TIME Research

What Drinking Does to Your Body Over Time

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Danny Kim for TIME

Social drinking is not always benign

The effects of having a few drinks can differ person to person, but often people may not realize just how risky their drinking patterns are, or what that alcohol is doing to them under the hood.

There are two definitions for “safe” drinking. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines say moderate alcohol consumption is OK, which means having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has its own recommendation it calls “low risk” drinking, which sets limits for what levels of drinking will put you at a low risk for developing an alcohol abuse issue later on. This comes out to no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week for women, and no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week for men.

According to Dr. George Koob, director of the NIAAA, the current body of evidence doesn’t show whether there are significant differences between someone who drinks at this level versus someone who never drinks. In some cases, there’s strong evidence to suggest that moderate wine consumption could actually benefit the heart. Though Koob says some studies have been controversial and it’s not determined what it is about wine or other parts of a person’s lifestyle that could be at play. There are also individual patterns and sensitivities that people should take into consideration at this level. Some people can handle the amount better than others.

If you genuinely stay within the healthy drinking limits, you’re likely at a low risk for alcohol-related health problems down the line.

The concept of binge drinking is often associated with college students and drinking to get “drunk.” But evidence suggests that people beyond college age also maintain those heavy drinking behaviors. The NIH defines it as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within two hours. Some of the risks associated with binge drinking are well known. It increases the risk for sexual assault, violence and self harm. But the physical effects of such behaviors on the body are often less discussed. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there’s strong evidence to suggest that regular binge drinking can damage the frontal cortex and areas of the brain involved in executive functions and decision making. Alcohol slows down the pace of the neurotransmitters in your brain that are critical for proper body responses and even moods.

“Abstaining from alcohol over several months to a year may allow structural brain changes to partially correct,” the NIH says. “Abstinence also can help reverse negative effects on thinking skills, including problem­ solving, memory, and attention.”

Long term drinking can also hurt your heart muscles making them unable to contract properly. It can also harm liver, pancreas and immune system function. Heavy drinking can prevent the protective white blood cells in your body to attack bacterial invaders like they’re supposed to. Drinking too much alcohol can also increase your risk for certain cancers like mouth and breast. Regular heavy drinking also increases the risk for some alcohol dependence. “It creeps up on people,” says Koob.

You can calculate how many “drinks” your cocktail adds up to here and assess how risky your own drinking behaviors are here.

TIME Food & Beverage

Underage Drinking and Binge-Drinking Rates Are Falling in the U.S.

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Alcohol remains the favorite drug for people under the age of 20

Underage drinking and binge-drinking rates in the United States are falling.

According to a new report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the percentage of underage people who drink fell 6.1% between 2002 and 2013, from 28.8% to 22.7%. The study defined underage as 12 to 20 years old, reports the Washington Post. The percentage of people who binge drink, defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks during one occasion, decreased from 19.3% to 14.2%, according to USA Today.

“While we’re always very happy about these declines, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we have approximately 9 million underage drinkers in the country,” Rich Lucey, special assistant to the director at SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse, told USA Today.

Despite the decline, which may have been brought about by stricter ID laws and a crackdown on drinking and driving, alcohol is still the most common drug used by minors. 22.7% of those surveyed said they drink, while 16.9% reported using tobacco and 13.6% use illegal drugs.

The survey included more than 30,000 people between the ages of 12 and 20 in the U.S.

TIME Addiction

Alcohol Problems Affect About 33 Million U.S. Adults

Many do not get treated

About 14% of U.S. adults have alcohol-related problems, according to new data on Americans’ drinking behaviors.

The new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at the prevalence of drinking issues based on a new definition for alcohol use disorders in the DSM-5 handbook. The new definition classifies problem drinkers as those who have two of 11 symptoms including continuing to drink even if it harms relationships, drinking harming performance at work of school, or inability to quit. The severity of the problem is classified by the number of symptoms a person has.

In the new research, the study authors interviewed more than 36,000 adults about their lifetime drinking behaviors. The report shows that 30% of those interviewed had been a problem drinker at some point in their lives and 14% currently had problems. Many of the people had never been treated.

Overall, men were more likely than women to have trouble with alcohol, and the issue was particularly noticeable among 18- to 29-year-olds, with about 7% showing symptoms of the most severe form of drinking problem, the study found. The researchers say that is in line with increasingly higher rates heavy of drinking among the age group.

