January is a time for New Year’s resolutions; ‘Dry January’ and ‘love your liver month’ are very appropriately timed. Re-evaluating our habits when it comes to the foods we eat, the amount of physical activity we engage in, our personal relationships are all important.
New Year’s resolutions don’t often translate to healthier long-term habits
Meaningful and permanent change happens with consistent commitment and persistence over time.
However, given the significant upward trend in the consumption of alcohol over the last two years, there has been no time more critical than January 2022 to begin to make a decisive and permanent change toward healthier habits.
Alcohol and Covid-19
COVID-19 seems to have affected every aspect of our lives including our future health beyond the immediate effects of COVID- 19 infection. Those TikToks showing stay-at-home moms drinking wine from a bottle, might have been amusing at the start of the pandemic but when considering the reality of a significantly increased risk of breast cancer in women who consume moderate levels of alcohol, those TikToks become quite horrifying.
What statistics show is that alcohol sales across Canada increased by over $2.5 billion dollars per year over the course of the pandemic.
Between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, British Columbia residents drank the equivalent of 547 cans of 5% beer — or 104 bottles of 12% wine — per person over the age of 14. That’s 9.32 litres of pure alcohol per capita, according to the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, which examined B.C. alcohol sales data over 20 years.
In Alberta, hospitalizations for alcohol-related liver disease (alcoholic hepatitis) nearly doubled during the first COVID wave according to a study from the University of Calgary. Patients admitted for alcoholic hepatitis were also younger, with an average age of 43, compared to 48 before the pandemic.
Is moderate drinking, ok?
Moderate drinking is generally accepted as being equivalent to less than one drink per day in women or less than 2 drinks per day in men. Each drink is equivalent to 5 oz of wine, 1.5 oz of spirits or 12 oz of beer.
Although previous studies showed some benefit from consuming moderate amounts of red wine, what we now know is that there is no amount of alcohol that can be considered ‘safe’ or beneficial to our health.
The negative effects of alcohol are numerous and outweigh any potential benefits. These negative effects are dose-dependent and never zero. In addition, the way alcohol is metabolized by the body is influenced by factors such as age, gender, body weight, and genetic factors. For example, women absorb more alcohol from each drink than do men and tend to be more susceptible to alcohol-related liver damage.
The impacts of alcohol consumption
The negative effects of alcohol on the liver are far-reaching. Alcohol consumption over the long term can cause chronic inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis) and lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), a potentially fatal disease. It can increase blood pressure and damage heart muscle (cardiomyopathy).
Heavy alcohol use has also been linked with several cancers: The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research indicate that there is evidence linking alcohol to several cancers including cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, breast, liver, colon, and rectum.
More recent studies show that even moderate levels of alcohol consumption increase the risk of these cancers. The risk of breast cancer in women who consume moderate amounts of alcohol may be as high as 30-50% according to some studies.
In people already affected by liver disease, (for example those with hepatitis C), alcohol greatly increases the rate of permanent injury or Cirrhosis of the liver.
If the liver is not properly performing its functions, other body functions will also be affected due to the lack of nutrients and excess waste products present in the blood.
Symptoms and complications of a poorly functioning liver include chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, lowered resistance to infections, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), swelling of the abdomen, internal bleeding, impairment of memory and kidney disease or failure. Insulin and cholesterol levels are influenced by liver function leading to impairment in the regulation of blood sugar and cholesterol.
Psychological effects of alcohol
When it comes to the psychological effects of alcohol, even though a small amount of alcohol in the short term can help a person relax and enjoy an elevated mood, over the long term, regular alcohol consumption has a negative effect on mood, memory and concentration, causing increased anxiety, depression and dementia.
Decreases in physical activity, poor eating habits, weight gain are other by-products of regular alcohol consumption.
There is no doubt many of us are experiencing COVID burnout. Our priorities have shifted. For some this has been a very positive shift but for many, it has not. Social isolation, economic uncertainty, employment insecurity, crushing household and childcare demands have amplified stress levels so much that drinking to excess has become a common way of coping with stress and anxiety. What we must do is look at better ways of coping with this stress and anxiety.
Look to a more positive future
The COVID pandemic will come to an end, but disease caused by overconsumption of alcohol, such as the various cancers noted above, liver failure, kidney failure, mental health conditions will have a lasting effect beyond the Pandemic.
There is no better time than January 2022 for us to make a collective New Year’s resolution to begin a healthier relationship with alcohol. Give up the habit of daily alcohol consumption and reserve that glass of wine to enjoy over the occasional dinner out with friends and family.