Alcohol and Your Health

December 22, 2015

A glass of wine with dinner, a beer with friends or a holiday-inspired drink with family - alcohol is part of the American social scene. 

But drinking too much - on a single occasion or over time - can have serious consequences for our health, according to the National Institutes of Health.

This holiday season, Penn Highlands Healthcare wishes for you to stay healthy and safe, and to know more about the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol intoxication can be harmful for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Impaired brain function resulting in poor judgment, reduced reaction time, loss of balance and motor skills or slurred speech. “As the weather turns colder, surfaces freeze and become uneven add balance impairment related to alcohol consumption and you could have a devastating fall,” according to Jocelyn Long, RN, of the Fall Team at Penn Highlands DuBois. “Tripping can seem so minor but could result in a fractured hip or even a head injury causing brain damage which can lead to hospitalizations. Stay safe on your steady feet this holiday season!”
  • Dilation of blood vessels causes a feeling of warmth but results in rapid loss of body heat. In the winter season, hypothermia can set in. With alcohol, a person may not pay attention to how long they’ve been exposed to the cold, if skin is pale and cold or any other signs of hypothermia. Make sure you’re in a place where the temperature is controlled.
  • Increased risk of stroke and liver diseases, particularly when excessive amounts of alcohol are consumed over extended periods of time. Alcohol consumption even modestly increases a person’s risk of certain types of cancers to include head/neck, liver, esophageal, breast, colorectal and likely other cancer types, said Traci Tyger, certified physician assistant at Hahne Regional Cancer Center.
  • Damage to a developing fetus if consumed by pregnant women. “When you drink alcohol, so does your baby,” according to Dr. Ioanna Kanellitsas, obstetrician/gynecologist at Penn Highlands DuBois and Penn Highlands Brookville. There is no amount of alcohol safe to consume during pregnancy, so it should be avoided all together,” Sara Myers, RN and Maternity Unit director at Penn Highlands Elk, said. “Enjoy other options of non-alcoholic drinks such as sparkling juice and non-alcoholic eggnogs.”
  • Increased risk of motor-vehicle traffic crashes, violence and other injuries. “Drinking too much alcohol can be hazardous to your health or even cost you your life,” John A. Bacher, RN, director, Emergency Department at Penn Highlands Clearfield, said. “Drinking not only can harm your health but it can have an impact on the economics. According to the CDC, approximately 88,000 people die as a result of drinking too much alcohol. Most of the people are from the ages of 20-65 years old or working age adults.”
    And there are other side effects that you may want to consider.

“Drinking alcohol and taking medication can also be hazardous to your health,” Bacher said. 

“The alcohol can either enhance or defeat the effects of the medication.  For example, when taking medication for anxiety or even over the counter sleep aids and drinking alcohol, the interaction between the two can result in respiratory compromise and respiratory failure resulting in death,” he said.

“Drinking alcohol even in moderation and taking certain medications such as Coumadin can have devastating effects. For example, losing your balance and striking your heard can result in intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding inside the head) resulting in debilitating consequences or death. Always read medication labels or consult the physician or pharmacist when in doubt.”
Immune system
Drinking a lot on a single occasion can compromise your immune system, according to Kim Bloom-Snyder, RN, director of Infection Prevention and Control at Penn Highlands DuBois and Penn Highlands Brookville. Not only will someone drink after someone else who may be ill, drinking to intoxication can slow your body’s ability to produce cytokines, the body’s chemical that wards off infections by causing inflammation. Without these inflammatory responses, your body’s ability to defend itself against bacteria is significantly reduced – even for up to 24 hours.

Chronic alcohol use reduces the ability of white blood cells to effectively engulf and swallow harmful bacteria. Excessive drinking also disrupts the production of cytokines, causing your body to either produce too much or not enough of these chemical messengers. An abundance of can damage your tissues, and a lack of cytokines leaves you open to infection. 

Weight gain
Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, or, in general, 1 alcohol equivalent has about 100 calories, according to Anna Hummel, clinical dietitian at Penn Highlands Brookville. 

“Alcohol contains ‘empty calories,’ meaning there is very little or no nutritional benefit to it other than additional calories,” she said.

Though alcohol by itself does not directly impact blood glucose, the carbohydrate in some drinks such as beer, wine or mixed drinks will raise blood glucose. “Diabetics need to be particularly careful to count the carb choices of drinks to fit into their consistent carbohydrate meal plan,” Hummel said. “It is recommended that you drink alcohol with food to reduce the risk of hypoglycemia, especially for people who may take insulin or other diabetes medications.”

What is “a drink”?
Knowing how much alcohol constitutes a “standard” drink can help you determine how much you are drinking and understand the risks. One standard drink contains about 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. In more familiar terms, the following amounts constitute one standard drink:

12 fluid ounces of beer (about 5 percent alcohol);
8 to 9 fluid ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol);
5 fluid ounces of table wine (about 12 percent alcohol);
1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol). 

Research from the NIH says that “low-risk” drinking levels for men are no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week. 

For women, “low-risk” drinking levels are no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week. 

To stay low-risk, you must keep within both the single-day and weekly limits. Even within these limits, you can have problems if you drink too quickly, have health conditions or are over age 65. Older adults should have no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks per week. Children and adolescents should never drink.

Enjoy your holiday and every day safely.