Alcohol restriction is key to freedom


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.

In many situations we may expect immediate penalties for not drinking, which can seem like a mandatory entry-ticket for full social participation.

And, once across our blood-brain barrier, alcohol influences our decisions in ways we can only be partially aware of while experiencing our own alcohol-influenced thoughts and feelings.

Inebriation slows our brain activity, so reducing our brain’s role in informing our actions. From the inside, however, things seem to speed up. Our fate is left more to luck.

The gamble can sometimes pay off, sometimes not. About two in every five prisoners says they were drunk when they committed the offence which led to their abrupt loss of freedom.

Learning difficulties
Alcohol also often triggers brain responses which make inebriation seem to have great significance, making us more inclined to repeat it. We cannot be relied on to realise.

Alcohol also increases anxiety, mood and interferes with sleep, while we commonly feel the opposite. So we can easily find ourselves spending undue resources on consuming alcohol.  

Heavy drinking can make our brains misfire sober, meaning we feel tense, forgetful and gloomy between sessions. Dementia and mental health problems are far more likely.

The discomfort of sobriety when alcohol dependent makes escape an ever-more attractive option. This is why we might spend our last few pennies on barely-drinkable budget brands.

Freedom is about more than the freedom to buy things. To be free we need an environment in which we are spared from harm, including damage to our mental capacity.

Commercial restrictions and timely and accurate information can help us avoid alcohol harm and in turn reducing our chance of other harmful errors.

Clarity before commerce
Our freedom to shop should not outweigh our freedom to think clearly. We would not champion our freedom to lock ourselves out of our own house, though it is among our freedoms.

A notice reminding us, say, to remember our keys before going out, or warning us of a blind bend are not oppressive. Similarly alcohol warnings are no infringement of our freedom.

Nor is it oppressive to withhold instruments used almost exclusively for self-harm. Minimum alcohol unit pricing, on trail in Scotland, may to be found to do exactly this.

Alcohol drinking can be pleasurable, but it also underlies many mistakes, small and big. Preventing these does not diminish our freedom to be spontaneous or take risks.

Measures to curtail heavy alcohol use can help share freedom’s benefits more widely. They are keys to greater freedom. ■

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.

Dry January lets us realise the benefits of low-level drinking

Dry January is a chance to demonstrate the numerous payoffs of low-level drinking to ourselves and others, transforming them from abstract knowledge into a practical method for improving our mental, physical and financial well-being.

A scientific outlook, and the healthy scepticism that goes with it, are no reason to ignore the need to form beliefs we can apply. Such beliefs provide us with a rugged, reliable and reassuring guide, like a pocket compass.

Some important science does not need to be kept so close at hand. This has little to do with its scope or even its complexity. It has more to do with the demands our belief in it places on us.

Accepting the sun-centred view of our galactic neighbourhood or the mind-boggling basics of quantum theory require an enormous leap of the imagination, but our belief they are true is rarely tested.

Few doubt the sun will rise tomorrow, because this scientific likelihood simply reinforces our experience. And we are unlikely to come to much grief if we occasionally imagine the sun going round the earth or that photons are particles and not waves.

Small wonders
Keeping a firm grip on earthbound, everyday findings is a far bigger challenge for us. The more humdrum the topic, the more difficult it can be, and no more so than when the subject is what we choose to eat, drink or smoke.

We connect with these subjects physically, emotionally and socially, forming an intimate relationship managed by our astronomically complex brains. The statistical results of understanding this relationship often confound our intuition.

As self-centred animals we are fairly hopeless at connecting with statistics, a type of scientific result especially open to manipulation. And, given a choice, we will tend to believe our senses over numbers on a chart.

But the solid statistical evidence of the long-term harm of, say, trans-fats, alcohol or tobacco smoke require us to alter our behaviour or they are are no use at all. We need to embrace beliefs that allow us to benefit.

Beliefs provide the motivation to be wary of tempting forbidden fruit and are even more helpful because we may initially suffer for heeding scientific advice, as we do with nicotine or alcohol dependency.

Truth endures
It may seem to be an impossible to establish facts in our argumentative “post-truth” world. But in the case of alcohol, about which I write, appearances belie broad agreement.

It is hard to maintain a low alcohol intake. Beyond this it fuels anxiety and depression, interferes with sleep and memory, increases the risk of heart and liver disease, cancer and contributes to all manner of accidents and blunders.

Science also indisputably shows there is an effective remedy to minimise alcohol-related problems, one offering large financial, emotional and health returns: to moderate or, more simply, to stop drinking alcohol.

Believing any initial suffering is common, will disappear, and be rewarded makes any hardship far easier to endure. So the dramatic, scientifically-recorded improvement of tens of thousands of people who have done it already is immensely reassuring.

More broadly we might look to evidence that sacrificing the euphoria-on-tap we can get from alcohol tends to help us achieve robust, long-term happiness. Happiness, as people experience it, has been found to be a distinct from euphoria.

It is not always easy to do what science says is best for us, especially when people try to deter us. Having scientific beliefs at hand, like a pocket compass, makes it far easier to stay on course. Dry January offers a chance to develop them. ■

My alcohol awareness journey

Until recently my alcohol awareness was no more than a collection of half-remembered news items, fictional accounts, anecdotes and personal experiences. I was, in other words, completely normal.

And what a collection I had amassed? Where alcohol is concerned anything goes, from the disturbing, tragic and gruesome to the romantic, magical and hilarious, with all suggestions between and beyond acceptable.

Alcohol plus people produces surprises. These twists, in turn, spawn stories, which reproduce like saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast which excretes alcohol. And so it goes on.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae

The science-based stories I read left an impression of confusion and uncertainty, meaning nearly anything was still possible, once more freeing the imagination.

Ever the optimist I chose to believe there were so many stories that the chances were good that at least some were useful, just as haystacks are unfairly written off as hiding places for needles.

No thanks to common sense

Craving explanation
This always seemed unsatisfactory. I remember wanting something better even as child. In what other area of life would I be asked to rely on such a knowledge lottery? Space rockets and computers are not the products of common sense.

My concerns went underground, but never went away. If a jumble of alcohol-related hearsay really was a reliable guide, alcohol would not play the enormous part it does in mental and physical health problems, and many woes besides.

Deep down I wanted an understanding which looked beyond appearances, something adaptable, verifiable, generalised and offering explanation at a deeper level, something, in a word, scientific.

As I started to inch closer to my second childhood than my first I decided it was time to try to find it. I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity, but as a journalist, I also hoped it could be something I could find a way to share.

Packing my metaphorical bags, I set off on a metaphorical journey through several hundred scientific papers. I was very lucky in my timing. The science of alcohol had grown up over almost exactly the same time-frame as me.

Messages from a bottle
The most important message from this ongoing walkabout is that our relationship with alcohol can and does change. And we can shape it to our advantage, with alcohol awareness improving our chances of success.

Outlining the detail of this in my book, Alcohol Companion, was both more challenging and more rewarding than I expected. Beyond the dizzying complexity of the core subject, it gave me a new perspectives on science, and our need for belief and belonging.

Stories can play an important part in meeting our needs. Alcohol awareness is not as whizzbang as space rocketry, but is no less awesome for it. Its potential payoffs far outweigh the alternative, putting it well on course to become the new normal.

Published for Alcohol Awareness Week 2017, organised by Alcohol Research UK, Alcohol Concern and Adfam.