June 21, 2023
For many, alcohol is a common element of celebrations and routines. Getting the family together for a holiday party could mean having a few cocktails. Had a bad day at work? You might end the night with a glass of wine. The problem is that these drinks can all add up and affect your health.
Before cracking open that beer or popping a cork, learn a few things about drinking that may surprise you.
1. Alcohol addiction is a disease.
It’s called alcohol use disorder, and it’s becoming more common. You may be suffering from AUD if you notice you must drink more than before in order to feel the same effects. This is called increased tolerance. You may also feel like you want to stop drinking but can’t. Doctors have a list of questions they would ask about your thoughts and behaviors to diagnose whether you might have mild, moderate or severe AUD. Alcohol use disorder can be treated with a combination of medications and counseling.
2. There aren’t health benefits to drinking alcohol.
We’ve heard stories about people who had 1 drink every day and lived to a very old age. However, doctors say the studies that showed some moderate benefit from alcohol were probably influenced by other factors that led to better health.
“It turns out that you can't observe any beneficial effect of any amount of alcohol,” said Steven Weinman, MD, PhD, a gastroenterologist at The University of Kansas Health System. “Current evidence that has looked more carefully and tried to control for things like socioeconomic status and others cannot find a benefit.”
In fact, the more you drink – even in moderate amounts – the more you risk mental and physical effects of alcohol. Heavy drinking is defined, by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as more than 4 drinks a day or more than 14 drinks a week for a man under 65. For all women, and men over 65, heavy drinking is more than 3 drinks per day or 7 drinks per week.
“This just defines that anything above it could potentially lead you to start having complications or medical and psychological problems related to alcohol,” said Roopa Sethi, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at the health system. While there’s a risk with drinking even 1 drink, the risks accelerate rapidly once you go above these levels.
3. The rate of liver disease is increasing – and more young people are affected.
According to the 2021 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had alcohol use disorder in the past year. What’s more, the rate of death from alcohol-associated liver disease had a sharp increase in 2020.
“When the pandemic happened, our clinic was mostly opioid-based,” said Dr. Sethi. “(Then) we saw increasing numbers of people with alcohol addiction coming to our clinic. And our therapists are doing a lot of counseling for alcohol now.”
Further, many of the patients suffering and dying from liver disease are younger than they were previously.
“This has been going on probably for about the past 8 to 10 years, that the average age of people suffering from alcohol-related liver disease has been falling,” said Dr. Weinman. “A lot of it has to do with the culture among young people in terms of college-age party culture. It is much more alcohol intense than it was a generation ago.”
4. Alcohol damages more than your liver.
We often think of the liver being the only part of our body affected by alcohol. But doctors say it immediately changes your cognition and brain function. It also causes digestive issues. Over time, with lots of alcohol use, patients can develop seizures, alcoholic hepatitis and pneumonia. You’re even more at risk for certain cancers.
“Notoriously it causes cancers of the head and neck, the mouth, the tonsils, the oral cavity. But it also causes pancreatic cancer. It accelerates the risk for breast cancer, for colon cancer and for liver cancer as well,” said Dr. Weinman.
5. You can still get a liver transplant if you have alcohol use disorder.
Because liver disease is a common complication of AUD, and people struggling with liver disease are getting younger, there are more questions around eligibility for a liver transplant.
Previously, you had to abstain from alcohol for at least 6 months to get a transplant. However, that isn’t always the case now.
“There are people who suffer from alcoholic liver disease who don't have 6 months in all honesty,” said Dr. Weinman. “So I don't think there's any prejudice against people with alcohol-related liver disease because of the nature of their liver disease. But there's very careful scrutiny of who is likely to have a successful outcome.”
How to drink safely
If you plan to drink at an upcoming holiday or celebration, or already drink regularly, there are some ways to protect your health.
Dr. Sethi recommends knowing the suggested limits for you and staying within them. Also, drink as little or as infrequently as possible. Finally, listen to family or friends if they are telling you that you might be drinking too much.
“Talk to your psychiatrist, talk to your medical doctor, talk to your primary care, but seek help,” said Dr. Sethi. “If you have developed an addiction, then get into treatment because that's very treatable these days.”