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Caution with that Christmas Cheer                                                                          December 2008

Caution with that Christmas cheer!


Enjoying a drink

“It’s not all doom and gloom; I had a wonderful uncle who celebrated his 104th birthday in a hale and hearty manner with his usual tipple of a large glass of whisky!”


While the news is full of the dangers of binge drinking, the vast majority of people don’t really come into this category. Instead, most of us have enjoyed a few drinks throughout our lives and still love catching up with friends over a drink without causing mayhem on the streets. For many, the Christmas period, with its dark nights and general bonhomie, wouldn’t be the same without a drink or two.

Also, as we get older and go through those inevitable changes in our lives - perhaps suffering a bereavement or losing confidence as our working life draws to a close, or start suffering from insomnia or a painful medical condition - alcohol can seem to offer an easy temporary escape.

However, it is worth remembering that our bodies work less efficiently as we grow older, and we may find that the levels of drinking which were perfectly safe and fun when we were younger begin to start affecting us more.

As we get older, our livers and kidneys tend to be slower at expelling alcohol from the bloodstream. This means that the effects of alcohol on the brain and the liver are longer lasting. Alcohol can aggravate various other health problems such as high blood pressure, digestive disorders and poor circulation; problems which are far more common in older people.

If you already at that age when memory is just beginning to undergo a slight change, alcohol can aggravate this condition and might contribute to your ability to remember things.

Of course it’s not all doom and gloom; I had a wonderful uncle who celebrated his 104th birthday in a hale and hearty manner with his usual tipple of a large glass of whisky! The secret is understanding what alcohol is and recognising your own limits.

The first thing to really understand is that alcohol is a depressant drug, not a stimulant. Yes, initially it can make us feel happy and relaxed, but too much alcohol slows reactions and can make people feel very depressed. Alcohol also does not warm the body, it cools it down; no one who suffers from hypothermia should be given alcohol.

There are a number of quite common drugs and medication that don’t mix well with alcohol; some are downright dangerous. Whenever you are prescribed or buy medication, always ask whether it is safe to drink alcohol as well.

The effect of alcohol on sleep is interesting. Alcohol is a brain sedative and as such should promote sleep. However, it actually reduces the amount of quality rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which we need to be fully rested; it also increases slow wave sleep. Its sedative effect lessens as the night progresses, and you may well be aroused from sleep and suffer continued wakefulness when the blood alcohol concentration approaches zero. With all this going on, it is not surprising that after an evening’s drinking, we may well wake up feeling rather washed out.

Liver disease is another problem that can be caused by alcohol. Here in the UK, the number of people being diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease is rising rapidly, this is especially among younger people but it can still be a problem for older groups. The liver is the largest organ in the body and a kind of chemical factory which carries out hundreds of jobs that are vital to life. It can take quite a lot of abuse, but regular large consumption of alcohol can contribute to a diagnosis of cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a very serious condition involving scarring of the liver and half of all cases of cirrhosis are due to excess alcohol. 


If, like me, you are depressed by all the doom and gloom in the news, then the good news is that as well as causing problems, there are also benefits from alcohol.

A number of studies suggest that drinking alcohol in moderation, about one drink a day, can reduce heart disease and heart attacks, raise good cholesterol and increase beneficial antioxidants.  One study has even found that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol cuts the risk of a heart attack in men who have already had one heart attack or stroke.

Some drinks are thought to be healthier than others. There have already been many reports on the molecules in red wine called polyphenols which have many benefits. Red wine has also been found to be a good source of fibre, which can help to prevent bowel cancer.

Some recent reports show that beer, especially the darker ales and stouts, can reduce heart disease risk and may also reduce atherosclerosis and cataracts by up to 50 percent, especially in diabetics. Darker beers have more antioxidants than the lighter lager beers so they have stronger heart disease and cancer prevention benefits, and both contain more than other beverages, according to research.

At the end of the day, we are all different and alcohol will affect us all in different ways. As long as we have some knowledge of what alcohol does, and partner that with self-awareness and our own personal experience from drinking plus some normal common sense, then there is no reason why we can’t enjoy the usual good cheer of Christmas!



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