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Health Risks to Social Drinkers: Fact vs. Myth

MYTH: Morning after pain is caused by alcohol itself.
FACT: Studies increasingly reveal that the true cause of the problem are powerful toxins created as the liver breaks down alcohol, including acetaldehyde, a powerful muscle poison believed to be 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself, according to a study published in the June 2004 issue of the medical journal Molecular Psychiatry. Studies over the past 30 years have concluded that many, if not all of the pharmacological and behavioral effects of alcohol should be attributed to acetaldehyde.

In addition to morning after pain, even in moderate drinkers, acetaldehyde has been shown to increase the risk of cirrhosis of the liver, multiple forms of cancer, and alcoholism. Social drinkers are the highest risk group. A study published in the March 2006 edition of the Oxford Medical Journal reported that an astounding 90 percent of patients with alcoholic liver disease were in a stable relationship, and drank socially with the family, friends and work colleagues.

MYTH: My body can effectively process the toxicity in just a few drinks.
FACT: A standard drink contains about one-half ounce of pure alcohol. The average liver can process about a quarter of an ounce of alcohol in an hour. It takes about 6 hours to eliminate all the alcohol in 3 glasses of wine. That's 6 hours of continuous exposure to acetaldehyde, possibly longer. Unmetabolized acetaldehyde overloads the liver and floods the body via the blood stream, causing headache, nausea and muscle pain. And that's just the immediate damage. Scores of studies have linked acetaldehyde to liver disease, breast cancer, Alzheimer's, and even alcohol dependency.

MYTH: I'll only feel the nasty effects if I abuse alcohol.
FACT: According to a 2001 Harris Interactive survey of 900 people aged 21 and older, the average American experiences one or more of the following: sluggishness, headache, nausea, muscle pain-- from as few as just 3 drinks. BMC Immunology reports that the body's ability to fight off infection is weakened for at least 24 hours after a night of drinking.

"The majority of people that drink are mild to moderate social drinkers, and this is the largest segment of the population that experience morning after effect." - Dirk P. Slaker, M.D., gastroenterologist, hepatologist

MYTH: There are no serious long term health risks from social drinking.
FACT: Morning after pain occurs when you consume more alcohol than the liver can efficiently metabolize. This may fade in a day or two, but potentially serious long term damage has been done.

A 2009 Oxford University study was among the first to link low-to-moderate alcohol consumption to breast cancer in women who drink as little as a single alcoholic beverage a day. "There were no minimum levels of alcohol consumption that could be considered to be without risk," according to cancer epidemiologist and lead researcher Naomi Allen.

It is not necessary to drink huge amounts of alcohol-even low amounts taken regularly in a sensitive person increases their risk," according to Helmut Seitz, professor of alcohol research at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. "The cells don't forget. This will initiate tumors 20 to 25 years later," he says.

A 1997 study by the Research Institute of Public Health at the University of Kuopio, Finland found that 44 percent of men who reported morning after pain at least once a month were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from cardiovascular death.

According to the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, men who regularly have three alcohol drinks per week were two and a half times more likely to develop prostate cancer than non-drinkers.

MYTH: All those regrettable mornings after in my 20's won't affect me when I'm older.
FACT: As little as two drinks a day can dehydrate the skin enough to make your skin eventually wrinkle like a baked apple and your veins go spidery, according to Dr. Janet Maccaro, Ph.D. Acetaldehyde attacks the collagen and elastin that holds skin together, reducing elasticity and firmness. It robs the body of vitamin C, a crucial nutrient for healthy skin, and dilates blood vessels, leading to broken veins (telangiectasia).

Drinking before bedtime is even worse. The horizontal position of the body during sleep makes it easier for intoxicated capillaries to leak into soft tissue, resulting in skin stretching, facial puffiness, and faster wrinkle formation.

Acetaldehyde increases the risk of osteoporosis, because it interferes with the body's ability to absorb calcium. This gets worse eith age, especially for women, who tend to store more fat after 40, when the body takes longer to process alcohol.

Acetaldehyde even contributes to your beer belly, says Payal Banka, a Nutritionist at Life Mojo Health Solutions. "When you drink, acetaldehyde signals your body to stop burning fat."

MYTH: Fear of morning after consequences is a deterrent to abuse. So removing this fear will promote increased consumption and abuse.
FACT: Actually, the reverse is true. A study published in the March 2006 edition of the Oxford Medical Journal found that 90 percent of patients with alcoholic liver disease were in a stable relationship, and drank socially with family, friends, and work colleagues. This supports earlier findings by Dr. Alex Wodak, Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, Australia, who found that 63 percent of their liver disease group had either very mild or no evidence of alcohol dependence. A study by the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California found that morning after pain was not linked to personality and drinking disorders.

"Morning after pain doesn't seem to be the sort of deterrent you would think." - Wnedy Slutske, associate professor of psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia.

"I've never heard of (preventing morning after pain) causing people to drink more." - Steve Clarke, Director, Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center, Virginia Tech University.

"No evidence suggests that alleviation of morning after pain leads to further alcohol consumption, yet the discomfort caused by such symptoms may do so. Successful treatment could actually mitigate total alcohol consumption." - Annals of Internal Medicine

MYTH: After your blood alcohol content (BAC) has returned to normal, you're good to drive.
FACT: After effects can last up to 48-72 hours after your body has eliminated all traces of alcohol. A study by Sweden's National Road and Traffic Research Institute found that 19 out of 22 volunteers on a special road course tested 20% worse the morning after than when they drove the same course sober.

MYTH: Over-the-counter drugs like Aspirin and Tylenol are safe remedies.
FACT: According to Dr. Curtis Ellison of Boston University's School of Public Medicine, "If anything, Aspirin increases the odds of morning after effects. Aspirin can intensify alcohol's effects, increasing absorption in the stomach, increasing the stomach's absorption of alcohol, irritating the stomach lining and potentially causing gastrointestinal pain and/or bleeding."

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) after drinking can lead to liver damage from as few as 4-5 'extra-strength' Tylenols taken over the course of the day after drinking. Ditto Ibuprofen products such as Advil and Motrin, which can cause stomach bleeding if taken in large doses or with three or more alcoholic drinks in a day.

MYTH: 'Binge' drinkers are irresponsible drinkers.
FACT: The Centers for Disease Control defines binge drinking as 5 or more drinks for men, and 4 or more drinks for women. The CDC says 75 percent of the alcohol consumed by US adults is in the form of binge drinking. They are advised by health educators to be responsible by pacing themselves at no more than one drink per hour. But since social drinkers often attend events for five or more hours at a time, that consumption rate would qualify them as bingers. By this reasoning, careful drinkers could be both responsible drinkers and bingers at the same time! The current definition of binge drinking is clearly unrealistic and is apparently designed to inflate statistics on bingeing.

MYTH: There are no positive health benefits to moderate drinking.
FACT: A 12-year study of 38,000 male health professionals published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that men who have 2 to 3 drinks three or more days per week had a reduced risk of heart attack compared to those who drank less frequently. In 2010, the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that moderate female drinkers are 30 percent less likely to be overweight in mid-life than abstainers.

"Instead of fear-mongering, we should step back and acknowledge the proven health and economic benefits that come with the responsible use of alcohol." - Edward Peter Stringham, Ph.D., San Jose State University