Break the habit: I drink to excess at least once a week
Sharing an alcoholic drink with friends and family can be one of life's great pleasures. But if you drink to excess regularly, alcohol can be a poison. If you feel your habit has become damaging, then this simple guide will help you cut down your intake, or stop drinking altogether.
What damage am I doing?
Alcohol can be a tonic, or toxic. If you've enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner through the years or the occasional cocktail at a party or beer after work with friends, you're a moderate drinker.
For you, alcohol delivers benefits: in more than 100 studies, moderate drinkers enjoyed a 25 to 40 percent reduction in heart attacks, ischaemic (clot-caused) strokes, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death and death from all cardiovascular causes.
Why? Alcohol in moderate amounts raises levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and discourages the formation of small blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. It may even help to protect against type 2 diabetes and gallstones.
But if you drink to excess regularly, alcohol can be a poison. People who consume two standard drinks a day or four standard drinks on one occasion (a standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol) are at higher risk of liver damage, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), various cancers including those of the liver, mouth, throat, larynx and oesophagus, high blood pressure and depression.
"Alcohol can age your brain, making memory and thinking problems worse."
Women, who are more sensitive to alcohol's inebriating and long-term health effects, may develop heart disease, brittle bones, and even memory loss.
Each extra daily drink raises a woman's risk of breast cancer by 6 percent, according to a study by Cancer Research UK of drinking patterns among 150,000 women around the world. While the overall impact is small, especially in young women who are at low risk, it may become more important with age.
The average lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 8.8 per 100 by the time a woman is 80. One alcoholic drink a day increases this to 9.4 cases per 100, and six daily drinks raises it 13.3 per 100. However, in older women, the effect on breast cancer may be offset by the beneficial effect of alcohol in reducing heart disease.
Several studies have found a higher risk of prostate cancer among men who drink a lot or who have been long-time drinkers. Too much alcohol can pack your liver with fat, and can lead to a reversible liver problem—alcoholic hepatitis, or to irreversible scarring, cirrhosis.
The list continues: if you've been drinking to excess for years, you may need screening and treatment for thinning bones or an enlarged heart. Alcohol can also age your brain, making memory and thinking problems worse.
Read more: The women exploring the alternatives to AA
Can I undo the damage?
For the most part, yes. Soon after you cut back or stop, your digestion will improve: your stomach won't have to cope with the irritation caused by the alcohol and the excess stomach acids it triggers.
You'll sleep more soundly. Your blood sugar will be lower and steadier. Your blood pressure may fall towards a healthier range. Even your brain will bounce back.
Alcoholics who stayed sober for nearly seven years performed as well as non-alcoholics in brain function tests in one study. Even if you have liver damage, cutting back on alcohol and eating a healthier diet could help your liver to regenerate itself to some degree.
And the benefits don't stop there…
Without a doubt, you'll have a healthier liver and cardiovascular system.
You will have a far reduced risk of car crashes and other accidents. You'll also feel more energetic and you may have better relationships with family and friends if drinking caused problems before.
Your repair plan
- Stick with healthy limits. That's two or fewer alcoholic drinks a day. Health dangers begin to rise for people who drink more than that.
- Reserve alcohol for meals. You're much more likely to sip a beer or a nice glass of wine slowly if you're enjoying it as an accompaniment to a good meal. At parties or before you eat, stick to iced tea, water or sparkling water with a splash of lemon or lime.
- Drink for taste, not to get drunk. For a teenager, feeling drunk might seem novel and cool. For mature adults, however, there is no sound reason ever to get drunk. If you discover that you are drinking for the effects of the alcohol—be it to escape a bad day, give you courage in new situations or merely to be ‘one of the gang’—stop immediately. Work hard to find a healthier coping mechanism.
- If you can't stop, acknowledge the addiction. If you can't stick with a healthy drink limit, if you drink secretly or if you need more alcohol to get the same ‘drunken’ effect, it's time to get help. You may have an alcohol-use disorder. Talk to your doctor and contact a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous for the support you'll need to make a healthy change.
- Take your health seriously. Report any symptoms to your GP promptly, and follow advice about any health issues such as high blood pressure or brittle bones.
- Don't smoke. Smoking and drinking together multiplies the potentially harmful effects on your body. And make sure you eat a healthy diet—excess alcohol consumption can deplete vital vitamins and minerals.
Read more: How to break your smoking habit
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