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Health problems associated with alcohol consumption

Choosing to consume alcoholic beverages in quantities greater than that recommended by both the government and the greater medical community means you expose your body and mind to a variety of ailments, some of which are more life threatening than others.

For men this means not consuming more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day a day and for women this means not drinking more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day.

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Whilst it is true many of the illnesses below surface following several years of heavy drinking, some of the illnesses do in fact surface much sooner than you would think. We would advise you to read the below information very carefully as we believe educating you in this area could aid your decision-making process regarding your alcohol consumption so you have a better chance of avoiding the health risks brought on from drinking.

Alcohol-related health risks depend on your sex

Men have more water in their bodies than women due to a greater body mass. This means water is more abundant in men’s bodies. As the liver can only absorb a few units of alcohol per hour, excess alcohol which cannot be immediately processed by the liver is stored in the blood until the liver has a chance to break the alcohol down into water and oxygen. As women have less water and generally have more fat in their bodies than men, women will feel more ‘drunk’ than men when the same volume of alcohol is consumed.

However, the inherent advantage that men have over women when it comes to alcohol consumption is not reflected in the statistics, particularly when it comes to alcohol-induced injuries where men vastly make up the numbers for official government statistics.

The below graph illustrates the fact that more men consistently died from alcohol related illnesses than women between 2001 and 2012.

 

 alcohol-age-death-by-gender-2001-2012

Alcohol-induced cancer

Alcohol consumption, even at levels insufficient to get you intoxicated, has been linked with a variety of different cancers occurring throughout the human body. Such cancers include liver cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer and bowel cancer amongst others. The NHS claims over 4000 women suffer from breast cancer each year due to the over consumption of alcohol.

Similar to other alcohol-induced illnesses, you are at a greater risk of contracting cancer as the volume of alcohol you consume increases. If you drink within the recommended daily and weekly doses you put yourself at a reduced risk of getting cancer.

The body converts ethanol into a chemical known as acetaldehyde. It is widely thought acetaldehyde damages our DNA and prevents our cells from repairing this damage.

It takes the liver many hours to convert excessive units of alcohol in the blood into harmless by-products. Acetaldehyde resides in the blood in a ‘queue’ waiting to be processed, exposing your organs to increased doses of this harmful substance. Acetaldehyde exposure is strongly linked to liver and intestinal cancer.

Furthermore, alcohol increases the amount of oestrogen in women’s bodies which heightens the risk of breast cancer.

Scarring of the liver through a process known as cirrhosis can also lead to liver cancer.

It is also thought alcohol increases the throat cells’ ability to absorb carcinogenic chemicals contained in cigarettes. Oesophageal cancer is particularly common amongst those that consume more than five alcoholic units per day and more than eight cigarettes per day.

Folate is an essential vitamin which helps the body repair DNA. People who abuse alcohol have been shown to exhibit low levels of folate in their blood. Studies have shown such individuals are at an increased risk of contracting certain types of cancer.

Sexual transmitted disease

The link between alcohol abuse and an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) is well established. Common STDs experienced by regular drinkers include:

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhoea
  • Genital herpes
  • Genital warts
  • Hepatitis
  • HIV

When you are intoxicated you are more likely to engage in unprotected sex. Those suffering from alcoholism are also less likely than non-alcoholics to seek treatment for STDs.

Reproduction

Men and women alike experience reproduction system problems when an excess of alcohol is consumed. If you’re a woman drinking alcohol in your early life it can affect your chances of conceiving later on in life. Alcohol consumption has been shown to alter a women’s menstrual cycle and even arrest the ovulation process and lead to early onset menopause. In the alternative scenario excessive drinking can lead to an unwanted pregnancy.

The NHS advises women who are actively trying to conceive not to consume more than two units of alcohol a week.

For men the health risks posed to the reproductive system can be equally as grave as they are for women. For instance, alcohol has a toxic effect on the testes and can even shrink the size of the testicles. Excessive alcohol consumption has been known to decrease the quantity of the male hormone testosterone in a man’s body.

Obesity

A man or a woman is classed as ‘obese’ if he or she has a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30. A Body Mass Index in excess of 30 would indicate the person in question has an unhealthy amount of body fat in relation to their height.

Obesity brings a number of health problems:

  • Type II diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea

If you consume an excessive amount of alcohol you will vastly add to the number of calories you consume in your diet. Furthermore, alcohol consumption increases your appetite and impairs your ability to make healthy dietary choices. This means you’re more likely to consume unhealthy foods such as fast food. Associated physical and mental ailments which excessive alcohol consumption brings means you’re less likely to engage in physical activity.

Below includes caloric information for common alcohol beverages:

Alcoholic drinkCalories

Beer, regular, 340 ml. 150
Gin, 35 ml. 110
Rum, 35 ml. 96
Vodka, 35 ml. 96
Whiskey, 35 ml. 105
Wine, 110 ml. 49

Liver disease

Read our page on liver disease.

Mental health risks posed by alcohol consumption

Numerous mental health risks are associated when you regularly choose to consume alcohol in quantities over and above the recommended number of units of alcohol. Such risks vary from short-to-long term memory loss, impairment of everyday cognitive skills, depression, self-harm and suicide. Mental health risks vary according to the volume of alcohol you consume and the duration in which alcohol is abused.

Excessive alcohol consumption disrupts the brain’s chemical nerve transmitters, or ‘neurotransmitters’, which form part of the body’s central nervous system. Alcohol ‘depresses’ the brain’s chemicals and hence the drinker feels ‘drunk’. Typically inhibitions are lowered and the drinker feels a sense of relaxation. However as time passes and more alcohol is consumed, the drinker will pass through several mood changes, including negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and aggression. Drinking excessively is commonly associated with anti-social behaviour. Fatigue will eventually set in and the drinker will simply fall asleep.

If you abuse alcohol over a prolonged period of time your brain’s reserves of ‘serotonin’ will become depleted. This deficiency of serotonin makes drinkers more depressed. In turn, this feeling of depression prompts the individual to drink yet more alcohol. Mentally speaking this cycle means you’re in a dangerous place to be, an all too common scenario of pleasure and pain which is associated with all manners of addictions.

Chronic alcohols are at risk of contracting Korsakoff Syndrome

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