I want us to have a culture where teens don’t drink to black out or to where they tell themselves that it’s ok to harm another person, where women are not punished for speaking up, where neither boys nor girls nor men nor women tolerate rape or domestic violence or discrimination or hatred.
Let’s talk about alcohol.
I am a family practice physician and I talk to people of all ages about alcohol. The current recommendation is no more than seven drinks a week for women and fourteen drinks a week for men, no saving it up for the weekend. No more than two drinks in one day for women and no more than three for men.
“What?” you say “No way. Come on, that’s ridiculous.”
My patients don’t say “That’s ridiculous.” After all, they are paying me to do a physical exam and a preventative exam. I am supposed to give them advice. But what is the basis for that?
One drink is defined as a regulation 12 oz beer or 6 ounces of wine or two ounces of hard liquor. If it is a high alcohol beer or wine or liquor, the amount is less.
It is NOT the liver doctors that have given us these numbers. It is the cardiologists, the heart doctors. One drink in women or two in men lowers blood pressure and in general, has good effects. Go over that daily and there is a rebound in blood pressure as the alcohol wears off. Alcohol works in the same way as benzodiazepines: it makes people less anxious and more relaxed and lowers inhibitions. Both alcohol and benzodiazepines are addictive for many people. That is, they develop tolerance, it takes more of the substance to have the same effects, more tolerance and then it takes more and more substance to try to feel half way normal.
Cardiologists qualify this recommendation as follows: there is no recommended daily amount of alcohol that is considered heart protective because there are too many alcoholics. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for an alcoholic is none. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for the general population is none.
Alcohol withdrawal can be very very dangerous medically. I think that the three most difficult things to quit are heroin (and all opiates), methamphetamines and cigarettes, but alcohol is more dangerous. In heroin withdrawal all of the pain receptors fire at once, so it is torture, but people don’t die. With serious alcohol withdrawal, the blood pressure skyrockets and the person can have seizures, a stroke, a heart attack, delerium tremens and can die. In the hospital, benzodiazepines are used to slow the withdrawal, replacing alcohol in a controlled manner.
Alcohol does more than affect the blood pressure. Over time, alcohol can damage the heart and lead to congestive heart failure.
Of course, you know that it can damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is sneaky: as long as there are a few functioning liver cells, the lab work can look pretty normal. The liver makes proteins for the blood and makes proteins that allow our blood to clot. Once there aren’t enough healthy cells to make those proteins, alcoholics will bleed quite spectacularly. If the amount of the protein albumin in their blood is low, fluid leaks from the blood into the tissues: so whatever part is “dependent”, that is, lowest, will be swollen. Alcoholics can have legs with swelling where I can push with my finger and there is a two or three cm dimple. Alcohol also can lead to gastritis and ulcers. If someone can’t clot and they are vomiting blood from an ulcer, the doctor gets a tummyache too, from worrying. Ow. The liver is also supposed to filter all of the blood in the body. As the liver gets blocked with dead liver cells, the blood starts to bypass it. The bypass is through blood vessels in the stomach. Remember that person vomiting blood? The swollen vessels in the stomach are called varicies and we don’t like them to bleed. They are big and can bleed really really fast. The person can die. I don’t like transfusing and really don’t like transfusing 12 units of blood. In end stage alcoholism, the liver no longer lowers the blood level of ammonia. Ammonia crosses the blood brain barrier and poisons the brain. We haven’t even discussed the lack of vitamin B12 and thiamine which can cause unraveling of the myelin sheaths on the long fibers in the spinal cord: this means that the person gets permanent asterixis and “walks like a drunk” even when they are sober. I’m sure I haven’t remembered all of the consequences of alcohol, but that will do for now, right?
How much alcohol daily causes the above charming picture? We Don’t Know. Really. And it is not okay to do randomized double blinded clinical trials to find out. Same with pregnant women: we don’t know if there is a safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and we bloody well can’t test it. It is safer not to drink while you are pregnant.
In clinic, I ask how much people drink. If they say 1-2 drinks daily, I ask what the drink is. Sometimes they look confused. I explain that I have one patient who has two drinks a day: however, it is a 12 ounce glass with a little ice and a lot of whiskey. I asked him to estimate how much whiskey and he said, “6-8 ounces.” That is, each glass is 6-8 ounces. His blood pressure is not under control and so far I feel like a failure as a doctor with him; he is NOT reducing the amount. In medical school, the two jokes were: How much alcohol is too much? More than your doctor drinks. And: How much does the patient drink? Double or triple what they tell us.
