What are the long-term health risks when you drink alcohol?

What are the long-term health risks when you drink alcohol?

New guidelines on alcohol consumption published in Canada have sparked a fresh debate on alcohol consumption and what it really means for people’s long-term health.

The guidelines, funded by Health Canada and published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) recommend that Canadians limit themselves to just two drinks a week or, ideally, cut out alcohol altogether.

According to experts, the announcement was prompted by research which showed that even moderate drinking could pose a serious threat to health, including an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, and certain cancers.  

They also warn that no amount of alcohol is safe when pregnant or trying to conceive.

In the wake of intense debate following their publication, Peter Butt, a member of the panel that drafted the guidelines and a professor of family medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, said: “We simply wanted to present the evidence to the Canadian public, so they could reflect on their drinking and make informed decisions.

“This isn’t about prohibition. This is simply about reducing the amount one drinks.”

What happens in your body when you drink alcohol?

When a person consumes ethanol – the intoxicating agent in alcoholic drinks – it is absorbed into the bloodstream, and more than 90% of it is broken down by the liver.

How alcohol affects the body can depend on a variety of factors, including age, gender, weight, and the type of alcohol the person has been drinking i.e. beers, wines or spirits.

As the alcohol travels to different parts of the body, including the brain, it begins to affect basic functions, such as movement, breathing and temperature control.

People who continue to drink for several hours may also experience psychological effects including mood swings, reduced inhibitions, increased aggression, and paranoia.

A reduction in inhibitions can lead to increased risk-taking when a person is under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol and related illnesses

The official guidelines for weekly lower-risk alcohol consumption from the HSE state that women should consume fewer than 11 standard drinks (110g pure alcohol) over the course of one week, with a minimum of two alcohol-free days.

Men are advised to consume fewer than 17 standard drinks (170g pure alcohol) spread out over the week. Again, aiming for a minimum of two alcohol-free days.

In Ireland, a single standard drink contains around 10 grams of pure alcohol.

However, the new guidelines published in Canada suggest that even moderate drinking can be dangerous to health.

So, what exactly are the health risks when you consume alcohol? Here are a few of the links that have been made between alcohol consumption and more serious health concerns:

Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD)

The liver is one of the most complex organs in the body, responsible for several important tasks, including filtering toxins from the blood, regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and helping to fight infection and disease.

A person who drinks alcohol excessively over a prolonged period may develop alcohol-related liver diseases (ARLD), although they may not know that they have the condition until the liver has been severely damaged.

This is because, before that time, people with ARLD will not usually have any symptoms. 

Physical signs of ARLD can include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), confusion or drowsiness, weight loss and loss of appetite, and swelling of the ankles and stomach.

Alcohol and stroke

According to a global study looking at the causes of stroke, co-led by the University of Galway, moderate to high alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of stroke.

The research, which looked at the alcohol habits of 26,000 people around the world, found that current drinkers were at 14% increased odds of a stroke, and 50% increased odds of intracerebral haemorrhage (stroke due to bleeding).  

This is because drinking alcohol to excess on a regular basis can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke.

Furthermore, people who drink heavily may find it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight and, in turn, maintain blood sugar levels, because alcoholic drinks tend to be higher in calories.

This can increase your risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes – both of which can contribute to a person’s risk of stroke.

Links to cancer

A 2018 report published by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found that there were links between colorectal cancer – a form of bowel cancer – and alcohol.

According to their findings, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 7% per 10 grams of ethanol, per day.

Drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis for 10-20 years has also been linked to the development of other cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, and breast cancer.

Although the above health concerns are troubling, it is important to remember that there are many techniques you can use to cut down on alcohol and to start seeing the benefits of reduced alcohol consumption.

For individuals struggling with more severe alcohol addiction, reducing alcohol intake, or quitting drinking altogether can be extremely challenging, meaning that professional support is required.

Learn more about cutting your alcohol consumption

Where can I buy an alcohol test?

AlphaBiolabs is one of Ireland’s leading providers of laboratory testing services for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector.

Our accredited laboratory can test a variety of samples for the presence of alcohol and its metabolites, including breath, blood, hair, and nails.

We also offer alcohol monitoring in the form of SCRAM Continuous Alcohol Monitoring®.

Here are a few examples of who might need an alcohol test:

To discuss your alcohol testing requirements or to request a quote, call our Customer Services team on 01 402 9466 or email info@alphabiolabs.ie.

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