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Is it ever too late to cut back on alcohol?

Many people enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer in the backyard with friends. But consuming too much alcohol can be very bad for your health.

The CDC defines a standard drink as one containing 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. That’s equivalent to:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, moderate drinking is two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women. Binge drinking is when you consume enough to raise your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher at least once a month. That’s about 4-5 drinks in a two-hour period.

Heavy alcohol use for men is drinking more than four drinks per day, or 14 drinks per week. For women, the limit is three drinks per day, or seven drinks per week. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also defines heavy drinking as binge drinking on five or more days per month.

What does alcohol do to your body?

friends drinking alcohol

Excessive drinking is most commonly associated with liver cirrhosis. It’s your liver’s job to remove toxins from your body. Too much alcohol can cause scar tissue to build up in your liver, preventing it from working properly. About 10-15% of alcoholics eventually develop liver cirrhosis. However the most dangerous disease associated with alcohol is not the most common effect people suffer.

The most common long-term health risks associated with heavy drinking are high blood pressure, liver disease, and digestive problems. Long-term high blood pressure also increases the chances of strokes and heart attacks. People who binge drink are 72% more likely to have a heart attack than people who drink in moderation.

People who drink excessively are also more at risk of certain cancers. These include breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum. According to the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services, alcohol is a known carcinogen. That means it’s a cancer-causing substance. The more alcohol somebody drinks, especially in large quantities over time, the greater their risk of developing cancer.

Even moderate drinkers increase their risk of certain cancers. A study on light drinkers (up to one drink per day) found an increased risk of throat, esophagus, and breast cancer. This increased risk is associated with 34,000 additional deaths per year.

How to quit drinking

drunk man slumped over a bar

Excess alcohol consumption is considered a national health concern. That means there are many services available to people who want to quit or cut back on drinking. For people who may be drinking too much, but don’t have alcohol dependence disorders, cutting back is often a lifestyle change.

If you’re a man who enjoys a couple of beers in the evening, or a woman who drinks a glass of wine each day with dinner, you’re classed as a moderate drinker. If you also enjoy a night out each weekend, you might be surprised to learn you’re a heavy or binge drinker.

Good suggestions for limiting alcohol intake include switching alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic alternatives. That could be sparkling water instead of sparkling wine, or a nonalcoholic beer. If you do want the real thing, consider choosing drinks with a lower alcohol content, or add mixers to make your drink last longer.

For people who do suffer from alcohol dependency, quitting can be much more difficult, and even dangerous. About 50% of alcoholics suffer withdrawal symptoms when they quit cold turkey. In some cases Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) can be fatal.

Alcohol is a depressant. That means it slows the functions of our central nervous systems. When people drink so frequently that they’ve always got alcohol in their bodies, our systems learn to adapt. Your body will speed up the functions that alcohol slows down in order to compensate. When the alcohol is taken away, the central nervous system still runs at an elevated rate until it learns to stop compensating. Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include a racing heart, high temperature, and excessive sweating.

For people with serious cases of AWS, symptoms include shaking, anxiety, high blood pressure, and tachycardia. This can progress to hallucinations, seizures, comas, and heart attacks.

People with alcohol dependence should never try to go cold turkey without medical supervision. Signs that drinking has become an addiction include:

  • Planning social events around alcohol — such as ensuring you get a drink at the bar before service stops for a meal at a wedding or other event, or only wanting to do activities at places where alcohol is served
  • Worrying where your next drink is coming from, or counting down the time until you’re able to drink — for example, watching the clock at work, or drinking on your lunch break
  • Finding it hard to stop drinking once you start — for instance if that glass of wine with dinner often turns into half a bottle or more
  • Waking up and drinking, or feeling the desire to drink in the morning — such as if you need alcohol to “get going” or feel normal
  • Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal if you don’t drink — these include sweating, shaking, and nausea

Most people think about 12-step or inpatient programs to help quitting drinking, but these aren’t the only options available. Support groups, individual therapy, and medications can also make it easier to stop drinking.

Disulfiram (also known as Antabuse) has been approved to treat alcohol dependence since the 1950s. It works by altering the way your body breaks down alcohol, making you feel sick if you take a drink.

Naltrexone is another available medication. This drug stops you from feeling pleasure from drinking. This can break the brain-reward chemistry that makes alcohol addictive. Naltrexone can also reduce withdrawal cravings.

Acamprosate (Campral) is used to treat common symptoms of withdrawal, such as anxiety, restlessness, and depression. It does this by stabilizing the imbalances in brain chemistry that alcohol causes.

Is it ever too late to cut back on drinking?

woman drinking wine at a bar

Whether you suffer from alcohol dependency or not, cutting down on the amount you drink can help you to live a longer, healthier life. Even with advanced liver cirrhosis, patients who quit drinking can increase their seven-year survival rate by more than 60%. This means that although some of the damage caused by years of excessive drinking cannot be undone, you can still live longer no matter when you quit.

For people who drink a moderate amount of alcohol, there are also benefits to cutting back or quitting. Reducing alcohol intake can lower blood pressure and reduce the levels of triglycerides in your blood. This means improved heart health and lower chances of heart disease or other cardiac events.

Your liver is also an amazing organ, and the only one able to rebuild itself. While the damage caused by cirrhosis rarely heals, other liver conditions can improve. Alcohol-related fatty liver disease can clear up in as little as two weeks of abstinence.

People who quit drinking also report other positive outcomes, such as losing weight, improving interpersonal relationships, and sleeping better. 

Final thoughts

It’s never too late to stop drinking, even if you’re already experiencing health problems as a result of excess alcohol consumption. The amount of alcohol required to do long-term damage is surprisingly low, so even cutting back by a few drinks a week can have a dramatic impact on your health and longevity.

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