By Dr. Mercola
Alcohol has been involved in some significant historical events, and may even have played a role in your own life.
However you do, or do not, incorporate alcohol into your life, it does trigger significant changes to the way your body functions. It impairs your decision-making skills and motor skills, contributing to motor vehicle accidents, violent behavior, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Excessive consumption can lead to alcohol poisoning, which may cost you your life. In the U.S. there were an estimated 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost annually between 2006 and 2010 related to alcohol poisoning.1
Recent research has found the gender gap with alcohol use and abuse that has existed between men and women for decades is now closing quickly. This may have a significant impact on public health initiatives and treatments.
The reason for the rise in use among women is unclear, but may have been fueled by the mistaken belief that alcohol may contribute to longevity, another point recently disproved.
Alcohol Use and Abuse Affecting a Larger Population of Women
In the featured video, Dr. James Hamblin, senior health editor at The Atlantic, discusses the health effects of alcohol. Although the gender gap is narrowing between men and women who use and abuse alcohol, the overall amount of alcohol appears to have declined in recent years.2
A study published in BMJ Open3 found the differences between men and women were greater among older individuals.
They extracted data from 68 previous studies on alcohol consumption, including over 4 million participants, published between 1948 and 2014.4 Many of the studies followed participants between 20 and 30 years.5
They split the data into three categories of individuals: those who drank any alcohol, those who had a problem and those who had experienced physical harm from drinking. These groups were then further divided by age.
The researchers found individuals born between 1911 and 1915 exhibited greater differences than those born between 1991 and 2000.
In the group of older individuals, men were 2.4 more times likely to use alcohol and 3.6 times more likely to have experienced an alcohol related problem, while in the younger group, men were 1.1 times more likely to use alcohol and only 1.3 times more likely to have suffered a health related problem from alcohol.
Lead author of the study, Tim Slade, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of New South Wales, said:
"Women are now drinking as much as men, particularly in recent cohorts, and we need to be thinking about what will happen to their health as they get older."
Traditional Alcohol Patterns Broken
Results from the study didn't make it clear if more men were drinking less alcohol, or more women were drinking more. The study was not designed to evaluate the reason behind the statistical differences, but researchers speculated it may be related to the changing roles of women over the past century. Slade said:6
"It could be that increased participation in higher education and the work force came with increased pressure to drink. It could be that women are under more strain or experiencing more stress. We're not sure."
Far from being just another statistical analysis of how alcohol has affected society, this recent research has identified an important shift in the alcohol gap.
In a comprehensive book, authors Sharon Wilsnack, Ph.D., and Richard Wilsnack, Ph.D., from the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota, examined the alcohol use and societal roles.7
The Wilsnacks agreed with comments from researchers at Finland's Alcohol and Drug Research Group, who found that gender variances in alcohol intake was one of the few universal differences in social behavior.
The closure in the alcohol gap noted in this meta-analysis evaluated results from studies taking part mostly in North America and Europe.8 Further research in other countries around the world are needed to evaluate the gender and country differences.
Researcher Katherine Keyes, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University said:9
"There had been several reports of sex convergence regarding alcohol consumption, but nobody had confirmed that, which is why we decided to look over global studies published throughout the years to see if we could prove that there had been a shift.
Understanding how its consumption has evolved is essential to develop effective available treatments."
Alcohol No Longer Thought to Increase Longevity
You may have seen headlines advocating a daily glass of red wine to protect your heart and increase your longevity, but recent research demonstrates this is not the case.
The argument that one or two drinks each day may be associated with longevity has been debunked by a meta-analysis10 of 87 studies including nearly 4 million individuals, in which the researchers concluded that "low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking."
One flaw linking alcohol with increased longevity is that researchers have categorized "abstaining" as those who never drink and included those who are not currently drinking.11 This becomes a problem as many stop drinking as they get older or suffer from an illness.
A study in 2005 found that 27 of 30 risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease were more common in a group of individuals who were categorized as abstaining from alcohol, using the criteria of those who are not currently drinking as an abstainer. 12
Thus, when comparing moderate drinkers to a group of unhealthy abstainers, drinkers appear to live longer. There is also strong evidence of a link between drinking alcohol and several different types of cancers.
