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Study: A Shift From Counting Drinks to Counting Reasons for Drinking

March 10, 2021

With alcohol consumption, the focus tends to be how many drinks someone has and how quickly, but a new study suggests even drinking less than federal guidelines can trigger health issues.

This prompts many addiction experts to shift the query from “how much” to “why?”

“It’s good wellness strategy to pay attention to how much you are drinking and understand federal agency guidelines, however what may be more important is knowing why you drink,” said Dr. J. Craig Allen, vice president of addiction services for Hartford HealthCare and medical director of Rushford, part of the system’s Behavioral Health Network.

The concern, besides potentially causing alcohol use disorder, is that overindulging is linked to a variety of health issues. This is now extended to those who drink even within consumption guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), according to new research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The research team looked at drinking in Canada, where the moderation intake is slightly higher than in the United States. They found that even people who follow low-risk drinking guidelines can be affected by alcohol-related health problems.

Specifically, the research shows that:

  • Slightly more than half of cancer deaths link to cancer are in people who drink within weekly guidelines.
  • People who have existing health conditions, such as digestive issues, have more trouble even within weekly guidelines than those drinking more than weekly guidelines.

“The study’s authors concluded that the best approach for both men and women who drink is to lower alcohol consumption levels, even if they are within suggested guidelines,” Dr. Allen said.

The CDC’s guidelines are seven drinks a week for women and 14 for men, compared with 10 for women and 15 for men in Canada. Binge drinking is defined as four or five drinks in a two-hour period.

“It’s clear that alcohol can lead to harm even if someone isn’t meeting the criteria for binge or heavy drinking,” Dr. Allen said. “The truth is that any amount of alcohol can have a negative effect on the body.”

Alcohol affects everything from liver function to the ability of the muscles to repair themselves.

According to the CDC, alcohol-related health issues also include:

  • Circulation and cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure and stroke.
  • Cancer, specifically breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon. In fact, the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in the fall asked the federal government to add cancer warnings to labels on alcohol after a 2017 ASCO study revealed that less than one third of American adults realize it is a risk factor for cancer.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Cognitive and memory problems.
  • Hypoglycemic reactions caused by lowering blood sugar levels quickly.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Depression

To bypass such issues, the Canadian researchers said people should examine the reasons they drink instead of trying to follow consumption guidelines.

“Understanding what your goal is when drinking alcohol can help you to use it in a safer and healthier way,” Dr. Allen said. “If my goal is to celebrate a social occasion with friends, that’s one thing. But if I’m trying to cope with depression, anxiety or stress, then there are likely more effective strategies to use.”