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How much alcohol is too much? A lot less than you may think.

How much alcohol is too much? According to a new study published in the Lancet, any amount of alcohol beyond 100g per week (the equivalent of about 5 standard drinks per week) increases our risk of premature death from stroke, coronary disease (excluding myocardial infarction), heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease, and fatal aortic aneurysm. In this study it was found that, at the population level, reductions in alcohol consumption could increase life expectancy by up to 2 years in a typical 40-year-old drinker. The new 100 g per week safe threshold for alcohol consumption suggested in this study is substantially lower than current guidelines in Canada, and in many other countries.  Further research is needed to investigate.

In a report released by the World Health Organization, it was found that Canadians aged 15 and older drank on average 10 litres of pure alcohol per capita annually —3.6 litres more than the world average, making us heavier drinkers than our neighbours to the south. 

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has a depressant effect and it can be addictive. To learn more about early warning signs of addictive behaviour, click here. Short term effects of alcohol include intoxication, dehydration, and poisoning (if consumed in enough quantity). Long-term over-consumption of alcohol can lead to permanent damage of many organs and important body systems.

The long term negative effects of excess alcohol consumption include changes to liver metabolism, addiction, damage to the central nervous system and increased cancer risk including breast, colon and liver cancer and also cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus. Not to mention unwanted weight gain ("beer belly"), chronic sleep disturbances, and negative changes in mood.  The negative effects of alcohol consumption on fetal development and female fertility are well known, but interestingly, more recent research has also demonstrated that even modest consumption of alcohol (5 drinks per week) can have a negative impact on male fertility.

Excessive alcohol consumption is related to an increased risk of hypertension and liver disease as well as increased triglyceride levels (blood fat) which increases the risk of heart disease and pancreatitis (an inflammation of the pancreas).  Alcohol also increases the risk of general chronic inflammation within the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked to things such as neurodegenerative disease, as well as cancer and heart disease.

If that wasn't enough, alcohol also provides “empty” calories (calories with little nutritional value). Consuming "empty" calories in excess often results in weight gain and leads to additional health problems. Click here to discover just how many calories are in common cocktails. 

 

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Are there any benefits to consuming alcohol in small quantities? 

Interestingly, research suggests that alcohol, when consumed in moderation, is associated with certain health benefits, including the reduction of heart disease risk through the raising of protective HDL cholesterol "good cholesterol".  Also, both red and white wine contains antioxidants that offer cardio-protective benefits, which are present in the grapes used to make the wine.  However, many health experts argue that the potential health benefits of enjoying the odd glass of wine, for example, are not substantive enough to outweigh the potential risks associated with consuming too much alcohol.  Also, it's important to note that you don't need to drink wine to get the antioxidant benefits of red grapes, for example, you can just eat the grapes instead.  There is a very fine line between consuming a safe amount of alcohol and an unhealthy amount. 

 

So, the million dollar question, how much alcohol is too much?

For years there has been a general consensus within the medical and scientific community in Canada that  alcoholic beverages can safely be consumed within the following guidelines:

  • Up to a maximum of 7-9 standard drinks per week for women, and;
  • Up to a maximum of 14 drinks per week for men; and
  • Not exceeding 1-2 drinks on any particular day; and
  • Not consuming alcohol every day - skipping days of alcohol consumption entirely, even if the total quantity per week meets the guidelines. 
  • One “drink” is considered to be 12 ounces (341 ml) of beer, 5 ounces (142 ml) of wine, or 1.5 ounces (43 ml) of spirits.
  • Note that the guidelines are such that individuals can't "save up" drink allowances to "double up" on a particular day.  

However, given the recent findings published in The Lancet, health experts are debating whether the above guidelines regarding the "safe limits" of alcohol consumption should be lowered for both men and women. Read full report here. 

 

Try these simple tips for limiting your alcohol consumption and making healthier beverage choices:

  1. Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic beverages. Opt for all-natural, low-sugar beverages such as sparkling water infused with lime, cucumber, mint, or pomegranate seeds.
  2. When consuming alcohol, use a small glass vs. a large glass and/or add a lot of ice cubes to dilute the alcohol content. 
  3. Opt for a white wine spritzer (1 part white wine, 1 part sparkling water) vs. white wine.
  4. Choose "light" beers with lower alcohol content. When dining out, opt for a bottle of beer (which is typically 330 ml - 375 ml) instead of a pint of beer (which is typically 568 ml in Canada)
  5. When choosing wine at a restaurant, opt for the smallest serving offered on the menu (eg. a 4 oz or 5 oz glass, vs. an 8 oz or a 10 oz glass) and look for wines that are naturally lower in alcohol. 
  6. Instead of opting for a mixed drink made with sugary pop, opt for a natural mixer such as soda water and, if needed, flavour your drinks with a few slices of fresh fruit or fresh herbs. 

 

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More articles you might like: 

What's worse for brain health? Sleep deprivation or binge drinking? 

Stress, the silent killer 

Early warning signs of addictive behaviour 

10 behaviours that should raise red flags 

How many calories are in your cocktail

 

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