The National Toxicology Program from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists alcohol as a known carcinogen associated with the development of head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer.13
Alcohol Influences Your Blood Sugar and Insulin Resistance
As a carbohydrate, your body metabolizes alcohol into sugar. Alcohol may double your risk of developing certain cancers by increasing your exposure to acetaldehyde, a metabolite that damages DNA and stops your body from repairing the damage. The non-nutritional calories in alcohol also increase your risk of obesity and related health problems.14,15
Alcohol also influences your blood glucose levels and contributes to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Alcohol is produced through a fermentation process, including fruits, vegetables and other additives to impact color, strength and flavor of the finished product.
The amount of alcohol you consume will dictate the effect it may have on your bodily systems. As a natural depressant or sedative, it usually makes you sleepier or drowsy as you drink. How much and how fast you drink, and other factors such as age, weight, health and your tolerance to alcohol, will dictate how quickly you experience the effects.16
If you have diabetes, alcohol will create a more significant change in your blood glucose levels than if you don't. The resulting spikes in glucose also negatively affect your brain and liver cells, contributing toward further damage to your health.
Additional Risks of Long-Term Alcohol Use and Abuse
Long-term alcohol use and abuse may also lead to other health conditions. It may be prudent to provide education that focuses on the needs of both men and women as the alcohol consumption gender gap between them is consistently narrowing over time.
In an analysis of the global burden of disease, researchers discovered that alcohol consumption was one of the leading risk factors, with pollution, smoking and high blood pressure.17 Alcohol consumption contributes to over 200 different diseases and injuries, and globally is the fifth leading risk factor for death and disability.18
Long-term use of alcohol contributes to the development of high blood pressure, obesity, nerve damage, sexual problems, ulcers and gastritis.19 Also importantly, drinking alcohol contributes to an imbalance in your gut microbiome, which has a powerful influence on your physical and mental health.
Research has found that changes to intestinal microbiota are associated with an increased inflammatory response in the gut, hyperpermeability of the intestines (leaky gut) and resulting systemic inflammation.20 Researchers recommend using gut-directed interventions to lessen the effects of associated alcohol pathologies.
The most commonly recognized long-term effect of alcohol use is cirrhosis of the liver. In this slowly progressive disease, the liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue preventing the organ from functioning.21 Blockage of the flow of blood reduces your ability to clear toxins and metabolize medications. Eventually, damage may lead to bleeding from the portal vein, and death.
Recognize Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol is a drug, and like all drugs you can drink too much and experience alcohol poisoning. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
✓ Loss of coordination
✓ Vomiting repeatedly and/or uncontrollably
✓ Cold, clammy hands, and bluish skin due to hypothermia
✓ Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths)
✓ Confusion, unconsciousness, stupor (or conscious but unresponsive) and sometimes coma
This is a very dangerous condition that, left untreated, may result in:
✓ Choking on your own vomit
✓ Severe dehydration, which can cause seizures, permanent brain damage and even death
✓ Slow and irregular breathing, which can eventually stop
✓ Irregular heartbeats, which can eventually stop
✓ Hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar), which can lead to seizures
Although women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning and are more predisposed to suffer from long-term alcohol-induced damage, it does not mean men are safe. Women don't experience alcohol the same as men due to several physiological differences, such as:22
- Impaired ability to dilute alcohol because they have lower percentage of body water. The average female only has 52 percent water in her body while the average male has 61 percent.
- Poor ability to metabolize alcohol because they have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme designed to break down alcohol in the body, than men.
- Hormones. Premenstrual hormone changes tend to make women get intoxicated more rapidly during the days before their period. Birth control pills and other estrogen-containing medications also slow down the excretion of alcohol from the body.
What to Do When You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning
You may think that someone just "drank too much" and can sleep it off, but the excess alcohol in their body is literally poisoning their system. It is important you don't wait to see all the symptoms of poisoning before calling for emergency medical help.
Blood alcohol levels rise rapidly, triggering physical changes that could result in irreversible damage or death. Here are a few key pointers of what you should and should not do if you suspect a friend has had too much to drink. For a more complete list, please see this Texas University Health page:23
- Make sure they remain conscious
- Keep them hydrated by giving them water
- Keep them warm
- Ensure they lie on their side so they won't choke on their own vomit
- Stay with them; never leave them alone and continuously monitor their symptoms. If the person is exhibiting any of the signs of alcohol poisoning (see above), call 911 (if you're in the U.S.)
- Tell them to sleep it off. The blood alcohol content can continue to rise even when they're not drinking.
- Give them coffee. This will further dehydrate the person.
- Instruct them to walk around. This may cause falls and bumps, which may result in serious injuries, given the brain's unfit condition.
- Ask them to take a cold shower. Alcohol lowers your body temperature, and making them even colder could lead to hypothermia.