Sunday, February 2, 2014

Take a pause for the better

This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times on 2nd Feb 2014

Did you know that 700,000 New Zealanders are categorized as binge drinkers? That’s defined as more than seven standard drinks (roughly four pints of beer or just under a bottle of wine) in a session. This is recognised as a level that’s likely to do long term harm. That may surprise some people, as it’s what many of us could easily drink in a normal weekend (or week) night of socialising. 
Febfast is the NZ Drug Foundation’s campaign to raise funds and awareness by encouraging people to take a break from alcohol for a month. Whether we participate or not, now’s a good opportunity to stop and contemplate the role of alcohol in our lives. Do we use it as a de-stressor? Confidence booster? Coping mechanism? Do we ‘need’ it after a stressful day? These could all be signs we’re not totally in control of our alcohol use. 

Many of us (including me) enjoy a drink. But it’s worth understanding the real risks of what that’s doing to our bodies. While there are various studies pointing to potential benefits of moderate drinking, experts warn that the benefits of alcohol are often overstated compared to the risks.

For example, the much-touted heart health benefits of drinking are often misunderstood. The American Heart Association says there is no scientific proof that drinking wine or any other alcohol can replace conventional  means of reducing heart disease risk: lowering your cholesterol,  lowering high blood pressure,  controlling your weight, getting enough exercise and following a healthy diet. 

The Heart Foundation in NZ says “The relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular disease is complex, and for most people there will be little, or no, overall benefit.” They recommend no or low alcohol consumption as the best idea for heart health.  

Most of us do understand the link between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of cancer and other diseases. Even moderate consumption, defined as one or two drinks each day, is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. Moderate to high consumption of beer and spirits has been associated with an increased risk of accumulating stomach fat, the type associated with a higher risk of everything from heart disease to type 2 diabetes. 

So how can we cut back on the drinking? A good place to start is to understand how much you drink. There’s a great tool at the Health Promotion Agency’s website to help – see (click on “Is your drinking OK?”). Then, try and have some alcohol-free days in your week. Even one or two – ideally consecutive – days will make a difference (and make you feel good). Three or four is even better. Don’t use that as an excuse to binge on other days, though. When you do drink, alternate non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic ones. To reduce your long-term health risks stick to no more than 2 standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week; or for men no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week. 

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