Wellbeing / 25 May, 2020

Alcohol and its impact on your body

Dr Goh Lit Ching

Is there a safe limit of alcohol consumption for men and women?

Alcoholic beverages contain a strong psychoactive agent known as ethanol. Drinking alcohol presents both short-term and long-term health risks.

Men should consume no more than two standard drinks a day, while women should consume no more than one standard drink a day.

Excessive drinking is defined as consuming:

  • 8 or more drinks per week for women
  • 15 or more drinks per week for men

*A standard drink is equivalent to a can (330 ml) of regular beer, half a glass (100 ml) of wine or 1 nip (30 ml) of spirit.

What are the short-term health effects of excessive alcohol consumption?

Accidents and Injuries

As driving ability and mental capacity to make decisions are temporarily impaired following consumption of alcohol, incidents such as car crashes, domestic violence, falls, drowning, occupational injuries, suicide and homicide often occur following excessive alcohol consumption.

Alcohol poisoning

Medical emergencies can arise due to a high alcohol level in the blood following excessive consumption of alcohol.

Harm to foetus in pregnancy

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy, even over the short term, may still cause damage to the foetus. Conditions such as stillbirth, miscarriage or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can occur.

What are the long-term health risks of excessive alcohol consumption?

Long term health risks of excessively drinking alcohol can affect you physically, mentally and socially.

Physical health risks

  • Hepatobiliary disorders – Chronic drinking can alter the metabolism of fats in the liver, causing an excessive accumulation of fat and the development of fatty liver. Over time, scarring in the liver (cirrhosis) occurs leading to liver failure. Chronic pancreatitis can also arise due to inflammation of the pancreas due to alcohol injury.
  • Gastric ulcers and digestive disorders – Ulcers can cause bleeding in the stomach with potentially life threatening consequences. Chronic inflammation of the stomach lining can also cause gastritis and reflux disease.
  • Cardiovascular disorders – Conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and heart failure are associated with chronic alcohol consumption.
  • Joint disorders – The risks of developing osteoporosis and fracture are increased due to interference of calcium and vitamin D levels in the body. Excessive alcohol intake also causes gout, which is a form of arthritis that develops due to excessive purine levels in the body.
  • Weakened immune system – Heavy alcohol use will adversely affect white blood cell production and function over time, making the body vulnerable to infectious diseases.
  • Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies – Chronic alcoholism not only leads to poor diet, but also poor absorption of nutrients from an inflamed gastrointestinal tract.
  • Effects on central nervous system – Long-term heavy drinking can speed up the brain’s normal aging process, resulting in early dementia.
  • Higher risks of developing cancer – Alcohol contributes to higher risks of many types of cancer including cancers of the mouth, oesophagus, larynx, stomach, liver, colon, rectum and breast.

Mental health risks

  • Learning and memory problems – As a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, alcohol can cause difficulties with processing information and poses long-term challenges with solving simple problems.
  • Mood disorder – Conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders are usually associated with long term alcohol intake. A pre-existing personality disorder can also be exaggerated by chronic alcohol usage.

Social disorder

  • Social problems – chronic alcoholism often results in unemployment and loss of productivity, in turn leading to family and marital problems.
  • Alcohol dependence – Dependence, addiction and withdrawal symptoms require support from counsellors and medical teams. Severe cases of alcoholism should seek assistance from rehabilitation programs and professional teams.

In short, sticking to a safe consumption limit does not mean you have no risk of developing the above disorders. Some health risks are caused by cumulative effects. Avoid alcohol if you can, but if you can’t, remember to drink responsibly.

References

For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Mayo Clinic. (2019). Nutrition and healthy eating. Retrieved on 25 May 2020 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/alcohol/art-20044551
  2. Health Hub. (2019). Alcohol and Health – Set Your Drinking Limits. Retrieved on 25 May 2020 from https://www.healthhub.sg/live-healthy/920/alcohol-and-health-set-your-drinking-limits
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