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To Your Health: A Healthy Relationship With Alcohol is Important

By Matthew Hamm, MD, MPH, Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency Program, and Ann Backus, MS, Instructor in Occupational Safety, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Many of us grab an alcoholic drink or two after a day at work to celebrate and unwind. Most of us know a friend or family member who gets a little carried away with alcohol from time to time. What’s the big deal? To answer this, one must understand what alcohol is and how it affects your health. This knowledge can help you help a loved one who has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

The negative consequences of alcohol outlast and overshadow its positive effects. Alcohol causes cancer, organ failure, accidents, and damaged relationships. There is no "safe" amount of alcohol.

For thousands of years, civilizations across the globe have consumed beverages containing ethanol, a simple molecule commonly called alcohol. Like today, ancient alcohols were made from a variety of plants and were used socially, religiously, and medicinally. However, most primitive spirits contained only 1% alcohol by volume. As distillation enabled “harder” drinks — drinks with more alcohol — the social temperance movement grew to oppose alcoholic drinks and the effects of drunkenness. In fact, Maine was among the first states to make alcohol illegal to produce or consume, from 1851 until 1934.

Alcohol affects our body in many ways. When we drink, alcohol is absorbed quickly by the blood vessels in our gut and spread throughout every part of our body. Our cells turn ethanol into acetaldehyde and other toxic chemicals which in turn affect cell function and change how our bodies work. Most of us have experienced how alcohol turns down brain activity overall, helping reduce stress and perhaps ease falling asleep.

The negative consequences of alcohol outlast and overshadow its positive effects. Alcohol causes cancer, organ failure, accidents, and damaged relationships. There is no “safe” amount of alcohol. In the past year more and more medical groups have encouraged everyone to cut back or not even start drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend to not start drinking, and if you do drink, limit yourself to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.

What does a healthy relationship with alcohol look like? Those with a healthy relationship can turn down a drink at any time. They may enjoy drinking, but they do not strongly crave it. Alcohol does not get in the way of their responsibilities at home and work. Relationships with family and friends are not problematic because of their drinking. They never feel shaky, nauseous, or restless the morning after drinking.

According to “Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System,” by Dr. Mariann Piano, many researchers stated that low to moderate drinking — 1 to 2 drinks per day, for example — reduced some of the factors associated with cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure (hypertension). However, recent research suggests that this health benefit was due to the healthy lifestyle choices made by the study participants rather than a benefit of their mild drinking. Even low consumption of alcohol increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.

What does an unhealthy relationship with alcohol look like? For those with an unhealthy relationship, drinking interferes with how they want to live. They give up social or work opportunities because of alcohol. They are apt to do risky or dangerous things while drinking. Whereas a handful of drinks used to work, they now need to drink even more to feel buzzed. Alcohol is preventing them from being who they want to be at work, at home, or in the community. According to Dr. Piano and a more recent study from the Biddinger team, the scientific research tends to agree that more than a drink or two per day causes increased blood pressure, hypertension, and coronary artery (heart) disease.

If you’ve ever known someone with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, there’s a good chance they were addicted. Alcohol abuse or binge drinking are common; over half of all Americans struggle at some point in their life. Some people drink while using sedating medication, marijuana, or other drugs. Mixing drink and drugs is especially dangerous. Mixing the two further impairs judgement and slows response time. For a fisherman, this could seriously affect how quickly and effectively he or she responds to a dangerous situation. Additionally, while many who drink alcohol think it warms the body and counteracts cold weather, the opposite is true. Alcohol increases blood flow to the periphery — to arms, legs, face — which results in a more rapid loss of body heat.

These days there are many ways to help people struggling with alcohol. More than ever, new medications, behavioral treatments, counseling, and community groups are available and succeeding in helping those addicted turn life around and recover from unhealthy relationships with alcohol.

If you know someone who might be struggling from the effects of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, asking with genuine concern might be just what he or she needs right now. Confronting our demons is difficult, and we all could use a good friend to see us through.

Whether your goal is to be financially secure, to live better, or to strengthen your relationships in 2024, having a healthy relationship with alcohol is a necessary first step. Whether you call someone to help or simply turn down another drink, the steps you take today will benefit you for a lifetime.


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