Health experts urge you to lower your alcohol intake while celebrating

Consider short and long-term effects of intoxication

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Did you know?

What's a drink?

Alcohol facts

Healthy drinking tips


Winnipeg Health Region
Published Thursday, December 30, 2010
Updated Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It can have devastating short and long term effects. It's responsible for thousands of injuries, deaths and illnesses every year. It's ruined careers, families and lives in the blink of an eye.

Reducing alcohol use is the key to avoiding potentially catastrophic circumstances, illness and injury. That's why health experts in the Winnipeg Health Region urge you to consider lowering your alcohol intake this holiday season.

"Of the estimated 3000 deaths from motor vehicle collisions each year in Canada, approximately forty per cent are attributed to alcohol," says Dr. Sandra Allison, a family physician at the Grace Hospital Emergency Department and resident in Community Medicine/Public Health. "Alcohol is related to many of the injuries that bring people to emergency rooms. Acute alcohol poisoning, automobile collisions, violence, falls and fires are some examples of how alcohol can and does lead to serious injury and death."

How does alcohol affect your body?

Short term effects include what health experts call acute alcohol intoxication. That ranges from decreased inhibitions (like saying or doing things you normally wouldn't) to a general sense of warmth and well-being (the gentle buzz many are familiar with after consuming a drink).

At higher levels of intoxication, a person becomes euphoric, has decreased judgement and their coordination is poor due to decreased reaction times and reflexes. They may also have slurred speech, a poor gait and difficulty with vision.

Poor judgement can result in any number of devastating choices being made. If celebrating during a cold Winnipeg winter, poor judgement can result in being improperly dressed for the conditions. Hypothermia or frostbite can occur when we lack the ability to take the proper steps to protect ourselves. "People who have ingested too much alcohol are at risk of exposure to the elements," says Dr. Allison. "They've lost the ability to reason and may find themselves in compromising positions."

Even if they are properly dressed for the weather conditions, delayed reaction times and difficulty with vision can put an intoxicated person at greater risk for falls on slippery snow or ice.

For others, poor judgement means getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. Dr. Allison notes she's already seen the result of a number of alcohol-related traffic accidents this holiday season. "It boils down to poor judgement. When people think about how much they're drinking, they overestimate what they can drink safely. There is no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a car," she says. "Impairment begins with one drink."

At its extreme, heavy alcohol consumption can cause respiratory depression (not being able to breathe, or hypoventilation), the loss of protective reflexes (such as the gag reflex), coma and death is possible.

Women in particular need to take heed because their bodies metabolize alcohol differently than men's bodies do. In fact, no two people's bodies process alcohol the same way. Factors like age, how much a person weighs, their levels of alcohol-metabolizing enzymes that help the body inactivate alcohol and if they've eaten all play a part.

"There is a difference between people who don't drink at all and people who drink heavily. In general, people that have normal amounts of enzymes are not extremely high drinkers. They metabolize alcohol slower," says Dr. Allison. "If a person is a chronic alcoholic or heavy drinker, they metabolize alcohol faster."

Psychosocial effects

Psychological and social effects do impact health and need to be considered with respect to alcohol consumption. Poor judgement that is found with increased alcohol consumption can lead to poor social interaction and violence can result unpredictably. It can also lead to difficulty communicating with or relating to friends or family. Violence related trauma appears closely related to alcohol dependent symptoms.

Long-term effects

Over time, prolonged alcohol use can lead to problems with your liver (the main organ that helps metabolize alcohol), hypertension (high blood pressure), various cancers, gastrointestinal problems and peripheral vascular disease.

But one of the most detrimental impacts of alcohol on your long term health can be the way your psychosocial health is impacted. "Alcohol's depressant properties can exacerbate mood disorders, worsening depression and anxiety," says Dr. Allison. "The use of alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with psychosocial problems can make them much worse in the long run."

About binge drinking

If you're a woman drinking more than one drink a day or a man drinking more than two drinks a day, your binge drinking may be putting you at risk for health concerns. Frequently, younger people experimenting with alcohol or people at high risk for alcohol dependence are thought to binge drink.

"If people want to drink safely around the holidays, keep it to a low amount of alcohol," recommends Dr. Allison. "Any time you exceed one or two drinks per day, you run the risk of having an emergency room visit for violence or trauma. The worst case scenario is acute alcohol intoxication with respiratory depression and possible exposure or hypothermia."

Did you know?

Did you know that heavy drinking can affect your health, and others, due to serious professional, family, financial and legal problems?

"People don't realize the impact of alcohol use on their health and the community's health. Heavy alcohol use as a community can affect the health of people that don't drink, through the social impact," says Dr. Allison. "If you're a victim of violence from alcohol, if your family member was injured or died in a drunk driving accident, or if you feel unsafe to walk down the street, it is your problem. It's your city and you live in it. As a society, we need to figure out ways to reduce excessive alcohol use."

What's a drink?

Courtesy of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Alcohol facts

CT and MRI scans have shown that heavy alcohol consumption has a connection to changing the brain and the way it functions. In fact, autopsies of people with chronic alcohol consumption have revealed smaller, lighter and more shrunken brains.

Consuming alcohol can disturb your normal sleep pattern. While some may find it easier to fall asleep after having a drink, drinking within an hour of bedtime disrupts the second half of the sleep period, resulting in waking up and having trouble falling back asleep. This may lead to being sleepy and tired the next day.

Drinking moderately as many as six hours before bedtime may impact the second half of your sleep.

People with alcoholism may be at increased risk for obstructive sleep apnea, especially if they snore. In fact, moderate to high alcohol consumption can lead to the narrowing of your air passage, resulting in episodes of obstructive sleep apnea in persons who do not otherwise have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

The Canadian Medical Association notes that among current and former drinkers, 24.2 per cent reported their drinking had caused harm to themselves or others.

The Canadian Medical Association also notes that alcohol-related mortality in Canada, accounts for 2.4 per cent of all deaths. This translates into nearly 125,000 hospital admissions because of alcohol-related chronic diseases.

Psychiatric illness and cigarette smoking are prevalent among people who drink heavily.

Healthy drinking tips

  1. Consume less alcohol.
  2. Slow down. Wait at least an hour between drinks.
  3. Eat while drinking alcohol.
  4. If you have health issues, consider how consuming alcohol can negatively impact those - such as high blood pressure or liver disease.
  5. Consider the prescription medication you're taking. Is it safe for you to drink while you're taking that medication or is abstaining preferable?
  6. Pregnant or breast-feeding women should not drink alcohol.
  7. If you intend to operate a vehicle, machinery or equipment (such as snowmobiles or quads), you should not be drinking.
  8. And if you're hosting a party, make sure you have non-alcoholic beverages available. Encourage people to find a safe way to get home if they've consumed any alcohol.


If you or someone you know requires support with an addiction,

  • Call the Mobile Crisis Unit at 940-1781.
  • Call Addictions Foundation of Manitoba at: 944-6200 or toll-free at: 1-866-638-2561.

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