the vice of alcohol, food or other addictions. I’m fortunate to have an amazing husband and close relationships with my family, a strong walk in my Christian faith, I love my career as a health coach and make time to honor my body every day with sleep, exercise and good food. Take some time today to consider the WHY behind the choices you make that are building you up or tearing you down. Take a closer look at the way you use substances or food to mask hurts in your life and consider seeking help if you can’t get a grip on it. Don’t be silent, you were meant for a more honest, joy filled and free life!
Before I get hate mail about this article, I want you to know that I am aware of the sensitivities people have around alcohol and by no means is this article an endorsement in any way that you should start drinking to enhance your sex life, help in your bonding with other people or start drinking to help your heart. This is just my experience and this article was written for instructional and educational purposes only.