To mark the start of this year’s EU Alcohol Awareness Week, which runs from 15th-21st November, the HSE Alcohol Programme is inviting us all to have a conversation about our alcohol use and how it impacts our health.
To shed light on how alcohol impacts the brain and the immune system, the HSE is hosting a free webinar on Thursday, 18th November at 3pm and you can register here.
Alcohol and COVID-19
As we continue to live with the realities of COVID-19, concerning trends are emerging about the use of alcohol. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted much of people’s drinking from pubs and restaurants to their own homes, with some people reporting an increase in both the amount and frequency of their alcohol use. Increased alcohol use during this time is associated with poorer mental health, suggesting that people are using alcohol to cope with feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation.
This is having a significant impact on our health services. We are seeing an increase in emergency alcohol-related admissions in our hospitals. A study in Beaumont Hospital found a 30% increase in admissions for liver disease over the 18 months since the first lockdown. In other countries, research is showing that alcohol deaths are reaching a record high during the COVID-19 pandemic. In England and Wales, alcohol deaths increased by 16.4% during January to September 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.
Alcohol harms our immune system and brain
Alcohol increases our risk of many serious health conditions including cancer, mental health problems and liver disease. This year for EU Alcohol Awareness Week, the HSE is highlighting the impact that alcohol has on the immune system and brain.
Professor Cliona O’Farrelly, Professor of Comparative Immunology at Trinity College, Dublin said: “New research is deepening our understanding of how alcohol disrupts our immune pathways in complex ways leading to infections, disease and impaired recovery from physical trauma.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of our immune system. Alcohol weakens our immune system functioning and affects a range of organs, thereby increasing the risk of viral infection, severity, recovery and long-term consequences. Heavy alcohol use increases the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), one of the most severe complications of COVID-19.”
One of the most significant organs that alcohol can damage is our brain. It is long known that heavy alcohol use is harmful to the brain and can cause permanent damage, but recent research has shown that even low amounts of alcohol use can be harmful.
Dr Dara Canon, Senior Lecturer and Neuroanatomy Director at the Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory at NUIG said “Alcohol is reducing the health of our grey and white matter of the brain, the parts that we use when making decisions and remembering. Even low levels are showing a negative effect on brain health looking at MRI scans of the brain. This is relevant to healthy people and young people and will affect many parts of the quality of our lives and relationships over time. It is also critical to anyone with a brain disorder such as depression for example, where alcohol will make it more difficult to manage a brain illness.”
Participants on the webinar on Thursday will learn about the latest evidence from the following experts:
- Professor Clíona O’Farrelly, Professor of Comparative Immunology, Trinity College, Dublin
- Dr Dara Cannon, Senior Lecturer, Neuroanatomy Director, Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory, National University of Ireland Galway
- Dr Helen McMonagle, Alcohol-Related Brain Injury Rehabilitation Coordinator, Alcohol Forum Ireland.
Whilst it is best for our immune systems and health more generally to avoid alcohol altogether, if you do drink, the HSE’s weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines are less than:
- 11 standard drinks for women
- 17 standard drinks for men
We encourage everyone to take our Self-Assessment Tool to find out if their drinking is high-risk or low-risk
Need for a public health approach to reduce alcohol harm
A significant contributor to alcohol harm is the affordability of alcohol. A recent survey by Alcohol Action Ireland found that women in Ireland can drink above the HSE’s low-risk alcohol guidelines for as little as €4.95 and men in Ireland for just €7.65.[iii] The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified raising the price on alcohol through excise taxes and pricing policies as one of the most effective and cost-effective ways of reducing alcohol harm.[iv] Other effective measures include reducing alcohol availability and restricting alcohol advertising. The Public Health (Alcohol) Act (2018) includes a range of provisions designed to reduce alcohol harm including restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol and minimum unit pricing.
Dr Aisling Sheehan, National Lead, HSE Alcohol and Mental Health and Wellbeing Programmes said “During EU Alcohol Awareness Week, we encourage everyone to have a conversation about alcohol, its impact on our health, and how public health measures like restricting alcohol advertising and minimum unit pricing can save lives and reduce alcohol-related diseases and injuries in Ireland.”
See askaboutalcohol.ie and #AlcoholAwarenessWeek on social for more information