How alcohol may be affecting your health and fitness
If you would like to have more energy, feel more in control and sleep better, read on
Any GP will tell you that alcohol is at the root of or associated with 25 per cent of their workload. Photograph: iStock
Kicking back with a glass of wine sounds like an enjoyable way to boost your health. Pinot noir in hand, you wouldn’t even have to break a sweat. If recent headlines are to be believed, drinking a glass of red is equivalent to an hour in the gym.
So is it true? Well, yes and no. “The message that you should drink for health reasons is off the wall,” says Joe Barry, professor of population health medicine at Trinity College Dublin and a board member of Alcohol Action Ireland. “Alcohol does not need to form part of a balanced diet. I drink myself, but not for health reasons.”
Drinking in moderation is fine, he says. The problem comes with our lack of understanding of moderation. “Unless you keep a diary, you will underestimate how much you consume,” he says.
The Healthy Ireland survey 2015 says “drinking to excess on a regular basis is commonplace throughout the population”. Four out of 10 drinkers in Ireland drink to harmful levels on a monthly basis, with over a fifth doing so weekly, it adds.
Over time, this can cause anything from weight gain to increased risk of heart problems, cancer and other diseases. A World Health Organisation report from 2014 links drinking to an increased risk of developing more than 200 health conditions including breast cancer. It can damage your eyes, your brain, your muscles – it’s really a case of whatever you are having yourself.
Even if the future seems too far away to worry about, consider the immediate effects it can have on your fitness. Alcohol impairs the absorption of nutrients needed for energy such as the B vitamins and zinc. So you feel tired, have less energy and endurance. It’s a sedative, so your reaction times are slower.
Alcohol use can affect protein synthesis, reducing muscle build-up and cancelling out the benefits of a workout. Water loss caused by drinking also means the loss of important minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and zinc. These are vital to the body’s fluid balance.
You don’t have to be dependent on alcohol for it to affect your health. You just have to consumer more than the low-risk guidelines regularly: 11 standard drinks for a woman or 17 for a man, per week. A small glass of wine counts as one standard drink and a pint of beer counts as two.
Askaboutalcohol.ie, a website part-funded by the HSE, shines a light on all of this, including the myriad ways alcohol can interfere with your health. It also has a drinks calculator and advice.
“It’s a major health problem,” says Mark Murphy, chairman of communications at the Irish College of General Practitioners. “Any GP will tell you that alcohol is at the root of or associated with 25 per cent of their workload, mostly commonly seeing patients with anxiety, depression or poor sleep.”
Barry says the answer lies in education. “People are not aware they are drinking too much,” he says. “You don’t have to give it up. The answer for most people is to drink a little less, and you will see the benefit.”
And yes, a glass of red wine is helpful, but that is just one glass and those who benefit most are women over 55.
Keeping an eye on consumption is a pretty simple way to help yourself to be healthier and fitter. Not easy, perhaps, but simple.
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: This programme is an eight-week course that will take you from inactivity to being able to run 30 minutes non-stop.
- Stay On Track: The second programme is an eight-week course for those of you who can squeeze in a 30- to 40-minute run three times a week.
- 10km Course: This is an eight-week course designed for those who can comfortably run for 30 minutes and want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!