April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Established in 1987, the Department of Health and Human Services selected April as its advocacy month to help reduce stigma related with alcoholism, increasing awareness about causes, treatment, and recovery. The theme for 2018 is “Changing Attitudes: it’s not a ‘rite of passage’”. This is a month to talk to friends and family about alcohol abuse and take the necessary actions to prevent it. Alcoholism can have devastating effects on the body and health if left untreated.
Excessive drinking can get in the way of your health and dieting goals. Both heavy drinking and binge drinking can lead to numerous health problems and neurological impairments, including cardiovascular problems and cardiomyopathy, as well as increase risks of many types of cancer, including liver cancer. Cardiomyopathy is a group of diseases that affect the heart muscle. Long-term alcohol abuse weakens and thins the walls of the heart muscle, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. The toxicity of alcohol damages and weakens the heart over time. When the heart cannot pump out the blood, it expands to hold the extra blood, enlarging the heart. Due to the strain and damage, the heart stops functioning properly. It does not always cause symptoms. However, when the symptoms do occur, it is similar to heart failure, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling of the feet and legs. If left untreated, it could progress into congestive heart failure. Other long-term effects include irregular heartbeat, stroke and high blood pressure. Alcohol also causes the pancreas to excrete a substance that can lead to pancreatitis, a condition that occurs to due dangerous swelling of blood vessels in the pancreas. In addition, too much drinking in the long term can weaken your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick and catch diseases such as pneumonia.
If you or someone you care about is battling with alcoholism, there are many resources available to recover from the illness. See your primary care provider and to learn if you may be addicted and if it is affecting your health. Your primary care provider can ask in-depth questions about your drinking habits, perform a physical exam to determine complications related to alcohol abuse, as well as lab tests to determine abnormalities or organ damage. You can also talk to a mental health provider or a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If you seek alcohol as a way to cope with stress, consider other therapies including yoga, which focuses on breathing, physical activity, or even just getting more sleep.
Alcohol Awareness Month is a chance to review if there is an uncontrollable need for alcohol in you or someone else’s life. Drinking moderately is not alcoholism. In fact, some studies have suggested that drinking wine can even have cardiac benefits, such as reducing the formation of blood clots and raising HDL cholesterol, also known as “good” cholesterol. It can even reduce your risk of stroke or diabetes. However, do not take these studies as a reason to begin drinking heavy, especially if you do not drink much. Drinking too much can cancel out any of the potential health benefits from having alcohol.
As long as you are aware of your drinking habits and do not let it take over your life, drinking alcohol will not necessarily derail your health habits. Combined with a healthy diet and exercise, moderate drinking will not necessarily hurt your heart health. Most importantly, do not feel pressured to drink alcohol. However, if you are healthy, seeing your primary care provider regularly, dieting and exercising regularly, then there is not a reason to quit drinking if it done responsibly and in moderation.