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.
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. A review of several studies on the relationship between alcohol and male fertility concluded that alcohol consumption seems to alter sperm parameters and testicular pathology, negatively impacting fertility. Similarly, studies suggest that women who consume two or more alcoholic drinks per day on average are at increased risk of infertility, and women who consume less than one alcoholic drink per day on average are at decreased risk of infertility (compared with moderate consumers of alcohol, defined as those who consume >1 to <2 drinks per day, on average. Minimizing the possible effects of alcohol on fertility can't be achieved overnight. It's important to note that each sperm takes about 3 months to mature, and similarly, the full life cycle of a human egg (from primary follicle to ovulatory follicle) is about 4 months.
Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has a depressant effect and it can be addictive. 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.
Excessive alcohol consumption is also 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.
Are there any benefits to consuming alcohol in small quantities?
Interestingly, research suggests that alcohol, when consumed in moderation (see guidelines below), 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. Of note, you don't need to drink wine to get these benefits, you could eat a handful of grapes instead. There is a very fine line however, and one that should not be crossed, between a healthy amount of alcohol and an unhealthy amount. Put another way, the health benefits associated with drinking an occasional 5 oz glass of wine are far outweighed by the health risks associated with drinking more than the recommended limit.
So, the million dollar question, how much alcohol is too much?
If you are trying to conceive, it's advisable for both partners to avoid alcohol. Also, due to the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy. For healthy adults who are not trying to conceive, there is a general consensus within the medical and scientific community that alcoholic beverage consumption should be limited to a maximum of 7-9 drinks per week for women and a maximum of 14 drinks per week for men, not exceeding 1-2 drinks on any particular day. One “drink” is considered to be 12 ounces (341 ml) of beer, 5 ounces (142ml) of wine, or 1.5 ounces (43 ml) of spirits. Two important notes: 1) the guidelines are such that you can't "save up" your drink allowance so that you can "double up" on a Saturday night. 2) most physicians recommend "skipping days" of alcohol consumption entirely and advise against consuming alcohol every day, even if the total quantity per week meets the guidelines.
Try these simple tips for limiting your alcohol consumption and making healthier beverage choices:
- 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.
- When consuming alcohol, use a small glass vs. a large glass and/or add a lot of ice cubes to dilute the alcohol content.
- Opt for a white wine spritzer (1 part white wine, 1 part sparkling water) vs. white wine.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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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