Dr Amitabh Monga
Alcohol. People have hailed it for its health benefits – for example, some believe that drinking red wine can help to boost heart, brain and gut health. It is also a popular choice for socialising and unwinding amidst a fast, and sometimes stressful, pace of life. However, the cumulative effects of consuming alcohol can take a toll on one’s body, with chronic drinking causing damage to our vital organs.
While there has been little scientifically-backed research on the benefits of drinking alcohol, some health benefits that have been linked to moderate alcohol consumption include:
Studies have linked light-to-moderate drinking to a reduced risk in cardiovascular diseases. A Harvard article cited a possible cause to how moderate amounts of alcohol raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (also known as "good cholesterol") – a cholesterol that has been linked to better protection against heart disease.
According to research presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Barcelona, alcohol can bring about positive effects on blood glucose and fat metabolism.
Drinking in moderation also thins the blood, which can potentially protect against clotting in clogged arteries. It should be noted, however, that alcohol should not be substituted for prescription blood thinners.
There are also social and psychological benefits to getting small alcohol fixes – a drink can aid in digestion or help someone unwind after a stressful day. Occasional drinks at social gatherings can also help relieve stress.
However, remember that what you drink matters far less than how you drink. Drinking 7 pegs of whiskey on a Saturday evening is not equivalent to having one each day of the week.
There are also health risks, especially for those who drink in excess. The risks can be short-term, usually impairing an individual for up to a few hours. Individuals may experience effects such as drowsiness, vomiting, distorted vision and hearing, decreased coordination and judgement, and blackouts. Because these effects can be quite common, they tend to get brushed off as harmless and temporary.
In the long run, however, excessive drinking can cause health issues across the body if left unmanaged, resulting in severe repercussions, many of which are gastrointestinal-related.
For instance, excessive drinking puts a strain on one's excretory system – the system responsible for removing waste products, such as alcohol, from the body. When one consumes excessive amounts of alcohol, the pancreas will work to break down alcohol in the body. In the process, toxic substances are produced which end up harming it.
In a worst-case scenario following chronic consumption of alcohol in excessive amounts, one's condition may progress into liver damage. Also known as alcohol-related disease (ARLD), this condition refers to liver damage caused by consuming longstanding and excessive amounts of alcohol.
Symptoms that something is amiss include vomiting blood or having blood in stools, swelling in the ankles and stomach, yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice) and weight loss.
ARLD takes place in three stages:
Stage 1: Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
This stage begins with a build-up of fats in the liver. It can happen one's alcohol intake is too high, even for a few days. It rarely causes any symptoms and is reversible – the liver goes back to normal after a few weeks after one stops bingeing.
Stage 2: Alcoholic Hepatitis
Here's where people typically discover their liver damage, typically after over-drinking for a longer period of time. The damage is usually reversible for those who stop drinking permanently.
Stage 3: Cirrhosis
At this stage, the liver is significantly scarred. While it is generally not reversible, halting the intake of alcohol immediately can prevent further damage. For severe cases, a liver transplant might be necessary.
At some point, you may wonder how much alcohol exactly can result in significant health issues. Recommended intakes vary according to many factors including gender, body composition, and even countries.
In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board recommends no more than 2 standard drinks a day for men, and no more than 1 standard drink a day for women. A guideline to a standard alcoholic drink is as follows:
Indulging in an occasional alcohol fix is not a cause of concern, but one needs to consistently be conscious about not overdoing it. Long-term over-drinking can result in health issues that can sometimes be severe – with a common consequence being liver damage.
Liver damage happens in stages, so early detection and treatment is vital. Alcoholic patients have been known to reverse their conditions 3 – 6 months after changing their habits and receiving appropriate specialist care. If you are experiencing symptoms of liver damage, do consider consulting a gastroenterologist for assessment and treatment.
Remember that your genetic make-up, pre-existing health issues, age, physical activity levels and nutritional status all play a huge role in determining your body's response to alcohol consumption. What is moderate for some people may be heavy drinking for others.
Do not start consuming alcohol for its "potential health benefits" if you don't drink. Abstinence is still the best policy and can guard against alcohol-related diseases.