Eight facts about alcohol

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No other intoxicant is as widespread as alcohol in Germany. It is hardly surprising that everybody has an opinion about it, and that prejudices and misconceptions are also commonplace.

We have put together a list of eight facts about alcohol that might surprise you.

Fact #1: Alcohol is harmful to our health – including the heart

It is a widespread misconception that one glass of red wine a day is good for your heart. The influence of alcohol on our health is actually well studied. One thing is clear: People who drink a glass of red wine for pleasure every now and again needn’t be worried about their health. But you're not doing your health any good.

Systematic reviews of studies involving millions of people show that people who drink a little alcohol do indeed suffer a somewhat less frequently. However, the opposite is true for all other cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure or arrhythmia. Even moderate alcohol consumption increases their risk.

The main thing to keep in mind is that alcohol can make us more prone to a lot of other diseases, including various cancers. Accidents also occur more frequently because of alcohol. Overall, it is fair to say that the more alcohol that is involved, the more harmful it is.

Fact #2: Alcohol problems affect all social classes

It is prejudiced to think that mainly poor and uneducated people drink too much alcohol. In fact, the opposite is true for women. Studies by the Robert Koch Institute show that women with a university-level degree drink risky amounts of alcohol almost twice as often as women who only have a secondary school leaving certificate. A similar trend can be seen amongst men, although the differences between the various educational groups are smaller.

Incidentally, the same is true of age distribution. Drinking behavior in adults differs only slightly, regardless of whether they are 20, 40 or 60 years old.

Alcohol dependence can also be found in all levels of society and education.

Fact #3: Beer and wine are just as harmful as spirits

Some people assume that drinks with lower alcohol content are less harmful. This is also reflected by the language we use, referring to spirits as “hard liquor.” But experts agree that the overall amount of alcohol consumed is what counts, not the form in which you drink it.

In other words, it doesn't matter whether you drink 300 ml of beer, 125 ml of wine or 40 ml of whiskey; all three drinks contain the same amount of pure alcohol.

Fact #4: Binge drinking is also widespread among adults

Heavy alcohol consumption is sometimes viewed as mainly being a problem in young people. Studies by the Robert Koch Institute show that binge drinking occurs in all age groups, though.

Binge drinking refers to somebody having six or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion, for instance at a party or in a bar. That is the equivalent of at least 60 ml of pure alcohol, which is how much is in three large bottles of beer (1.5 l in total) or three large glasses of wine (600 ml in total).

In surveys, 25% of women and over 40% of men in Germany said that they drink that much alcohol at least once a month.

Fact #5: Alcohol disrupts sleep

It is a common belief that because alcohol makes you tired, it also helps with sleeping problems. That is not correct. In fact, the opposite is true. People who drink large amounts of alcohol before going to bed often do fall asleep more quickly, but their body doesn't get its nightly rest. Rather than recovering while asleep, the body is busy breaking down the alcohol. That shortens your phases of deep sleep, causing you to sleep restlessly and wake up frequently. Alcohol also makes you more likely to snore, which can be disruptive to your partner.

Note that needing alcohol to fall asleep is a sign of an alcohol problem. That is a good reason to rethink your drinking habits.

Fact #6: You can have an alcohol problem without getting drunk

Not everybody with an alcohol problem gets drunk. Some people drink moderate amounts every day, but don’t manage to go for one day without alcohol. They need a certain amount of alcohol in their blood to prevent withdrawal symptoms. This is referred to as delta alcoholism.

Alcohol problems can come in all shapes and sizes. One decisive factor is whether somebody has lost control of their own drinking behavior or uses alcohol to ignore problems or to get through daily life.

Fact #7: People often drink alcohol for reasons other than pleasure

Lots of people do indeed enjoy the taste and stimulating effect of alcohol. People often enough drink for quite different reasons though, for instance

  • Because everybody else is drinking and they don't want to stand out, like if a toast is raised at a party. In addition to social pressure, self-image can also play a role among men. They might worry about not seeming manly if they don't drink alcohol. It is also not always easy to turn a drink down. Alcohol is so widespread in our society that it can become a chore to have to say no or explain why you aren't drinking time and again.
  • To forget problems: It's not uncommon for people to drink alcohol to forget personal problems or trouble at work for a while. Some people try to calm themselves down that way to be able to get through daily life. Of course, the problems don't just disappear; and the alcohol itself can then become an additional problem. After all, alcohol makes both positive feelings and negative emotions more intense.

Fact #8: Alcohol is harmful to infants

Most people know that alcohol is harmful to unborn babies during pregnancy. But it's recommended that parents of infants and breastfeeding mothers steer clear of alcohol for various reasons. The most important reason is that alcohol can be passed on to the baby through the mother’s milk. Alcohol is especially harmful for infants because they can barely break it down.

Studies have also found that consuming larger volumes of alcohol (more than two alcoholic drinks per day) can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, for instance through falling asleep on the sofa together with the baby.

If parents don’t want to completely avoid alcohol, it makes sense for them to stick to a couple of rules:

  • Preferably only drink alcohol on one or two days a week, and limit yourself to 10 grams of alcohol (e.g., 100 ml of wine).
  • Ensure a long enough gap between drinking alcohol and breastfeeding so that the alcohol in the breastmilk can be broken down again: If a mother has drunk 100 ml of wine, she should wait two to three hours before breastfeeding or expressing milk again. Otherwise, there's a risk of alcohol still being in the breastmilk.
  • Put the child into the care of a sober person you trust if you do drink a little more alcohol on occasion, for instance the child's grandparents or your partner.

GBD Alcohol Collaborators. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet 2018; 392(10152): 1015-1035.

Jacobi F, Höfler M, Siegert J, Mack S, Gerschler A, Scholl L et al. Twelve-month prevalence, comorbidity and correlates of mental disorders in Germany: the Mental Health Module of the German Health Interview and Examination Survey for Adults (DEGS1-MH). Int J Methods Psychiatr Res 2014; 23(3): 304-319.

Lange C, Manz K, Kuntz B. Alkoholkonsum bei Erwachsenen in Deutschland: Riskante Trinkmengen. Journal of Health Monitoring 2017; 2(2): 66-72.

Lange C, Manz K, Kuntz B. Alkoholkonsum bei Erwachsenen in Deutschland: Rauschtrinken. 14.06.2017.

Task force on sudden infant death syndrome. SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2016 Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment. Pediatrics 2016; 138(5): pii: e20162938.

Wood AM, Kaptoge S, Butterworth AS, Willeit P, Warnakula S, Bolton T et al. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. Lancet 2018; 391(10129): 1513-1523.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Created on November 25, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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