The popular word in college used to be that you could drink one drink an hour and still be “okay”. “Okay” to drive and it would wear off. Sorry, nope. Breathalyzers are now pretty cheap; buy one if you are drinking more than the 1-2 per day. And the college students that are binge drinking 6-8 or more drinks on Friday and Saturday: it DOES have long term effects and it IS doing damage.
Lastly, sleep and depression. If you are having trouble sleeping, don’t drink. No alcohol at all. Alcohol is a depressant. It helps people to fall asleep. But they do not have “normal sleep architecture” and it works AGAINST them staying asleep. People often wake up as the alcohol wears off. And the blood pressure is having that rebound, remember, and often their heart will race. That is withdrawal. If you are having trouble sleeping or you are depressed, do not take a depressant. It makes it worse.
I saw a nineteen year old in clinic who admitted to “occasional” heroin use. “But I’m not addicted,” she said. I said, “Well, that’s good. But I took care of a bunch of people undergoing heroin withdrawal while I was in residency and it looked like one of the most painful things on the planet. So I would advise you to quit while you are ahead.” I saw her a year later and she said, “When I tried to quit, it WAS hard. I was addicted and didn’t know it. I’m off now and I won’t go back.” So if you tell me, no problem, I can quit alcohol any time, I say more power to you. Show me. And if it’s harder than you think, get help.
Originally written in 2009 and updated a little today. The picture is just a little fuzzy…like it might be if I was drinking…..
I am a rural family physician and my recommendation: before age 9. Before third grade.
WHY? Your eyes are popping out of your head in horror, but my recommendation comes from surveying my patients. For years.
The biggest drug killer is tobacco. However, it takes 30 years to kill people. It is very effective at taking twenty years off someone’s life, destroying their lungs, causing lung cancer, heart disease, mouth cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer, stomach cancer, emphysema, heart disease….
I ask older smokers what age they started smoking. This is informal. This is not scientific. But most of my male older smokers say that they first tried cigarettes at age 9. I think parents need to be talking to their children about cigarettes by age 9.
And then start talking about alcohol and illegal drugs and the terrible dangers of pills.
“My innocent child would never….” Unfortunately my daughter said that as a senior in high school in our small town, there were 4-5 kids out of the 120+ that were not trying alcohol and marijuana. But there are kids trying far worse substances. We have methamphetamines here, and heroin, and pain pills sold on the street.
The perception that pills are safe is wrong too. Heroin is made from the opium poppy and it’s rather an expensive process, not to mention illegal and has to be imported from dangerous places. But teens take oxycodone and hydrocodone, bought on the street, to get high. And now drug sellers are making FAKE oxycodone and hydrocodone and selling that on the street. It contains fentanyl, which is much much stronger. If the dealer gets the mix wrong, the buyer can overdose and die.
Talk to your children young! NEVER take a pill from a friend, never take someone else’s medicine, never take a pill to party! YOU COULD DIE! And if you have a friend that is not making sense, that you can’t wake up, DON’T LEAVE THEM! Call an ambulance. Your friend may have used something illegal, and may not want you to call an ambulance. But if you think they are too sleepy….. don’t take a chance. People can get so sleepy, so sedated, that they stop breathing.
And parents, you are the ones that have to set a good example. Don’t drink alcohol every night. Don’t use pot every night. Take as few pills as possible. Pills aren’t necessarily safe because they are “supplements” or “natural” — hey, opium and heroin are plant based! Stop using tobacco and if you have a hard time doing it, tell your children you are struggling. It takes an average of eight tries to quit smoking. Get help.
Lastly, we talk about childhood innocence, but we let kids babysit at age 11. That is the Red Cross youngest age. My daughter took a babysitting course at age 11 and babysat. If we think they are responsible enough to do CPR, call 911 and do the heimlich maneuver, shouldn’t we also be talking to them about addictive substances by that age?
Talk to your children about addiction young… so that they can avoid it.
I am submitting this to the Daily Post Prompt: calm. I am not calm about this topic, but the photograph is calm…. and if we can help more children and families…..