What drinking does to your body

December 8, 2009, 5:27 pmwomenshealth

Alcohol's not exactly health food, but you might be surprised at how wide-ranging its (bad) effects are.

In Focus

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 emotions

What 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 heart

What 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 life

What 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 risk

What 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 addiction

What 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.”

Read one woman's personal story about facing her (bad) relationship with alcohol

Related: Dry July 2013 mocktail recipes!

Mocktail recipes

Sound familiar? If drinking alcohol has become a priority, seek help. Go to Counselling Online for advice.

Are you a problem drinker? Take our alcohol quiz.

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  1. John Smith11:42pm Tuesday 30th July 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    I do not drink. I am a 30 year old virgin mummy's boy.

  2. chris05:33pm Tuesday 30th July 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    John you are un-doubtably a boar so I guess you are lucky there are bush pigs that may consider you!

  3. John02:03pm Wednesday 10th July 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    Pfffffffft ! If it wasn't for booze - most of you bush pigs would NEVER get laid !

  4. FID 6912:16pm Wednesday 10th July 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    so the lesson here is: isn't every things bad for you in excess: to much water can kill you

  5. Paul02:13am Sunday 03rd February 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    I love me drinkin #$%$ on party peeeples

  6. David10:03pm Saturday 02nd February 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    The next victim in our life! Our drinking? They have almost killed smoking? What’s next? Sex! So what’s wrong with living our own life’s? and why are we paying for these idiots stupid studies?

  7. Lynette Luck08:55am Thursday 13th December 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    very well written, more information needs to be out ether so people can make more well informed choices

  8. Jeff08:10am Thursday 13th December 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    OK then - ethanol is great!! I'm gonna keep drinking!!

  9. jeremy02:30pm Saturday 04th December 2010 ESTReport Abuse

    I don't get drunk, I get awesome!

  10. Nikell10:57am Wednesday 19th May 2010 ESTReport Abuse

    oh and your funny too Michael!


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