I’m a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, and my goal is to address the lack of educational information for the general public around alcohol consumption. In particular, I want people to be armed with correct information about the health and safety issues of moderate and heavy drinking.
Currently, most people understand that heavy drinking causes serious health and safety issues. However, most people don’t know what constitutes heavy drinking. Also, most people don’t know the unique problems that affect people differently concerning alcohol intake. The fact is, some people are more prone to health and safety issues from alcohol consumption than other people.
Let’s review what we know about safe drinking. The CDC and other experts agree that safe drinking constitutes no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for a man. Yes, anything past this level is considered heavy drinking. However, not all heavy drinking is equal. And, for certain people, even the safe drinking levels may not be safe for them.
But for the sake of clarity, let’s look at those who may drink a little over the safe drinking levels because the reality is that many people do drink more. I’ve addressed serious heavy drinking in other articles; however, what about people who like to have one extra drink per day? This is where the facts get muddled, because everyone is so unique and what works for one person may not work for another.
My educational work aims to help people make the best decisions they can for their unique situation. To that end, the question of whether a person can safely drink a little extra is an important one to consider. So let’s look at 5 factors to consider if you’re trying to decide whether or not to drink past the safe drinking levels.
1. Physical health conditions
One of the most important issues to consider is whether you have certain health conditions that don’t mix well with alcohol use. There are a few conditions that are particularly problematic so let’s address those for now.
- Metabolic syndrome — Metabolic disorders consist of high blood pressure, diabetes, excess body fat around the waist, high cholesterol or triglycerides.According to new research, alcohol — once thought to curb metabolic issues — is now considered unsafe. Alcohol increases blood pressure, weight gain, cholesterol deposits (if you’re prone), and messes with the blood sugar management system. Over time, heavy drinking can break down the vital organs, like the liver and pancreas, which are needed for metabolic balance. Metabolic syndrome is a group of illnesses that can all interact and make each other worse. Adding alcohol on to the mix can complicate this syndrome greatly.
- Cardiovascular issues — For those who have issues like arrhythmias, valve deformities, cholesterol, and vascular problems, alcohol can cause more problems. And, as mentioned above, it increases blood pressure which puts stress on the heart and vascular system. Alcohol affects both the pressure in the cardiovascular system as well as the electrical conduction to the heart. Older research suggests that low dose alcohol may be fine for some but it depends on other health factors as discussed in the rest of this article.
- Kidney, liver, and pancreatic problems — people with existing problems in their liver, pancreas, and kidneys should not drink. These issues often require heavy medications and likely cause some degree of disability. Also, alcohol interacts very negatively with these organs so if they are already stressed from illness, then alcohol is like adding gas to a fire.
- Any brain or nervous system issue — Neurological issues like brain injuries, syndromes affecting the brain, nervous system conditions, or different dementias all don’t mix with alcohol use. Alcohol reacts negatively with the brain and nervous system. Alcohol can actually rewire our brains and nervous systems in such a way that it causes a cascade of other health problems. New research shows that even low dose alcohol isn’t good for the brain regardless of whether there is an established neurological issue.
- Serious digestive issues — Those who may not be able to digest properly due to a malfunction or perhaps an inflammatory issue shouldn’t drink past the safe drinking levels. Alcohol causes malnutrion and stops the absorption of a few key vitamins. So adding alcohol on top of an established digestive issue can be problematic. Alcohol also causes ulcers and serious stomach upset.
2. Mental health conditions
Mental illness is on the rise while access to mental health care is becoming increasingly strained. For those dealing with a mental health issue, it’s important to understand that alcohol, in any amount, can cause serious issues for mental wellbeing. This is a tricky subject because many people with mental health issues turn to alcohol to cope. However, what they haven’t been educated about is that alcohol can cause and worsen mental health issues.
As stated above, alcohol seriously affects the nervous system and brain which are key to the development of mental health issues. Even safe drinking may not be good for individuals with more serious mental health issues. Those who struggle with both a mental health issue and alcohol dependancy tend to have a worse mental health prognosis than those who don’t drink.
3. Daily medications
For those who have physical and mental health issues and who take medication, you should know that alcohol use can decrease the efficacy of medications. Also, combining alcohol and certain medications can be toxic to the liver, brain, and digestive system. If you’d like to know which medications can be problematic when mixed with alcohol, have a look at this resource.
4. Unique issues for women
This is an issue we are definitely not talking about enough. Women are more negatively effected by alcohol than men due to our body weight, water composition, and hormone differences. Women who have a lower body weight are particularly at risk due to less body mass and water to metabolize the alcohol safely. But also, estrogen and alcohol do not combine well together. Have a look at this resource if you want to learn more about that.
This is not to say that all women should never drink past the safe drinking guidelines, just that it’s a factor in the decision-making process. For women who have other health problems, mental health issues, lifestyle issues, and who take strong medications — they may need to re-evaluate whether an extra drink is really worth it.
5. Lifestyle issues
Certain lifestyle factors also need to be taken into account. For instance, does the person also engage in recreational drug use? If so, drugs like heroin, painkillers, cocaine, and sedatives can combine very negatively with alcohol. Combining drugs and alcohol can not only affect the way the alcohol and drugs are metabolized, but the combination can cause serious organ damage.
Other lifestyle issues like exercise levels, mobility, hydration, and food intake can also be a factor in whether it’s safe to go a little beyond the safe drinking guidelines. Exercise and mobility has an effect on how we metabolize food, drugs, and water. For those who are less mobile and don’t exercise as much, alcohol may affect their body more than others who do. This is not a one-size fits all as certainly there are many people who can safely drink even though they don’t move around as much as others. However, it’s a consideration, especially when above factors are also taken into account.
Decreased hydration and food intake greatly effect blood alcohol levels in just about anybody. So, for whatever reason, if a person doesn’t drink enough water or take in enough food, it’s imperative to decrease alcohol intake for safety reasons. Less water and food means higher intoxication levels and less capacity to filter out alcohol safely.
In conclusion, these 5 factors can help people decide whether they want to exceed the safe drinking guidelines. To be clear, it’s never really safe to exceed the guidelines, but there is a grey area of that one extra drink per day that many people rightfully get confused about. Of course, that’s because most people haven’t been educated about these factors. There are the few doctors and nurses that do provide this info, but it’s still sadly lacking in many areas of the globe. In any case, information and articles like this will hopefully help people make better decisions about their drinking.