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. ■

UPDATE: Ireland: WTO alcohol labelling trade obligations met

Ireland’s health department says it has met all its obligations under World Trade Organisation rules over the health labelling requirements of its alcohol bill.

The US government’s trade agency recently said it had asked Ireland to notify the World Trade Organisation about its health labelling plans so as to comply with the organisation’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement.

“We can confirm that all obligations under WTO in relation to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill have been met by the Department of Health,” the department told Alcohol Companion.

“Ireland intends to notify WTO Members of all amendments made to the Bill at the earliest opportunity, ie once all amendments have been made.” ■

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.


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