Should you drink less alcohol? Here are the health risks and tips on cutting back to boost your health.
Are you rethinking your drinking? Many people are.
Some folks stowed away their corkscrew after reading headlines challenging the so-called heart-healthy benefits of red wine. Others follow holiday excess with a “dry January.”
Avoiding alcohol isn’t just for people with problems. Try it, and you might decide you like the weight loss and just feel a lot better when you aren’t drinking.
If you’re weighing the pros and cons of drinking, here’s what you need to know.
How much is a drink?
For years, the standard advice has been to have at most “a mild to moderate amount of alcohol.” That’s less than you think. It means no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks for men.
And they’re not talking about a heavy pour. One drink is just 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor like gin or vodka. (For comparison, a big red plastic party cup holds 16 ounces.)
Try it out at home: Pour yourself a drink in your favorite glass – and then pour it into a measuring cup to get the idea. Now pour back just the right amount of ounces into your glass. You’ll probably be surprised.
Questioning the benefits
Here’s the latest advice on drinking: If you don’t already drink, don’t start. And if you do drink, cut back.
That’s a big change from the old advice to have a glass of red wine a day for your heart. Over the years, you may have heard about other health benefits, too. Drinking was said to lower your risk of diabetes, dementia, and other conditions.
But some of these benefits are no longer thought to be true. The problem is that alcohol research relies on people reporting how much they drink and then checking their health years later. Many experts now think the benefits may have come from other healthy habits, not drinking.
Stacking up the risks
The downsides of drinking are more clear. That’s why some experts now say there’s no safe amount to drink. And you certainly shouldn’t take up drinking thinking you’ll get health benefits.
Risks for light drinkers
Anytime you drink, it can disrupt your sleep and leave you with a brain fog or feeling depressed the next day. And over time, you may find your weight creeping higher.
If that’s not enough reason to cut back, consider cancer risk. Drinking alcohol is a risk factor for a number of types of cancer, including liver, esophageal, and colon and rectal cancer. For breast cancer, even having less than one drink a day is now shown to increase your risk.
Risks for heavier drinkers
People who drink more than “a mild to moderate amount of alcohol” may end up with more serious health issues. It doesn’t take a lot of alcohol to increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and digestive problems.
You may also get sick more often thanks to a weakened immune system. And you could have learning and memory problems, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression, or end up with dementia. Heavy alcohol use can damage your liver and pancreas, too.
Should you drink less?
Experts say you shouldn’t start drinking just to be healthier. But if you enjoy your favorite alcoholic beverage in moderation, you have to weigh your risks. Of course, some people shouldn’t drink at all. That includes people under 21, pregnant women, and anyone with cancer, a liver problem, or an alcohol use disorder.
Your doctor can help you look at your family history for different diseases, your current health, and your drinking habits. It’s important to be honest about how much you drink, especially if you have any medical conditions or take medications. There might be dangers or interactions you need to know about.
You can’t get helpful guidance if you downplay how much you drink. And honestly, if you’re tempted to trim the number, that’s a sign you’re drinking more than you think you should.
How to cut back
Even after you decide to cut back, it can be hard to do! The biggest challenge can be when you’re socializing.
“Not having a glass in hand can make it seem like you’re drawing attention to yourself, and it’s often an invitation for someone to offer you a drink,” Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of American Addiction Centers, told the Huffington Post. “You might find social settings easier to navigate by carrying a drink around.”
But that drink doesn’t have to be alcohol. Soda drinks can even look like a cocktail, especially with a twist of lime or orange slice.
10 Ways to Drink Less
If you’re drinking more than you want to, try these ideas:
- Let friends and family know. They can help support you to reach your goal.
- Relax in other ways. Instead of drinking, take a walk or bike ride, meditate, play music, draw, or paint.
- Have a lighter drink. Go for lower alcohol percentage beers or wine, or add seltzer and a twist of lime to make a wine spritzer.
- Taper down slowly. Cut out one drink a week until you reach your goal.
- Set an alcohol budget. Decide how much to spend on drinks — and stick to it.
- Make it harder to get. Try locking up your alcohol so you have to get the key to get a drink — or put it where it’s really hard to reach.
- Don’t keep alcohol at home. Only drink when you’re out — and limit yourself to one or two drinks per outing.
- Plan what you’ll say. There’s no shame in saying you’re trying to cut back! Or just say you’re on a diet.
- Pick alcohol-free days. Try no-alcohol Mondays or only drinking on weekends.
- Make it a “mocktail.” Have your drink and enjoy sipping it, just skip the alcohol. Search for a mocktail recipe online, make a simple cranberry-seltzer-and-lime, or try a ginger beer.
Struggling to cut back? Medicare may be able to help
If you find yourself drinking more than you intend to, you may have an alcohol misuse problem.
Medicare recognizes there is a difference between "alcohol misuse" and "alcohol dependency," and offers separate services to help with each. If, after talking to your doctor, they agree that you may have an alcohol misuse issue, you qualify for up to four, face-to-face counseling sessions each year - at zero cost to you.
If you wonder whether you need help, that's a good sign to talk to your doctor, if for no other reason than it will make you feel better to hear "No, you're fine."
- ClearMatch Medicare: Find a Medicare Plan
- American Heart Association: Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?
- Centers for Disease Control: Alcohol Use and Your Health
- Centers for Disease Control: Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol
- American Cancer Society: Alcohol Use and Cancer
- HuffPost.com: Interested in a Damp Lifestyle? These 11 Habits Will Get You Started
- British Journal of Cancer: Alcohol, tobacco, and breast cancer – a collaborative reanalysis