Alcohol: Take courage from competence

Like England’s footballers, who overcame a decades-long inability to win on penalties, we are better off finding our courage through practice, not through alcohol.

Sports sponsorship, like Budweiser’s backing of the World Cup, and thrilling advertising images reinforce the phoney link between alcohol and courage, despite codes barring it being done explicitly.

Alcohol plays no part in the confidence of sports people, or anyone else. We all know it, but facts are not what advertising is about. Advertising connects feelings, not facts, in this case tension and alcohol relief.

Our pre-scientific alcohol lexicon provide a flimsy barrier to prevent this powerful emotional linkage. The phrase “Dutch courage” contains only an oblique reference to the Netherlands to trigger suspicion.

Own goals
Lingering misgivings about the Low Countries, alas, do little to prevent our behaviour from being influenced, so we often turn to alcohol to cocoon ourselves from anxiety and even use it to assuage our excitement.

This is doubly ironic, if not more. We watch sport stars perform feats of skill with amazing calm, focus and concentration, while consuming a substance which interferes with our ability to emulate them.

Alcohol inebriation slows our brain function, reducing our competence in activities requiring us to use our brains. This includes practically everything, even sleep.

And, of over the long term, using alcohol tends to fuel our fears and anxieties and lengthen jumpiness after stressful events, whether they end badly or well.

Practice kills nerves
The competence we developed in our jobs and sports mean we are rarely gripped by nerves. Experience teaches us, like professional sportspeople, to know our limits, estimate risk and gauge the chances of success.

Our biggest worries typically revolve around the more haphazard world of our social lives. We often worry about our ability to converse, make friends, find partners and, heaven forbid, give a speech.

We are often first faced with these types of challenges at the same time as we have our first chances to drink alcohol. And they often remain paired thereafter, seemingly inextricably linked.

Alcohol reduces our awareness of distractions which might interrupt our flow, but it does not give us any new skills. We can make fluent, jovial, spontaneous conversation just as well without alcohol. Even dancing is possible.

Social situations which do not enforce alcohol drinking are a help, though not necessary if we can slip under the radar. Like practising penalties, socialising without drinking will eventually bring results.

Liberty includes the freedom to think clearly

Restricting alcohol use can dramatically improve our decision-making, the key to our personal freedom.

Our choice to consume alcohol is often coerced, through social pressure and misleading ideas. And alcohol reduces our ability to assess our options. Continue reading “Liberty includes the freedom to think clearly”

Minimal alcohol drinking linked to longer life

Our life expectancy is lower if we drink more than 125ml of alcohol a week, according to new research.

“Drinking alcohol at levels which were believed to be safe is actually linked with lower life expectancy and several adverse health outcomes,” says Dr Dan Blazer from Duke University, a co-author of the Lancet study.

The decline in life expectancy was found to start slightly below the UK’s guideline maximum amount of 140ml, or 14 UK units, a week. Guideline maximums in Italy, Portugal and Spain are almost 50% higher, while the US one for men is nearly double.

The lives of those who drank 125-250ml a week were shorter by around six months over the age of 40. Those who drank 250-438ml lived between one and two years less, while drinking beyond the top end of the range typically cut lifetimes by between four and five years.

It strengthens evidence, the authors say, that “total cardiovascular disease risk is actually comprised of several distinct and opposite dose–response curves rather than a single J-shaped association”.

Higher alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease, and fatal aortic aneurysm, with no thresholds below which lower alcohol consumption stopped reducing risk (see chart).

But higher consumption was also associated with a lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks, or “myocardial infarctions”. The authors say, however, that the increased risk of having fatal heart problems means we are likely to lose years of life if we were to drink alcohol to ward off non-fatal problems.

“The key message of this research for public health is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions,” said Dr Angela Wood, lead author of the study from Cambridge University.

Non-drinkers were excluded from the study, because we often stop drinking when we develop health problems, so skewing the numbers. The study also excluded people with pre-existing heart conditions. ■

Alcohol: One of many ways to flavour

Alcohol transports complex aromas exceptionally well, and aroma enriches our experience by awakening memories, feelings and appetites. But we need not ingest alcohol to experience it and alternatives abound, opening up many exciting new possibilities.

We can find a whiff of alcohol rewarding, having evolved from insects, tiny early mammals and more recently apes for whom mouldering fruit is a valuable lifeline. Our evolutionary heritage also means we are equipped to digest small quantities without a hitch.

Nearly all perfumes are based on an alcohol solution, and for good reason. Alcohol is a versatile solvent able to break down oily compounds and preserve organic ones. And it also evaporates quickly at room temperature, so sending aromatic compounds whirling into the air.

Alcohol also mixes with water, so we can use it as a flavour-enhancer in mostly made of water, which we need to live. Beer and wine are water with a flavour-enhancing 5-15% alcohol, while spirits have 35% or more and “fortified” wines and cocktails are usually in the middle.

But we can harness alcohol’s aroma-enhancing properties using tiny quantities. A splash can be enough, like a dab of perfume. And we do not need to ingest it to appreciate its aromatic contribution. Professional wine-tasters spit out their samples.

