DRINKING ALCOHOL: HEALTH BENEFITS OR HEALTH RISKS?

drinking alcohol health benefits

INTRODUCTION

Alcohol is a double-edged sword! A controversial liquid! We have felt how it injects “life” into a social gathering; and we have seen it bring death to the human body and into homes. It is both a tonic and a poison. Researches (and advertising companies) point out its health benefits; other researches (and religious houses) scream its harm to the body and the mind! And the rest of us are caught in the middle!

Why is this so? 

Firstly, it is because alcohol is a drug. It affects, not only the body, but the mind (and the emotions). It could make one feel happy, excited, and relaxed; it could dampen one’s judgment, making one bolder and able to take risks (and ignore consequences); it decreases concentration (“helping you to forget your problems”). Many people wants this stimulation from alcohol, thereby making it attractive. But every drug has side-effects!

Secondly, alcohol is highly addictive. “Just a sip” could become a “shot”, then a cup, a bottle, bottles… and so on. From “once in a while”, to weekly, to daily, twice daily… to “I can’t do without it!” The problem is once you become dependent, you may not be able to stop even if it’s killing you! You will, helplessly, prefer drinking to living!

Thirdly, “drinking responsibly” requires a delicate, risky balance! Yes, it is true that alcohol has some health benefits IF taken moderately. Yes! It could even make you live longer! The problem is:

  • We don’t exactly know what “moderate” is, especially in this part of the world. Unlike in developed countries, we are not sure about the exact quantity to take and how often. We have very few researches done with the alcoholic beverages and spirits we consume here.
  • The researches that point to the health benefits use alcoholic drinks that may not be readily accessible to the average Nigerian. So we may not be bold to say the ones we consume here are the beneficial ones.
  • There are several additional criteria needed to get the supposed health benefits which needs to be individualized; like sex, age, weight, health status, family history, social habits, etc. These has to be considered before adjusting the individual amount of daily alcohol intake
  • Alcohol, as we said, is highly addictive, making the discipline of not taking excessive and not becoming dependent very difficult.
  • The benefits that researchers talk about could be gotten through other safer ways like exercise and healthy eating.
  • Lastly, the benefits are fewer compared to the risks involved.

RISKS OF DRINKING ALCOHOL

Lets take a glance at the risks (of prolonged heavy alcohol intake):

  • It affects the mind, emotion, and will,  therefore, it could lead to difficulty in relationship with others, domestic violence, broken homes, challenges in workplace, academic problems, poor religious commitment, sleep problem, sex issues, accidents, depression, outbursts of anger, etc.
  • It affects virtually all the organs of the body thereby increasing the risk for liver damage, stroke, hypertension, cancers, impotence/infertility, abnormalities and birth defects (if a pregnant mother consumes it), etc.

Personally, I would say, if you don’t drink, there’s absolutely no need to start. And if you are already “in the business” and would like to take steps to reducing or, even, stopping, read on…

ALCOHOL PROBLEM?

Alcohol again! We take alcoholic wines, drinks, and beverages casually during outings, at hangouts, in parties and ceremonies. This makes it difficult to know when we cross the line from moderate drinking to “alcohol abuse” or “alcohol dependence”. How would you know if things are going haywire? It may not be obvious. But, you are going down the “wrong path”, and you have “alcohol problem” if:

  • you feel guilty or ashamed about your drinking
  • you lie to others or hide your drinking habits
  • you have family members or friends who are worried about your drinking
  • you need to drink in order to relax, or to feel good, or to avoid feeling bad
  • you can’t remember what you did or said while drinking (or drunk)

… and you are likely an addict, an alcoholic, or alcohol dependent if:

  • you “feel okay” and you are beginning to tolerate amount that would get you “high” or drunk previously (and you have to increase the amount to get the same “high” or get drunk)
  • you get withdrawal effects if you don’t take alcohol after some time. You shake, sweat, vomit, and so on; you get confused, have convulsions, or start “hearing voices” or “seeing things”, etc. You become normal again when you drink.
  • you have constant, unsuccessful desires and efforts to reduce (or stop) drinking. You want to stop, but you just can’t!
  • you drink more than you intend to. Alcohol takes a lot of your focus, making you give up other activities. Your family, friends, work, academics, religious commitment are getting affected negatively.
  • You drink even though it is clear to you that alcohol is causing problems to your health — your body and your psyche.

But, the problem is denial; people with “alcohol problems”:

  • drastically underestimate how much they drink
  • downplay the negative consequences of drinking
  • complain that their friends and family members are exaggerating
  • blame their drinking on others, on their problems, or on conditions e.g “I have a nagging wife”, “the country is bad”, “that’s how I was brought up”,etc.
  • refuse to discuss any topic relating to alcohol.

Now, what can you do to reduce (or stop) drinking alcohol

It may be a long, gradual process with failures that may make you feel powerless and weak-willed, but never give up!
  • The first, greatest (and probably the most difficult) step is admitting you have a problem with alcohol and that you need help.
  • List the benefits/advantages of stopping, and make a commitment to stop drinking. Are you going to reduce or stop completely? How much will you reduce? When will you start? Be clear, specific, and realistic with your goals. Keep your eyes on the benefits on your family, work, health and worship. Keep a diary of successes and failures. Reward yourself for successes. And don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Avoid and get rid of every source of temptations. Remove drinks from your fridge. Avoid friends that would discourage and laugh at you. Announce your goals publicly.
  • Become accountable to someone or a group. Have a person or a group that you could safely report your challenges, successes and failures to. It could be from your spouse, family, friends, alcohol support groups, your religious leader or a religious group. Check online/internet for support groups. Some big schools, companies, and hospitals have social workers, psychologists and counselors. Connect with someone for encouragement, comfort, and guidance.
  • Find new ways of thinking and living. Look inwards and ask yourself: “why do I drink?” Find a way to replace that reason and feeling. Eat right. Have plenty of sleep. Exercise. Make new friends. Join religious groups. Try your hobbies. Use your talents. Enjoy life in fresh, healthy ways!
  • Prepare for alcohol urges, cravings, and triggers. Know people and places that make you have the strong desire to drink. Prepare ahead to think and focus on something else! If you already have the urge: Remind yourself of the benefits you listed; walk away; don’t judge, ignore or fight the desire — accept it, feel it, take deep and slow breaths in (and out) of your abdomen, feel your body, watch the urge (come and go!). However, if you eventually fall, simply rise — no guilt; no shame.
  • You may most likely need the assistance of a psychiatrist (yes, I know you are not mad!) for psychotherapy and drugs. There are medications that will make you “hate” alcohol. You may also need help with respect to alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
If you must drink, please drink water! If it must be in a bottle, please drink “bottled water”!

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Dr. ‘Malik Haruna King is a practicing Nigerian Medical Doctor and Sex Therapist. He helps people with sensitive health issues find answers to questions they are too ashamed to ask!