Alcohol – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Healthy Living

Is having a drink, a red wine or beer, after a day at work or at home with the kids necessarily a bad thing? Sorry to say this – but there isn’t a single right answer and so instead of saying yes or no I’m going to give you the pros, cons and challenges and you can make an informed decision for yourself. 

The Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has evidence that reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, includes the consumption of red wine in moderation (with meals and in a social setting as is done where this diet originated). Thank goodness for the Mediterranean diet, right? See how I’ve started on a positive note!

The wind down ritual

A key issue though is that many of us turn to alcohol as a regular wind down ritual – we use a drink to mark the end of the work or parenting day. It becomes, for many of us, the way we relax and unwind. And that’s when it can become a habit- and consumption can gradually exceed what is recommended. A key tip I give to patients is that when you pour a drink try and mindfully enjoy it – don’t just sip away out of habit, be present, enjoy each sip and holding the glass in your hand. It might mean you enjoy the glass more and drink less overall.

Risk of medicating stress or anxiety

The risk with alcohol is that we often use it to medicate stress or anxiety – particularly now with uncertainty in the current pandemic (and I write this from the second lockdown in Victoria) - people can tend to turn to a drink to switch the brain off. Here’s the thing – whilst you may think it's helping, alcohol actually negatively effects sleep quality. And whilst alcohol may temporarily make you feel less depressed or anxious, alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system and it can lower serotonin levels in the brain - and so it can negatively impact your mood.

So, is it all bad?

It sounds like it thus far doesn’t it! – no, it doesn’t have to be. The NHMRC Australian guidelines until very recently recommended no more than 2 standard drinks per day to reduce the risk of alcohol related health complications. Late last year they changed their recommendations and reduced the quantities – recommending no more than 10 standard drinks in a week. Emerging evidence has suggested that alcohol consumption even in moderate quantities can significantly raise cancer risk (for a certain group of cancers) and so the amounts in the guidelines have been lowered. By the way – the NHMRC aren't recommending you drink alcohol – they're simply advising how you can do it more safely if you do choose to drink.

It's about moderation

Personally, I'm a GP who doesn’t believe in restriction of any food group (unless there is a medical reason to do so such as anaphylaxis/food allergy or gluten in coeliac disease for instance). A wine here and there is OK for you – enjoying a wine with a friend/partner can bring a very special kind of joy that is good for your mental health. But it’s about how you drink – being conscious of how much goes in, how often and what it might be doing to you, your body and brain, if you are perhaps drinking a little too much

If you read this and think maybe you do want to reduce your intake for health reasons or to develop some healthier habits here are my top tips, I suggest to patients:

  • Don’t do anything drastic quickly – you can slowly cut back; it doesn’t have to happen in a single day
  • Try to find other ways to wind down (if having a drink is what you regularly use) – try having a herbal tea or doing something with your hands (knitting, colouring) may help
  • If you want to avoid drinking at night you can try and schedule exercise in the evening (I sometimes plan to do my online Pilates at night once the kids are in bed and it stops me reaching for a wine)
  • If you're planning to cut down roping in the people you live with may help – it’s always easier to do this with others than alone!
  • If you're in lockdown currently – try and find other ways to de-stress and unwind – meditation, exercise, regular technological catch-ups with friends can all help 

So basically, there's no single right answer when it comes to alcohol – but now you know the facts you can decide for yourself! 

Dr Preeya Alexander
Please note: Dr. Preeya's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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