I’ve received several questions relating to alcohol so here are the answers in one concise Health-e-Byte. With the approaching celebratory season, I thought it was a good time to spread the sobering truth. The key message is to savour every sip. If we viewed alcohol as a flavour enhancer to a meal, rather than a beverage, we’d enjoy it all the more. Experience it with all your senses and by all means drink to your health – but no more than that. The safe levels for women are 10 standard drinks per week (under one and a half drinks per day) and for men, two standard drinks per day, with at least one alcohol-free day per week. And whatever you do, don’t save up your 10 drinks for the one night!
Is alcohol a carcinogen?
Yes. Alcohol increases the risk of cancer in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, stomach, bowel, liver, breast and possibly more. Each drink adds to the risk. Women who consistently drink more than one standard drink a day increase their risk of breast cancer by about 24% especially if they have a diet low in folate (eg dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, most vegetables and legumes).
Does alcohol help you sleep?
No. Booze doesn’t help you snooze. Because it has a sedative effect, alcohol can help you get off to sleep more quickly but it reduces the quality and quantity of your sleep as the night wears on – whether or not you’re aware of it. Alcohol reduces the time we spend in deep sleep and can cause ‘rebound wakefulness’ – you find yourself waking up about four hours after going to bed and then struggle to get back to sleep.
As we get older our sleep becomes lighter and more fragile and the disruptive effect of alcohol increases. This can be observed from about age 40 onwards. Alcohol also worsens sleep apnoea because it increases airway narrowing and makes it more difficult to breathe.
Does alcohol increase or decrease appetite?
Studies have found that when people drink alcohol they tend to eat more (they can easily consume 30% more calories) than if they don’t drink. Alcohol is a significant source of calories (it provides 7 Calories per gram) but it doesn’t switch off our hunger. In addition, the body burns calories from alcohol in preference to calories from food. This means anything you eat will be stored as body fat until you use up all the calories from your alcohol. If you eat before you drink, you will slow down the rate at which you absorb alcohol and therefore your blood alcohol level (BAL) will rise to a lesser degree. Conversely, alcohol absorption from the stomach to the bloodstream is faster if you add a fizzy drink. Hence champagne causes a more rapid rise in BAL than does wine.
Is there anything you can do to sober up more quickly? For instance, does coffee, exercise, energy drinks or certain vitamins help your liver metabolise alcohol faster?
No. Alcohol is metabolised in the liver at a rate of about 7 grams per hour. One standard drink is 10 grams of alcohol so it takes over one hour to process one drink. The only way to remove alcohol from the body is to wait for the liver to process it. However you can increase your tolerance to alcohol (ie you can slow down the rate at which you get drunk) by pumping weights at the gym on a regular basis – not just on the days you drink. The more muscle you have, the better you tolerate alcohol. More muscle means more water in your body, and water dilutes the effect of alcohol. The more dehydrated you are, the quicker you get drunk.
Does alcohol pass into breast milk?
Yes. That means no alcohol from the time you fall pregnant until the time you stop breastfeeding. The effects of alcohol on the developing brain can be catastrophic. If you can hold off from alcohol for the duration of pregnancy and breastfeeding, could you continue abstaining beyond pregnancy and save alcohol for special occasions?
Australia ranks in the top 30 countries with the highest per capita alcohol consumption.