“Most importantly, this study highlighted the urgency of educating the public and policy makers about alcohol use disorder and its treatments, destigmatizing the disorder, and encouraging among those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption on their own, despite substantial harm to themselves and others, to seek treatment,” the study authors concluded.

TIME Research

U.S. Teen Trends In Sex, Bullying, Booze and More

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Good news: Today's teens experience notably low rates of bullying, drinking, pregnancy and unprotected sex

The latest statistics on teenagers paint a rosy portrait of American teens. They’re drinking, smoking and bullying less than they used to, and fewer are getting pregnant.

“Adolescence is an inherently risky time,” says Dr. Stephanie Zaza, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) division of adolescent and school health. “They are stretching their wings. We can’t eliminate all risk, but we are seeing overall good trends in all areas.”

Here’s a snapshot on teen behavior, based on recent reports:

Bullying

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics showed bullying at school was on the decline. Bullying among kids ages 12 to 18 dropped to 22% in 2013. The rate is lower than the 28-32% that was reported in all other survey years since 2005. Even cyberbullying—the use of electronic services to harass someone—has dropped. Only 6.9% of students reported being cyberbullied in 2013 compared to 9% in 2011.

Zaza adds that bullying has often targeted LGBTQ youth, and with increasing acceptance and major policy changes regarding same-sex marriage in the news, social norms regarding sexuality may be changing too, and that may contribute to less fighting.

Smoking

Teens are smoking less, too. In the last CDC National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which analyzes health risk behaviors among high school students, revealed that the high school smoking rate had dropped to 15.7%, the lowest recorded level since the survey started in 1991. It meant that the CDC had met its goal of lowering the adolescent smoking rate to under 16% by 2020, several years early.

Zaza says what’s responsible is a combination of widespread public health initiatives and changing social norms. “When you look at excise taxes, smoking bans, quit lines, campaigns and innovations in therapies, you see this amazing trend in adult and youth tobacco use,” says Zaza. “With all of those changes came a really big change in the social norms around smoking.”

Still, data from the CDC suggests that while high schools are smoking fewer cigarettes, e-cigarette use tripled among middle and high schoolers in just one year.

Drinking

The number of students who drink alcohol also dropped. Though it was still high at 35%, teens reported less physical fighting in school, and most students who were sexually active used condoms.

Sex and Babies

National teen pregnancy rates are also at a record low, with recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) showing a continuous drop over the last 20 years, with a 10% decline just between 2012 and 2013. It’s unclear what is driving the decrease, but it appears teenagers are less sexually active than they have been in the past, and teens that are sexually active report using some form of birth control.

“There’s no doubt birth control and sex education are the most important factors in reducing unintended teen pregnancy,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood said in an email. “Teens are increasingly using IUDs and implants, which are the most reliable methods of birth control.”

America’s teen pregnancy rate is at a record low, but it’s still higher than many developing countries.

Texting While Driving etc.

Zaza says she’s worried about the number of teens who text and drive—41%—as well as the nearly 18% of teens who report using prescription drugs without a prescription.

“I worry about these numbers,” says Zaza, adding that there’s still room for improvement.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

7 Things You Never Knew Were In Your Wine

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Low-alcohol wines are lighter in calories

Sulfites, tannins, resveratrol—if you’ve read anything about wine, you’ve probably come across at least one of these terms. But what does all the fancy verbiage mean for your health? We asked Jim Harbertson, PhD, associate professor of enology (that is, the science of wine) at Washington State University, to decode the lingo commonly found on bottle labels so you know exactly what you’re drinking, and how it affects you, beyond a nice buzz.

Sulfites

What it means:Sulfites are normally added to wine to protect it from oxidation or unwanted microbial growth,” Harbertson says. In other words, they keep wine fresh and prevent it from morphing into vinegar. Sulfites have developed a bad rap for causing allergic reactions like sneezing and headaches, but in reality, only a small portion of the population exhibits a sensitivity or allergy to them. There’s also some indication that they trigger symptoms for asthmatics, but the relationship between worsened asthma symptoms and sulfites isn’t totally clear, Harbertson says. You’ll spot “contains sulfites” on wine bottles because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that labeling when any food contains more than 10 parts per million of sulfites, but for most people, they’re nothing to worry about. Know for sure you’re allergic? Look for the words “sulfite-free” on labels.

