Many people turn to alcohol to deal with life’s daily stressors. Unfortunately, that has happened quite a bit in the past two years, with some very negative consequences.
We sometimes forget that alcohol is not good for us.
It is common to hear people comment on the cardiovascular benefits of alcohol. In reality, alcohol is not so good for your heart. High amounts of alcohol can even be directly toxic to cardiac muscle cells.
Reducing alcohol consumption can help lower your blood pressure, help you lose weight and also help with diabetes control, because the alcohol is essentially a sugar. Cutting back on alcohol consumption can also help reduce the burden of certain arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation.
Alcohol is also linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Many people will argue that you can enjoy alcohol responsibly. This is, of course, true in the same way that you can enjoy ice cream responsibly, without eating some on a daily basis and mythologizing its health benefits.
Part of the problem with enjoying alcohol in moderation is that we are especially bad at judging serving sizes and tend to overestimate what constitutes a standard drink, a definition that itself tends to vary between countries. What’s more, the threshold for safe alcohol consumption seems to be lower than current guidelines recommend.
But apart from the many social drinkers out there, are the worryingly large numbers of people who turn to alcohol to deal with stress. Early reports showed an increase in alcohol consumption during 2020, which many attributed to the COVID-19 emergency. A recent research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association has reinforced this point and demonstrated the human cost of this increased alcohol consumption. An analysis of death certificates found that from 2019 to 2020, deaths where alcohol was an underlying or contributing cause increased from just under 79,000 to just over 99,000. This translates into a mortality rate that increased from 27 to 34 deaths per 100,000 people.
This increase is admittedly small relative to the number of people who died of other causes. In 2020, alcohol-related deaths made up three per cent of all deaths, grossly overshadowed by deaths from heart disease, cancer and COVID-19, the top three. Still, though, this issue should not be ignored, and the consequences of alcohol consumption, especially of alcohol abuse that goes beyond what most people colloquially refer to as social drinking, are real.
In ancient Greek mythology, when Dionysus first taught humans how to make wine from grapes, the first human to do so got drunk and fell down a well to his death. It is story that reflects how, at least subconsciously, we humans recognize the dangers that alcohol can pose. It is not an accident that the ancients viewed Dionysus with some degree of suspicion while still making him part of their pantheon.
We also should not forget that alcohol can be addictive. While many people will not abuse alcohol, some do, and more seem to have been doing so during the pandemic. While the stress and anxiety that people have experienced is undeniable, we should remember that you can never find the solutions to your problems at the bottom of a bottle.
It is one thing to have a drink because you want it, but another thing to have a drink because you need it. While there is no simple solution to drinking problems, we must begin by acknowledging that alcohol is not the solution to life’s stresses and problems, that it is not especially good for you and that it has more negative health consequences than benefits. Fortunately, resources are available to help, for example, at aidedrogue.ca/en/
Christopher Labos is a Montreal physician and cohost of the Body of Evidence podcast.