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The true impact of alcohol on our bodies

Nutritionist Magdalena Marvell delves into the effects of alcohol and the long term implications on our health.

Summer brings with it a host of social events. Whether it’s enjoying a beer around the cricket pitch or attending end-of-year school drinks, many of us find it hard to say no to a cheeky beverage. But do we truly understand the long-term implications of regularly indulging in alcoholic drinks?
 
Understanding the effects
Alcohol consumption can have a range of effects on the body, both short-term and long-term. While a casual drink may seem harmless, repeated indulgence can lead to significant health issues.
 
Short-term effects
• Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases urine production and can lead to dehydration.
• Impaired Judgment: Alcohol affects the brain, leading to impaired decision-making and coordination.
• Sleep Disruption: Although alcohol might make you feel drowsy, it can disrupt sleep patterns (the normal phases of deeper and lighter sleep we go through every night, leading to poor-quality rest). 
 
A study conducted by Finnish researchers found that any amount of alcohol consumption before bedtime negatively affects sleep quality. Specifically, low amounts reduced sleep quality by over 9%, moderate amounts by nearly 24%, and high amounts by almost 40%1/2.
 
Long-term implications
• Liver Damage: Regular alcohol consumption can lead to liver diseases such as fatty liver, hepatitis, and cirrhosis.
• Heart Health: Drinking too much alcohol can increase blood pressure and contribute to heart disease.
• Mental Health: Long-term alcohol use is linked to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
• Nutritional Deficiencies: Alcohol can interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients, leading to deficiencies.
 
Nutritional deficiencies caused by alcohol
Regular alcohol consumption can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients like vitamins B1, B6, B12, folate, and A, as well as minerals such as magnesium and zinc, resulting in serious health issues like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, anaemia, neurological problems, and impaired immune function3.  
 
Research shows that even moderate drinking can impact brain health. For example, individuals who consume four drinks per week may experience neurodegeneration, which is the loss of neurones (the cells in the brain). Unlike synapses (the connections where neurones communicate), once neurones are lost, they cannot be replaced. While we can create new synaptic connections, the loss of neurones is permanent4.
 
Recovery and Improvement
What does this mean for people who stop drinking alcohol? Can they recover to some extent?
 
By stopping alcohol consumption, you can experience mood improvements and better dopaminergic activity. Alcohol affects the dopamine system, leading to volatile highs and lows. This is why you may feel anxious or have a low mood the day after drinking.
 
Over time, this system can replenish and become healthier, reducing the reward-seeking behaviour often experienced after a night out. Studies suggest that after 14 months of abstinence, the brain begins to return to a healthier baseline, with dopamine transporter levels (DAT) in the brain’s reward centre approaching normal functioning levels5
 
Quitting alcohol can lead to long-term benefits for both mental and physical health, helping to restore balance and improve overall well-being. Understanding these effects is crucial for making informed choices about alcohol consumption and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Quitting alcohol or perhaps swapping it for a mocktail or non-alcoholic kombucha can be a great step towards better health.
 
References
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