Histamine

What it means: The nitrogen-based compound is a common allergen found in foods and can cause an inflammatory response. (It’s also, confusingly, the name for a substance our bodies release when they’re having an allergic reaction.) Histamines sometimes crop up in wines that undergo a second fermentation to smooth out their acidity and texture, Harbertson explains. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to tell which wines undergo this process and which don’t without checking with the winemaker, though some bottles are now labeled as not undergoing malolactic fermentation, meaning they should be histamine-free, Harbertson says). The good news: “There really isn’t any definitive research that demonstrates that the histamines in wine cause human health problems,” Harbertson says.

Tannins

What it means: You know that dry feeling you get on your tongue after sipping certain kinds of vino? That astringent sensation is caused by tannins, a type of polyphenol that get produced during the winemaking process, mostly from grapes. While these micronutrients may be disease-fighting when consumed in certain forms and foods, when imbibed in wine, “these natural compounds tend to get bound up in salivary proteins and proteins in the human digestive system, so their health benefits are somewhat limited,” Harbertson says. Tannins are most often found in big, full-bodied red wines—look for labels bearing the names Bordeaux, Shiraz, Barolo, or Barbaresco.

Resveratrol

What it means: You may have seen this buzzy antioxidant, found in the skin of grapes listed on the packaging of beauty serums and creams touting its anti-aging properties. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a wine label doing the same. “Based on current studies, it’s not clear that there’s a health benefit [of drinking it] because the resveratrol concentration in wine is low,” Harbertson says. Want to try to load up on resveratrol, just in case? Know that there’s likely a higher concentration of it in red wines versus white. But that’s still no reason to drink more than the recommended one glass a day.

Heavy metals

What it means: Okay, this one’s not listed on any label, but you might have heard about these being linked to wine anyway. Heavy metals are metals and metal compounds that can adversely affect our health when consumed in the right (or wrong, as the case may be) doses. A study published in the Chemistry Central Journal indicated that some wines have showed concerning levels of heavy metals such as copper and manganese. However, according to Harbertson, “the FDA has been monitoring heavy metals in wine and has indicated that concentrations are lower than would require regulation.” Cheers to that!

Organic and biodynamic

What they mean: Organic winemakers refrain from using pesticides and other chemicals in their growing and production methods, and they don’t add sulfites as preservatives. Biodynamic vintners start with these same organic practices, but they also consider the whole ecosystem of the vineyard in growing their grapes, including more obscure factors such as lunar cycles. While Harbertson says he’s all for producing wine that’s environmentally sustainable, he also notes, “there’s not enough information at this point on the human health impacts of biodynamic and organic grapes and wine” to say that the practice is actually good for us.

Low-alcohol

What it means: This hot phrase has been all over wine labels lately. The benefits of low-alcohol wine include getting less drunk with each glass, lower cost per bottle, and a lighter taste. It’s lighter on calories, too: Though the relationship between booze and calorie intake is complex—“alcohol is not converted to energy like other things you consume and, therefore, doesn’t get stored as other calories will,” says Harbertson—alcohol is the primary source of calories in wine, so low-alcohol wine will have fewer of them than bottles with a higher content.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

More from Health.com:

TIME Heart Disease

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much? A New Study Has Answers

Alcohol, at least in moderation, can help the heart, but too much can be toxic. The latest study tells you where to draw the line

For decades, there’s been a steady line of literature welcomed by anyone who enjoys a regular drink or two: that moderate drinking can actually protect you from having a heart attack by keeping your vessels clear and relatively plaque-free. But there’s another set of data that shows too much alcohol can start to poison the heart. So where does the line between good-for-you and bad-for-you lie?

Researchers led by Dr. Scott Solomon, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of non-invasive cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and his colleagues provide some clues Tuesday in their latest report in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging. The scientists combed through data collected from 4,466 elderly people about their alcohol consumption. They also agreed to echocardiograms of their hearts. Solomon wanted to see if there were any changes in the structure of the heart that had anything to do with how much the volunteers reported they drank each week.

MORE: Should Alcohol Be Forced to List Calories?

