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Should quitting alcohol be your New Year's resolution?

Do you know how much is too much? Chances are, you’re drinking a lot more than you should be.

By Elli Jacobs
Alcohol consumption is ubiquitous in Western society, as it's become synonymous with good times and as a way to wind-down after a hard day in the office.
Dr Nicole Lee, a professor at Australia's National Research Institute, agrees that alcohol is part of a cultural ritual that has social benefits, but when it comes to health benefits, there's no real evidence to support any.
Alcohol is often referred to as a social lubricant because of its ability to surpress the cerebral cortex - the function centre of the brain which works with information from a person's senses - and to depress inhibitions and blunt the senses.
These effects explain why booze makes us feel more relaxed and talkative, as well as appearing more happy and confident.
Muireann Irish, associate professor of the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney, adds that while the exact mechanisms by which alcohol affects the brain remain unclear, converging evidence indicates that alcohol disrupts brain chemistry by altering the brain's delicate balance of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters, thus slowing the transmission of signals in the brain.
"The excitatory chemical messenger is suppressed, resulting in slower speech, movement and thinking, while the inhibitory creates a sedative effect," says Muireann.
Alcohol is referred to as a social lubricant - it makes us feel more relaxed and talkative, as well as making us appear more happy and confident. (Image: Pablo Martin / bauersyndication.com.au)
According to New Zealand's Health Promotion Agency, immediate effects of alcohol use include impaired judgement, inhibitions and concentration.
This is why alcohol consumption makes you more chilled out, but also less attentive and occasionally forgetful or clumsy.
It has also been found that the more alcohol you consume, the more the balance shift and the greater the repercussions when the brain tries to restore equilibrium later - think increased anxiety and 'the shakes'.
"Alcohol furthermore increases the release of dopamine in the brain's 'reward centre'", says Dr Lee.
"That's the combination of brain areas that are affected anytime we do something nice or a pleasurable activity - we get a little burst of dopamine."
A 2018 study published in the journal Neuropharmacology confirms that when alcohol enters the brain, it causes neurons in the 'pleasure centre' to release dopamine - a neurotransmitter that produces those feel-good sensations - and tells the brain that whatever it just experienced is worth getting more of, which motivates you to keep turning to alcohol.
"But commonly what happens over time is that the dopamine effect wears out and your brain adapts to that dose, which means you become habituated to feeling normal with that level of alcohol," says Dr Lee.
"Therefore, to experience the sensation of euphoria, you have to increase alcohol consumption, and this indicates that you've become tolerant towards alcohol and is one of the signs of dependence," she says.
With regular alcohol consumption your brain can adapt to the dose, meaning you become habituated to feeling normal with that level of alcohol. (Image: Scott Hawkins / bauersyndication.com.au)
Studies confirm that alcohol consumption alters brain chemicals that cause impairment, resulting in mood swings, diminished ability to think and coordinate movement, plus blackouts.
Long-term exposure can bring on depression, underlying Alzheimer's symptoms, and in extreme circumstances, even seizures and death.
According to a World Health Organisation report, more than three million people died from the harmful use of alcohol in 2016 - totaling to five per cent of all global deaths for that year.
New research published in Jama Psychiatry found that the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain continue even six weeks after stopping drinking.
This includes generalised changes related to the communication between both hemispheres of the brain, memory deterioration and decision making.
But it's not only the brain that alcohol consumption affects.

Alcohol and your gut

Digestive health is at the front line of the impact from moderate to excessive alcohol consumption.
"Within minutes of consuming an alcoholic drink, it's absorbed into the bloodstream by vessels in the stomach lining and small intestine, and if you have a sensitive stomach, have not eaten, or suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, even modest serves of alcohol result in unpleasant consequences the next day including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, bloating, changes in appetite, and dehydration," says Lulu.
"Generally, alcohol can cause damage to the top layer of the mucous that lines the digestive tract, from the mouth to the intestines and with regular and repeated booze intake, this can lead to ulcers, internal bleeding and even cancers along the digestive tract," she adds.
A 2015 study published in BMJ confirms that even one standard drink per day could increase the risk of breast cancer and alcohol-related cancers, such as colorectal, oral and liver cancer.
Damage also occurs at the level of the heart.
A new US study found that moderate alcohol consumption, seven to 13 drinks per week, substantially raises one's risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension.
A recent Australian study adds that moderate drinking increases the risk of abnormal heart rhythm.
Another variable that can be created is inflammation, a root-level symptom of imbalance underlying almost every disease we see today.
"Because alcohol and other nutrients are processed by the liver, if there's been consistent enough drinking to impair the liver function, the body's ability to pull and utilise vitamins also goes down and malabsorption may occur," she says.
In turn, inflammation can lead to leaky gut syndrome, allowing toxins to pass into the bloodstream and a condition called 'small intestinal bacterial growth', resulting in unpleasant symptoms such as cramping and swelling.
A new research confirms that people who drink heavily may be changing their genes in a way that makes them crave alcohol even more.
Tip: Polyphenols in red wine can help protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. But fruit and vegetables are healthier sources of these antioxidant polyphenols.

Tips for healthy drinking

Drink slowly:
It takes around an hour for your body and liver to process a standard drink.
Eat before drinking:
"Having breakfast for dinner might be just the right combo before a night out," says accredited practicing dietitian, Lulu Cook.
"Choosing foods that are rich in protein, complex carbs and healthy fats are helpful for slowing down the absorption of alcohol and decrease the tendency to graze on less healthy treat foods that are high in kilojoules."
For example, having a hard-boiled egg can increase satiety, and oatmeal may even protect the liver from damage. If you add banana or pawpaw to your evening 'brekkie', you'll reap the benefits of folic acid as well, which may help protect against some cancers that are prevalent in drinkers.
Drink plenty of water:
"Interspersing alcoholic beverages with good old-fashioned water is an easy trick to ensure you drink within recommended limits," says Lulu. Coconut water is known to replenish electrolytes along with hydration.
Choose lower-alcohol drinks:
"Mix it up with non-alcoholic days and have non-alcoholic spaces between drinks or low alcoholic content and avoid shouts," says Dr Lee.
To reduce the risk of alcohol to your health, the New Zealand guidelines suggest no more than two standard drinks per day for women (and no more than 10 per week).
For men, a limit of three standard drinks per day is recommended (with no more than 15 per week).
A standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. It is important to check the label on your bottle as many have more than one standard drink in them.

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