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The high cost of alcohol to your health

Medical & health articles | Health tips 8 Feb 2021
Woman drinking red wine using tablet

Many of us were drinking more during the pandemic without realising its toll on our health. New government guidelines on ‘safe’ drinking levels suggest the toll could be higher than first thought.

Are you worried that you might be drinking more now than you did before the start of the pandemic? You’re not alone. The evidence suggests many of us are.

A report from the Australian National University found that we were drinking more frequently during COVID-19 than before, and while the drinking was “slightly higher for males”, it was “substantially higher for females”.

The report, conducted in May last year, found that almost one in four women who drank at all reported an increase in drinking. The reasons given for the increase were looking after children and increased stress.

The annual Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey also suggests we were drinking more. Around 18% of respondents to the 2020 survey said they were drinking more since COVID and this was highest among women aged 25 to 44. Interestingly those who reported drinking less were women aged 18 to 24.

Few would argue with the challenges we have faced over the past year, but is the tipple really the solution? The experts strongly say no.

Professor Kate Conigrave is an Addiction Medicine Specialist and Public Health Physician based at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She is also the chair of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Alcohol Working Group.

In early December the group released new guidelines aimed at reducing the health risks from drinking alcohol.

What is the latest advice?

The NHMRC’s new guidelines recommend that we drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day. It is recommended those aged under 18, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, not drink at all. The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol.

In fact, a woman’s risk of breast cancer goes up by 10% if she goes from drinking nothing to one standard drink every day, says Professor Conigrave.

Professor Kate Conigrave
Neck of wine bottles

“What young women drink between when they have their first period and when they have their first baby seems to be particularly important in influencing their breast cancer risk,” she says.

Professor Conigrave says the new guidelines have lowered the recommended ‘safe’ level of alcohol because of a growing body of evidence that alcohol, even in low doses, increases the risk of breast, colon and rectal cancers. It can also lift the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus and liver.

“There can be a lot of social pressure to drink,” says Prof Conigrave. “Stress for women can be a trigger, but one tip would be not to rely on alcohol for anything. It is not a tool to de-stress. If you are thirsty, have a glass of water. If you are stressed, go for a walk.”

Jean Hailes specialist women’s health GP, Dr Sheree Krass, echoes the professor’s sentiments. “If alcohol was invented today, it wouldn’t be legal,” says Dr Krass. “It’s a dangerous drug and the more you have, the worse it is. It is a depressant and it interferes with sleep.”

Alcohol helps you to fall asleep quickly in the short term, but through the night, it interferes with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the deep sleep that refreshes you.

‘Tough love’ needed around alcohol

Dr Krass believes women need to be better educated around the dangers of alcohol. “We need to give ourselves some tough love around alcohol,” she says. “We know that lots of things are not good for us, but we take a calculated risk. We need to own the responsibility for doing that.”

Alcohol is one of Australia’s leading causes of drug-related death, with about 4000 deaths each year thought to be due to alcohol, according to Federal Government data.

The data, compiled for the National Alcohol Strategy 2019-2028, revealed that one in four Australians was drinking alcohol at risky levels and one in two women who were pregnant consumed alcohol.

What you can do

It’s important to know that there are steps you can take, and strategies you can use, to avoid drinking too much, says Prof Conigrave. So, if you are out for an evening, pace your drinking. Avoid drinking ‘shots’. Sip slowly, drink water and eat food.

While it’s increasingly fashionable now to say you are doing Feb Fast, many people feel they need to provide an excuse for not drinking. “Don’t feel responsible for other people’s expectations,” says Prof Conigrave. “If you want to stop drinking for a while, or permanently, people will get used to it.”

It’s also important for women to ease up on the harsh judgements of themselves. “Many of us try to be all things to all people,” says Prof Conigrave. “Be kind to yourself. It’s not a drama if your house is untidy. Tackle the sources of your stress. Change the routine. If you feel better with something in your hand – hot or cold – then have a herbal tea.”

For more information on alcohol, its impact on your health and how to reduce it, visit jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/healthy-living/alcohol

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