The not-so-good news: The more the participants drank, the more likely they showed abnormal changes in their heart structure and function. In men, the changes started accumulating after more than two drinks per day, or 14 or more drinks a week. In these men, the pumping chambers of their hearts increased slightly compared to those in non drinkers, a sign that the heart had to work harder to pump the same amount of blood, which can cause it enlarge and weaken. In women, these changes appeared when women drank much less, just above the one drink a day. In addition, among the women who imbibed more than a drink a day, the scientists found slight drops in heart function compared to women who drank less.

“A little bit of alcohol may be beneficial, but too much is clearly going to be toxic,” says Solomon. “Once you get beyond two drinks a day in men, you get into the realm where you start to see subtle evidence of cardiotoxic effects on the heart that might over the long term lead to problems. And that threshold might be lower in women.”

The study provides valuable information about how alcohol affects the heart, and how much alcohol exposure can trigger changes to the heart’s structure and more importantly, how it functions. But where the tipping point lies with each individual between the benefits and harms of a having a few drinks isn’t clear yet. More studies investigating which genetic factors may predispose people, and in particular women, to the toxic effects of alcohol will need to done before more refined advice about how much is too much can be discussed.

Those investigations might start with potential differences in the way men and women process alcohol. The effects Solomon and his team saw remained strong even after they adjusted for body mass index, and other studies have hinted, for example, that the different hormone environments in men and women might be responsible for the increased vulnerability of women’s heart tissues to the toxic effects of alcohol.

Future work may also delve deeper into the question of how long people drink; like any exposure, the effects of alcohol may also be cumulative. Because the participants in the study were relatively elderly, with an average age of 76, their heart changes reflected decades of exposure to alcohol but it’s not clear whether there is a threshold for when the harmful effects dominate over the potentially beneficial ones.

“What is clear is that at more than two drinks a day is the point at which we start to think we are beyond the safe level for men, and with women, it’s likely to be even lower than that,” says Solomon.

TIME consumer goods

This Is About to Become Your Favorite New Drink

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Chris Stein—Getty Images

Interest in premium brands is on the rise

Bacardi is jumping onto the bourbon bandwagon with its acquisition of a premium Kentucky distiller. But the bandwagon it has been riding since 1862 is picking up speed itself: Even as volume sales of rum are expected to decline, dollar sales are expected to grow, according to a new report, thanks mainly to rising interest in premium brands.

Bacardi on Monday announced it would acquire the maker of Angel’s Envy bourbon, giving the fourth-largest spirits maker its first foothold on the bourgeoning American bourbon market. The brand is owned by Angel’s Share Brands and Louisville Distilling Co. Its flagship port-finished bourbon is among the fastest-growing brands in a market that has seen eye-popping growth: total bourbon sales have increased 35% in the United States over the past five years, and 50% worldwide.

Bacardi is late to the party. It owns the staid, mainstream Dewar’s Scotch, and some whisky-based liqueurs, but until now has had no bourbon brands or any American whiskeys of any kind. But the bourbon trend doesn’t seem to be abating, and though Angel’s Envy is expected to move just 65,000 cases this year (not bad for a company launched in 2011), the company is building a new distillery in Louisville to be completed in 2016. That will take capacity to 800,000 cases.

Meanwhile, rum might be the new bourbon, as drinkers worldwide continue to seek out higher-end hooch. While total volume is expected to fall by about 1.7% between this year and 2014, most of that shrinkage will be at the low end of the market, according to a new report from just-drinks/IWSR Insights. Leaving the cheap stuff out of the equation, volumes will increase by more than 5.5 million cases, to 64.5 million, all of it premium priced.

Just as with premium and small-batch bourbons, “aspirational drinkers” are driving these trends. Rum has been somewhat late to the game because it has had to overcome its image as the booze of frat-boy party monsters and Jimmy Buffett fans. But the industry, most definitely including Bacardi itself, has been working to change that image through — and this is a word uttered entirely seriously by industry people — “premiumization.” Bacardi in 2013 vowed to “premiumitize” the whole rum category, with particular attention to premium brands as well as flavored varieties and spiced rums, all of which have seen sales take off over the past couple of years.

