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.
17 Comments Add yours
This is a very pertinent topic given the way that a large percentage of our population are currently ‘celebrating’ through an excess of alcohol consumption. Having lived that way for many years, and quite often not being well enough to see the light of a new year’s day I can honestly attest to the amazing transformation, that having understood and claimed that I have a choice to consume alcohol or not, that has taken place for me over the past few years.
It really is possible to truly celebrate life without a drink in hand and the benefits are ‘out of this world’ – I am now living proof of this :).
So thank you Amelia for exposing for others the ‘tolerance’ that policy makers and society holds as a marker of saying some poison is OK because, at least, it is better than too much poison…
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absolutely beautiful to hear Greg that It is possible to celebrate without a drink in hand and the benefits are ‘out of this world’.
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I feel amazing after stopping drinking alcohol too, there is not an area of my life that has not improved hugely -career, health, looks, relationships, vitality, finances, confidence, communication…
Amelia- this is a great summary and exposes the truth about alcohol. Needs to be shared everywhere.
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It is amazing the small pieces of ‘evidence’ that we will cling to in order to justify continuing to use something so harmful.
This article is so insightful and really exposes alcohol for what it is. Thankyou Dr Amelia 🙂
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I just returned from the 23rd Annual World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine on Dec.11-13, 2015 in Las Vegas where the endocrinologist, Dr. Thierry Hertoghe from Belgium explained that even one glass of alcohol suppresses the nighttime release of growth hormone from the pituitary gland by 70%. Every night growth hormone is released as a spurt between midnight and 3 AM while we sleep . This is part of the diurnal hormone rhythm, which also includes melatonin and cortisol. While we sleep the hormones are reset. What does growth hormone do in adults? It prevents wrinkles, maintains skin thickness, provides energy, melts in excess fatty tissue, helps build up muscles mass together with sex hormones, helps us to focus our thoughts and keep our memory. Growth hormone levels can be determined by a blood tests (IGF-1) and by a urine test (growth hormone metabolites). If it is too low, it can be injected similar to insulin injections in a diabetic, but using human growth hormone in concentrations of 0.1mg to 0.3mg once per day (before bedtime). It can take 1.5 to 3 years for a deficiency to get corrected.
The best prevention is to stay away from alcohol as much as possible and stay on a Mediterranean type diet. Stay active, measure all other hormones and replace what’s missing with bioidentical hormones (thyroid hormones, sex hormones). Check your growth hormone level, particularly, if you are older than 70 years and replace with human growth hormone, if it is missing. Otherwise, if you ignore it, you gradually shrivel up like an old prune, lose your muscle mass, your hair and memory. Dr. Hertoghe said that you can add 40 years of useful life to the average lifespan of 82 years.
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That’s interesting information, I seem to remember feeling like a shrivelled up old prune in the morning after drinking alcohol, and I’m sure everyone would relate to that feeling of not having a restful night sleep after drinking.
I am shocked… Not long ago I had to study for an exam on psychology here in Germany and drinking one drink per day was seen as alcohol addiction = a psychological disorder. Here they say drinking no more than 2 standart drings per day reduces risk of harm. This sounds evil to me.
Brilliant, succinct, accessible common sense… this is a great article about alcohol and the games we play to try and make sense of our consumption of a known poison. Thank you.
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Thank you Dr Amelia, you lay every argument to rest about the consumption of alcohol.
Alcohol is used to dull us. We change our way of being and expressing with it. That it is so supported by the mass and politics is because we would have the chance for truly awakening by leaving it and that would change everything. Everything!
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There will be those who’ll still reject sound evidence against alcohol purely because it doesn’t suit their vested interests or desires, and will go as far a shooting the messenger. Alcohol is way too encultured into Western society for any overnight change.
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Perhaps the person that designed the hard to decipher guidelines wanted to feel better about a 1-2 drink per day habit.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog Amelia, I hadn’t read the guidelines that you have presented before but I found them to pose so many questions that support how nonsensical it is that anyone would want to or choose to drink alcohol at all.
From my own history of drinking alcohol, I can say that the care of my body was not at all on my high list of priorities; not in relation to my need for feeling ‘numbed out’ or seen to be ‘fitting in’ or ‘having fun’ with everyone else around me.
To uphold a standard of care for our own bodies, those that we walk in all day long should be our priority and with this allows the development to further nurturing and love of who we are, why would we then settle for anything less than feeling lovely and gorgeous? From our liver to our toes!
For over 40 years I used to say I was regularly suffering from alcoholic poisoning without ever once making the connection that it might be because I was consuming a poison. That was because I didn’t want to make that connection! Alcohol is a poison in the human body and the body is much more healthy and vital without it.
Some reality in consumption alcohol & how damaging it really is. I love how you have answered many questions on myths of couple of standard drinks being so called OK. If we look at our body as whole & not in parts, then why would it be ok to have something that actually harms the whole? Makes complete sense to not have it all.
Thanks Dr Amelia.