Alcohol has become ubiquitous in society, though interestingly reports show Gen Z is the most sober generation yet, with almost 30% of college students abstaining from alcohol. People are increasingly becoming aware of lesser known negative effects of alcohol, including the direct link between alcohol of any kind and 7 different kinds of cancer, sleep disruption, heart and brain problems. It is also important to debunk the myth of red wine being “good for your heart;” the amount of the preventive compound resveratrol in a glass of wine is negligible. Of note, there is a whole new market of adaptogen non-alcoholic drinks rising to meet demands from a growing sober generation – see below for more details.
The link between alcohol and cancer
One of the most concerning negative effects of alcohol is its association with at least 7 different types of cancer. Studies have shown that alcohol consumption even in modest amounts increases the risk of developing cancers such as breast, liver, mouth, throat, esophageal, colorectal, and stomach cancers. Interestingly, Canada recently changed their guidelines to suggest there is no safe lower limit for alcohol. It is important to remember that any amount of alcohol carries some cancer risk. Just as smoking was ubiquitous at one point in society and even touted by doctors to be healthy at one point, so too alcohol seems to be the smoking of our age, yet harder for the public to connect intellectually with many cancers than the mechanism of smoking inhalation with the lungs.
The negative effects of alcohol on sleep
Another negative effects of alcohol is its impact on sleep. While many people turn to alcohol as a way to relax and unwind before going to bed, it actually has a negative effect on the quality of sleep. Alcohol reduces the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the restorative stage of sleep that allows our bodies to repair and regenerate. Additionally, alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle, causing people to wake up more frequently throughout the night and feel groggy and fatigued the next day as the depressant effects wear off.
The link between alcohol and heart and brain health
Excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the heart and brain in many ways, including by raising cholesterol and increasing blood pressure, which damages blood vessels and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. One study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that heavy drinking increases the risk of developing abnormal conditions such as irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation and another condition where the heart muscles are weak called heart failure, even in the absence of other cardiovascular risk factors. Interestingly, alcohol also increases the risk of dementia by damaging blood flow to the brain.
The Rise of Adaptogen drinks: Alternatives to Alcohol
As Gen Z is leading the wave of increasingly sober people, many non-alcoholic adaptogen drinks have emerged on the market to address this growing demand. Companies like De Soi have created low calorie drinks with a combination of yummy and sometimes bioactive spices such as anti-inflammatory turmeric in pretty packaging including glass wine-shaped bottles that allow users to still have the experience of drinking a celebratory bottle of something tasty and special, without the alcohol. Other companies such as Kin, Recess, Apothecary and more have risen as competitors. Although these drinks do not achieve the buzz that alcohol can, they address some of the social pressures and aspects of the ritual of drinking in social settings. No conflict of interests here to report, though De Soi if you’re reading this holler at me!
These are just some reflections on negative health consequences of drinking, not including other negative health effects on mood and more. I imagine that in 10 or 20 years as the scientific studies and population statistics continue to pile up, our surgeon general and society will come to see alcohol as the poison it truly is, and the understanding that even a small amount of poison is still poison. In the Netflix documentary “You are what you eat,” they mention that it took over 7,000 studies linking smoking to lung cancer for smoking to become a national health issue. Please consider cutting back, or eliminating all together, alcohol from your diet as one of this year’s New Year’s resolutions!
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Maia Mossé, MD, January, 2024