Not that rum will necessarily displace bourbon and other craft whiskeys in terms of cultural cachet. But drinkers are bolting for the high end across all categories. Still, rum has its work cut out for it. In 2014, Ed Pilkington, head of global marketing for Diageo’s vodka, rum, and gin brands, declared that rum had “lost its soul,” and had “fallen behind,” thanks to those aforementioned frat boys.

At the same time, rum was taking off in Europe, even as sales were slowing just about everywhere else. Those trends, according to the new report, are now spreading elsewhere, thanks in part to introductions of products like Bacardi’s high-end Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron, as well as flavored rum’s like its Bacardi Mango Fusion.

TIME Ireland

Irish PM Slams Tony Abbott for Offensive St. Patrick’s Day Video

Tony Abbott drew widespread scorn for comments such as "this is the one day of the year when it’s good to be green”

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny admits to being irked by a St. Patrick’s Day video posted by his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott, saying it perpetuates a “stage Irish perception.”

In an extremely cringeworthy clip, the Australian Prime Minister highlights his green tie, makes quips about “being green” and says how he wants to celebrate the day by drinking lots of Guinness.

“This is the one day of the year when it’s good to be green,” he says, in reference to his regressive environmental policies. “I’m sorry I can’t be there to share a Guinness or two, or maybe even three, but like you, I do rejoice in St Patrick’s Day.”

After attending a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Kenny told reporters that he didn’t agree with Abbott’s remarks.

“There has been a long-term view of a stage Irish perception. I reject that,” he said, reports the Irish Times.

He went on to say that people should enjoy St. Patrick’s Day celebrations responsibly.

“I think it’s really important that we understand that we have a national day that can be celebrated worldwide, St Patrick’s Day.”

Abbott drew widespread scorn for the video address, with members of the Irish community describing his comments as “patronizing.”

“It’s been said of us that the English made the laws, the Scots made the money and the Irish made the songs,” he said in the video.

TIME Research

Are YouTube Videos With Alcohol Dangerous?

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A new study shows popular YouTube videos make light of alcohol

Prior research has suggested that teen media exposure to alcohol, whether through TV shows or movies, could influence their drinking behaviors. Now, a new study suggests that online videos may also be a site for negative exposure.

In the new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of researchers watched 70 of the most popular videos on YouTube related to intoxication in order to see what kinds of messages they were sending.

To do that, the researchers searched for the terms “drunk,” “buzzed,” “hammered,” “tipsy,” and “trashed” and chose the most popular and relevant videos in those categories. In order to characterize the videos, they coded each one for a variety of factors, like how much alcohol was depicted, who the characters were and whether the video showed consequences of binge drinking. Overall, the videos contained more men than women, and usually depicted a specific brand. Rarely did the videos show poor side effects like withdrawal.

The videos with the most “likes” tended to be funny, and the overall vibe of the video was upbeat and positive when a specific brand was mentioned. Hard alcohol was the most common beverage featured, even though beer is the most common alcoholic beverage consumed in the United States, the authors note.

In the study, the researchers didn’t make any connections between watching the videos and drinking more or drinking more dangerously. But their findings shed light on what alcohol-related content is available online. The findings are still preliminary, but online videos may be another way to target young people who might be susceptible to messaging.

Conversely, the researchers also view YouTube as a potential venue to reach young people with positive messages about drinking as well. Videos could educate teenagers about the potential consequences of behaviors like binge drinking. Either way, YouTube may be worth further consideration by public health experts, they note.

TIME

Here’s How Many Brits Don’t Drink Alcohol

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Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images Beer pumps in a pub on March 11, 2011 in London, England.

A new survey finds a surge of teetotallers, particularly among young adults

One in five British adults don’t fancy a pint, or even a drop, according to a national survey released Friday that finds drinking rates in decline across the nation and plummeting among certain age groups.

Young adults accounted for most of the change, according to survey results gathered by the Office for National Statistics. The proportion of teetotallers in this age group surged by 40% since 2005, news which health officials greeted with relief. The study notes that excessive drinking posed a chronic public health risk, causing as many as 7,000 alcohol-related deaths in 2013.

But health experts interviewed by the Guardian dismissed the celebrations as premature. They pointed to demographic shifts, such as a growing number of elderly and Muslim citizens, who tend to drink less than the wider population or abstain from drinking on religious grounds.

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