This is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: https://trib.al/KfPbmCr
Whether your drink of choice is beer, wine, or hard liquor like bourbon, tequila, or gin, what you don’t know about alcohol could hurt you.
According to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) survey, 56 percent of American adults over age 18 reported drinking in the previous month, and 24 percent acknowledged binge drinking.
Of course, most people who drink don’t binge drink, don’t have physical problems related to alcohol abuse or alcoholism, and will never develop a problem with alcohol.
But before you take your next drink, consider these facts about alcohol, alcohol abuse, and your health:
1. Ethyl alcohol is the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is produced from fermented yeast, sugars, and starches from a variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, and plants. Ethyl alcohol is fundamentally the same in all types of alcoholic beverages, and when you drink in moderation, your liver can comfortably metabolize alcohol from any of these beverages. But heavy drinking overwhelms your liver, and excess alcohol circulates through every organ in your body, including your brain. This is what makes you drunk.
2. You may be drinking more than you realize. “Standard” alcoholic beverages, such as the following, contain about 14 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol:
- 12 ounces (oz) of regular beer
- 5 oz of wine
- 1.5 oz of distilled spirits
- 8 to 9 oz of malt liquor
But customary beverage serving sizes in restaurants and bars don’t necessarily conform to standard drink sizes. So a single mixed cocktail, for example, may actually contain the alcohol of up to three standard drinks.
To maintain a low-risk drinking level that will minimize any impact to your health and your susceptibility to addiction, men should limit alcohol intake to no more than four drinks per day, or 14 per week. Women and those over age 65 should have no more than three drinks daily, and seven weekly. It’s important to adhere to both single-day and weekly limits.
3. In moderation, alcohol may be good for you. Many chemicals are good for you in low doses and toxic in higher doses, says Lewis Nelson, MD, professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
“The benefits of consuming small quantities of alcohol are mostly due to reductions in behavioral, emotional, and physiological responses to stress,” Dr. Nelson says. This explains why many of alcohol’s perceived benefits are cardiovascular in nature — possibly providing protection against stroke and heart attack, for example. The problem, he adds, is that “We don’t know whether low-dose consumption of any alcohol is beneficial, or if only specific alcohol-containing products, such as wine, are.”
4. Alcohol changes your brain. Your brain physically adapts to your environment so you perform better at whatever you’re doing, explains Brad Lander, PhD, clinical director of addiction medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. But when you consistently drink alcohol, your brain may interpret this as a new environment and change nerve cells and brain connections to help you function better with alcohol in your system.
“Once the brain adapts to the alcohol, it does not ‘unadapt,’” he says. “When alcoholics stop drinking, some of these changes continue to be a problem throughout their lives.”
5. Alcohol affects men and women differently. Men and women metabolize alcohol differently due to stomach enzymes, hormones, the ratio of muscle to fat, and water concentration in the body, Dr. Lander says. Women absorb more alcohol and metabolize it more slowly, and they’re also at greater risk for long-term damage from alcohol. Men are more likely to drink excessively and simultaneously engage in high-risk behaviors, which leads to a higher incidence of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations.
6. Alcoholism is partially genetic. The strongest risk factor for developing an alcohol-use disorder is family history. “Part of this is due to the genes you get from your parents, and part is the environment in which your parents raised you: nature versus nurture. Many [experts] put the balance at about 50-50,” says Nelson. “The genetic component does not appear to be due to a single gene, but rather a host of genetic interactions that impact both the risk of developing the disease as well as the response to various treatment efforts.”
7. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are different. According to Lander, “Alcohol abuse is drinking in a manner that causes problems in a person’s life.” Some examples include neglecting responsibilities at work or home, continuing to drink even though it’s causing relationship problems, or experiencing legal problems (like getting a driving under the influence charge) because of drinking.
Alcohol abuse is common, and alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. Nearly 17 million American adults ages 18 and older have an alcohol abuse disorder — that’s almost 7 percent. Roughly half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking, and more than seven million children live in households with at least one parent who drinks too much, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
“In contrast, alcoholism involves changes to neurons in the brain that create obsessions, such as the feeling of needing a drink or compulsive drinking, which is drinking at times you didn’t intend to or drinking more than you intended,” says Lander. Alcoholism is considered by many experts to be a chronic, or lifelong, disease.
8. Alcohol is a leading cause of death. Nearly 88,000 Americans die annually from alcohol-related causes (it’s responsible for nearly one-third of driving fatalities), making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the NIAAA. Excessive drinking also increases your risk for other diseases, including many types of cancer, such as mouth, colon, rectal, stomach, and esophagus cancers.
9. Binge drinking can be fatal. Drinking excessively within a short amount of time, also known as binge drinking, is common among people ages 18 to 22, according to the NIAAA. The agency defines binge drinking as about four drinks for women and five drinks for men within a two hour period.
Alcohol depresses breathing, and imbibing too much can actually cause you to simply stop breathing. “Alcohol is a sedative, and virtually all sedatives can do this at high enough doses. There are thousands of such cases of alcohol poisoning each year in the U.S.,” says Nelson.
Binge drinking also causes other dangerous health issues, including vomiting (which puts you at risk for choking), seizures, dehydration, and unconsciousness. Even if you’re unconscious, your stomach and intestines can continue to release alcohol into your bloodstream, raising your blood alcohol levels even higher.
10. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous. When you’re dependent on alcohol and stop drinking, some nerve cells will become so agitated that you could develop a condition called delirium tremens, or DTs, which in its severe form can lead to uncontrollable seizures. DTs are a medical emergency and require hospitalization.