Alcohol can cause more damage than just a hangover.The first sip of crisp sav blanc signifies the end of a tough day. The second glass makes things slightly hazy. By the third, your problems are forgotten, karaoke’s looking like a Very Good Idea and you really need a wee.
But there’s more to take into account than the embarrassment factor. We look at how alcohol affects your health and life (it’s not all bad, we promise), and how to navigate party season with panache, not Panadol.
Alcohol and your emotionsWhat you know After a few beers your drinking buddies are hilarious. And you love them very, very much.
What you don’t There’s a link between drinking and depression, and it’s especially pronounced in women. A recent US study published in General Hospital Psychiatry revealed that women who drank heavily at age 24 were twice as likely to be depressed at 30.
“Drinking doesn’t cause depression, but depressed people often drink more,” says Geoff Munro, national policy manager at the Australian Drug Foundation.
“It’s a vicious cycle; people drink because they feel low, but alcohol depresses the central nervous system, making them feel even lower, so they drink to feel better.”
Key lesson: a shitty day is actually the worst reason to have a drink.
Although alcohol works as a relaxation catalyst in the short-term – it depresses the central nervous system, slowing the heart rate, deepening breathing and quieting mental chatter – this stress-relieving aspect has a downside once you pass the two-drink mark.
“Alcohol raises levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the hormones that are released when you’re stressed,” says Dr Samir Zakhari, from the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
In other words, even though a nice cold beer may seem like a one-way ticket to land of Ahhs, it’s a temporary trip. When the buzz wears off, the heightened cortisol and adrenaline make you feel more overwhelmed than before. And that’s not taking the hangover into account.
Alcohol and your heartWhat you know Red wine is good for your heart.
What you don’t Actually, it’s not just wine that’s beneficial.
“It’s the alcohol itself rather than the antioxidants in red wine that’s believed to reduce heart disease,” says Dr David Hanson, author of Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control.
But we’re not talking vats of shiraz. Moderate drinking can reduce coronary heart disease by between 30 and 50 per cent according to the American Heart Association – but only in menopausal women and men over 45.
“People overestimate the protective elements of alcohol,” says Anita Dessaix, program manager at the Cancer Institute NSW.
“One drink a day is enough to gain the health benefits. It’s still a good idea to have alcohol-free days, otherwise the risks outweigh the cardio-protective aspects.”
Alcohol and your sex lifeWhat you know You’re more likely to end up in bed with a Pete Doherty look-alike after a big night.
What you don’t That champagne-fuelled confidence could be purely psychological. “It’s the ‘Think-Drink’ effect,” explains Dr Hanson.
“Studies prove when people are falsely convinced they’re drunk, they behave as though they are; if you believe necking bubbly makes you spontaneous under the sheets, then it probably will.”
This is good news for the 75 per cent of women in a recent UK survey who said they like to drink before sex because they lack confidence.
One thing alcohol definitely influences: condom use. Women are more likely to have unprotected sex after moderate alcohol consumption, according to research from the University of Washington, US.
“Drinking causes ‘alcohol myopia’, meaning it’s difficult to process information from your surrounding environment,” says study author Dr Jeanette Norris.
“As a result you focus on prominent ‘go’ cues which, in a sexual environment means feeling good, rather than ‘stop’ cues such as STIs.”
Prevent liaisons from turning dangerous by increasing your “stop” cues. Before you start drinking, decide how far you’re willing to go and ensure you’re carrying protection, suggests Dr Hanson.
Alcohol and your cancer riskWhat you know Heavy drinking can increase your breast cancer risk.
What you don’t The World Health Organisation classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen – the same level as tobacco. But don’t panic, reassures Dessaix.
“Studies show one drink a day increases women’s risk of breast cancer by between 11 and 22 per cent. In other words, one in 10 women who never drink will get breast cancer, while one in nine who have one drink a day will.”
More than two drinks a day and the risk becomes higher.
“Each extra drink ups the risk by 10 to 12 per cent,” says Dessaix.
Two drinks a day also boosts your risk of liver cancer by 17 per cent, stomach cancer by seven per cent and oesophageal cancer by 50 per cent.
“The guidelines recommend no more than two drinks a day,” confirms Dessaix. “But as with all areas of your life, you decide what risk-level you’re comfortable with. While some people won’t cross the road for fear of being run over, others are happy to run in front of traffic. Get informed about the statistics, then make your choice about how much you want to drink.”
Alcohol and addictionWhat you know You’re only an alcoholic if you can’t hold down a job or look after your kids. Right?
What you don’t More professional women than ever are becoming alcohol-dependent. According to University of Western Sydney research, 20 per cent of female managers drink at dangerous levels, six per cent of Australian women drink every day and the number of alcohol dependent middle-aged women rose from eight to 16 per cent between 1996 and 2005.
“Many women are alcohol dependent yet still live a relatively normal life,” says Munro. “They believe they use alcohol to cope with stress rather than actually relying on it.”
So what’s the difference between enjoying a drink and using it as a crutch? “Drinking every day means you can develop a physical dependency,” says Munro. “Your body adjusts to the alcohol and you only feel normal when you’ve had a drink.”