Alcohol is a toxic substance that has many effects on the human body (Zakhari, 2006). As humans, we have been consuming it for leisure for many hundreds, if not thousands of years. We know that alcohol causes damage to the delicate tissues of our body – including of course our heart, liver and brain.
As well as the physical effects, alcohol disturbs the way a person thinks and acts – clearly seen in the amount of alcohol-related violence in our society, and more subtly in the way it affects a person’s mood for days following an alcohol-related event.
As alcohol is clearly a substance that causes harm, it makes fairly obvious sense not to consume it – and yet our society at large still continues to do so. There are numerous reasons underlying this, and one is in part the perception that alcohol is ‘okay’ and that there is a ‘recommended daily intake’ by some people. This is simply not the case – there is no completely safe, or healthy level of alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is listed as a class 1 (i.e. the highest level) carcinogen, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2015) and the Australian Cancer Council recommends no safe level in order to prevent cancer – as it has been implicated in contributing to the formation of many cancers (ACC, 2014). With world-wide cancer statistics elevating, it would make sense to look at our alcohol consumption if we are wishing to truly prevent it. The Australian Cancer Council website has some great further information regarding this.
Additional guidelines set out by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), are used by health professionals to advise their patients on alcohol consumption. The latest NHMRC guidelines for alcohol consumption were published in 2009 (NHMRC, 2009).
These can sometimes be interpreted as recommended daily intakes of alcohol, as opposed to an optional amount of alcohol consumption that minimises the risk of harm from drinking it.
These guidelines state:
“Guideline 1: Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime
The lifetime risk of harm from drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed.
For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.” (NHMRC 2009)
What does this guideline tell us?
This guideline talks about reducing the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury by drinking no more than 2 standard drinks in a day. This does not say that drinking 2 drinks per day is safe for healthy people – it says that the harm caused by doing so is minimised.
The evidence for this guideline is also based on healthy people, meaning if someone has an illness or disease, the amount of alcohol that may harm is even less.
“Guideline 2: Reducing the risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking
On a single occasion of drinking, the risk of alcohol-related injury increases with the amount consumed. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.” (NHMRC 2009)
This guideline takes the first one a step further, though instead of talking about any kind of harm is speaks specifically about avoiding injury involved with alcohol consumption. Highlighted here is the fact that alcohol is known to be associated with harm and injury – both things that I would imagine most people would like to avoid. This needs to be very clearly looked at, and the facts taken into account, in our decision whether to drink alcohol or not.
“Guideline 3: Children and young people under 18 years of age
For children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.
A. Parents and carers should be advised that children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.
B. For young people aged 15−17 years, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.” (NHMRC 2009).
Alcohol has known detrimental effects on the growing brain and development. It then of course makes sense to discourage consumption in this age group altogether.
How successful are we in imparting this to the next generation? How do our own behaviours with alcohol affect what they will accept as normal?
Also, when adult, what makes us feel that when our brains are fully ‘developed’ that we should not treat ourselves as preciously as when we were younger? Are our brain cells not as delicate as they were then? Are they not as valuable to ensure there is no ongoing damage wherever possible? Another important point to take into account in our decision to consume alcohol or not.
“Guideline 4: Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing foetus or breastfeeding baby.
A. For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.
B. For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.” (NHMRC 2009)
Currently there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy or breastfeeding, and it has been associated with harm to the growing baby, even at low levels. It has been associated with adverse effects with breastfeeding and the babies’ growth and development (NHMRC, 2009). Therefore none is recommended as the safest level, and that certainly makes sense.
What about the evidence that alcohol can lower cholesterol or have other health benefits?
Great question. There has been a lot of press and studies, that have been endorsed by cardiologists and other professional bodies around the world related to alcohol consumption that put alcohol forward as being beneficial for one aspect of health or another – including heart disease. The recommendation to then not consume, or to minimize consumption, as outlined here then may seem at odds to that.
Simply, if we know alcohol causes harm to many parts of our body, but is potentially beneficial to one or two parts – do we want to consume it? When looking at our body as a whole, it really is quite simple as to what makes the most sense for our overall health.
The NHMRC includes summary for this in their FAQ section also –
“Q14: Are there any health benefits from consuming alcohol?
A: Recent scientific evidence suggests that any potential health benefits from consuming alcohol probably have been overestimated. Any benefits are mainly related to middle aged or older people and only occur with low-levels of alcohol intake of about half a standard drink per day, which is within the Guidelines level. The Guidelines do not encourage people to take up drinking just to get health benefits.” (NHMRC, 2011)
Other authors have also written on the fact that there is indeed no safe level of alcohol consumption, and that the benefits written about do not appear to outweigh the risks (Medscape 2014; Medscape 2015)
Overall, scientific research and government body recommendations are reflecting to us what our body can also clearly tell about alcohol. It is a substance associated with harm, and so our choice to consume it or not should be examined if we are wanting to live a life that minimises harm and fosters wellbeing for our bodies.
If you or someone you know require support with alcohol usage then please consult your own GP or health professional.
For support with changing your relationship with alcohol:
Australian Cancer Council. (2014) Position Statement: Alcohol and Cancer Risk. Retreived December 5th 2015, from http://wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Position_statement_-_Alcohol_and_cancer
International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2015) List of Classifications. Retreived December 5th 2015, from
Medscape. (2014). No Amount of Alcohol Is Safe. Retrieved September 28th 2015, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/824237_5
Medscape (2015) Alcohol Ups Mortality and Cancer Risk; No Net Benefit. Retrieved September 28th 2015, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/851459
NHMRC. (2009). Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Retrieved 19th April, 2015, from http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/ds10-alcohol.pdf
NHMRC. (2011, 28th April 2011). Alcohol Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved April 15th, 2015, from http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/health-topics/alcohol-guidelines/alcohol-faq
NHMRC. (2014, 05/11/2014). How NHMRC develops its guidelines. Retrieved 19th April, 2015, from http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/how-nhmrc-develops-its-guidelines
NHMRC. (2015, 8th April 2015). Healthy Eating for Adults – brochure. Retrieved 19th April 2015, from http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/n55g_adult_brochure.pdf
Zakhari, S. (2006). Overview: How Is Alcohol Metabolized by the Body? Alcohol Research and Health, 29(4), 245-255.