So the current low-risk guideline of no more than 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol is more than enough to make full use of alcohol’s merits as a flavour enhancer, for both food or drink. The risk of overstepping the mark can be more easily avoided if we leave it out of our diet entirely.

And eliminating alcohol need not diminish our enjoyment of flavour. Water is an extraordinary solvent too, able to deliver a huge range of aromas with no added health pitfalls. We can significantly enhance our experience by simply paying more attention as we eat and drink.

Life is getting easier if we choose to avoid alcohol, with a growing range of “unleaded” versions of traditionally alcoholic drinks, allowing us to blend in easily and have the positive placebo effect with no risk. Mocktail recipes abound for the adventurous.

We can also enormously boost water’s flavour-bearing capacity without adding alcohol to it. Heat makes water a much better solvent and also makes it evaporate far faster, making aroma airborne, as with alcohol. So warm drinks are typically far more aromatic than cold ones.

Hot water’s heightened extraction and evaporation is the driving force of cocoa, tea and coffee. Both they offer a huge range of flavours, aromas and oral sensations rivalling their colder cousins. We can also get a benign buzz from caffeine and the mildly sedating effect of theanine in tea.

Communities of enthusiasts and vendors give us easy access to good information and supply. There are tens of thousands of teas and coffees, all with fascinating history, science, culture and innovation to explore. So too cooking and home-made drinks.

Limiting our alcohol consumption to safeguard our wellbeing does not limit to our access to the life-enhancing world of taste and smell. It can, in fact, make us value it more and be more open to new experiences which are at least as enjoyable and eye-opening.

 

Alcohol: Our legacy social medium🗼


There was a social media giant in startup tens of thousands of years before Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter started vying for our attention: alcohol. Continue reading “Alcohol: Our legacy social medium🗼”

Alcohol: Go with the flow🗼


Being alcohol aware can help us to be brain aware too, by going with the flow from which all our thoughts and feelings arise.

Continue reading “Alcohol: Go with the flow🗼”

Fact-check: Support for alcohol health labelling

The alcohol industry’s Portman Group (PG) is using a study it co-funded to resist calls for providing health information on alcoholic drink labels. Here’s a look at what the study actually says.

Continue reading “Fact-check: Support for alcohol health labelling”

Labels can empower alcohol drinkers

As responsible adults we should be presented with accurate, eye-catching and timely information about alcohol’s immediate and long-term effects. Anything less is to squander the benefits of decades of scientific research.

Whether we are from the left, right or centre politically, we cannot deny we are better off for encouraging choices which serve our long-term interests. And there is a mountain of scientific evidence showing alcohol impairs this kind of decision-making.

As a sedative alcohol causes a kind of acute cognitive near-sightedness, with our mental life more than usually occupied with attending to our immediate surroundings. Matters beyond these narrow confines often slip our minds, whether next door or tomorrow morning.

The haze of inebriation can also mean we do and say things which, to coin a phrase, “seem like a good idea at the time”, only to prove otherwise later. These can range from the faintly embarrassing to the life-changingly serious, depending on the circumstances we encounter.

Regularly drinking above a low level of around 14 UK units (140ml/4.7 fl oz) a week can disturb our sleep, lower our mood, impair our sexual function, increase our anxiety and blur our memories.  These largely ignored side-effects can undermine our quality of life and limit our choices.

Should we drink more than a little for a period of weeks, months or years we may unwittingly slip into a degree of alcohol dependency, where our brains adapt to alcohol inebriation. We might then start to find we act more on the spur of the moment and have trouble making and fulfilling plans.

As a species we look for solutions and drinking alcohol can seem to be one off the peg. It relieves our discomforts, particularly after we are dependent. So it is hard to remember it is a sticking-plaster and the cause of many difficulties and discomforts we hope to escape.

Alcohol’s interference with our mental capacities and effect on our behaviour are undisputed science. Its fascinating complexity fills Alcohol Companion, which provides an accessible account. The problem is not that its contents are contentious, but that knowledge is not widespread.

Also scientifically unquestioned and too-little-known are the effects of alcohol drinking beyond our brains. Above a low level it increases our risk of cancers, heart problems, liver problems and physical injuries, as well as trouble with the law, relationships and employment. It is involved in most early-onset dementias and triples the risk of all types of it.

Warnings need to reach us reliably at the times and places it is most helpful to us. One simple remedy is to provide more informative labels. Such labels are now in the pipeline in Ireland and Australia. Efforts in Canada and the EU, however, are delayed, and blocked in the UK.

The invective used to justify the lack of label information is a reversal of the truth: It is the killjoy who fails to warn fellows of the risk of fueling depression and anxiety; And the crudely caricatured “nanny” of pro-alcohol cliché would be the first to shield us from disconcerting facts.

Few of us find cause for alarm or resentment in a road sign. Keeping alcohol drinkers in the dark at the moment we make our decisions to drink or not is to deny us the benefits of science.

Alcohol drinking impairs our short- and long-term decision-making, especially around alcohol drinking. It is self-serving flattery to suggest otherwise. We should be treated like adults, rather than taken for fools.