The benefits and risks of drinking alcohol

What are some of the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol?

Samantha Jane Hardy
Peace Coach

There's no doubt, alcohol can make for a fun night out. Drinking (up to a point) can make you more confident, less inhibited, a better dancer, more entertaining, and braver in getting what you want. But it's worth thinking about whether you get what you want, or what you need? And even assuming that you get what you need, how sustainable is it given that most of the time you are sober and hence not so confident, an average dancer, etc.? How sensible is it to rely on alcohol to provide this temporary "self-improvement'? Is there a better way for you to more permanently (and less riskily) improve yourself in these ways?

The risk part is the most problematic aspect. Alcohol in moderation may be fun, but there's a fine line between improvement and impairment, between glory and humiliation! Most people like to think that they can control their alcohol intake to be able to draw that line. But in all honesty, how many times has "just one or two drinks" has turned into an all-night party and an all-day hangover. The problem is that when you are making the decision about whether or not to have that third or fourth drink, your decision-making ability is already impaired.

Ask yourself, in all seriousness, is alcohol something that you need? Is it something that you can fairly easily give up without having a significant impact on your life? Can you put the money that you used to spend on alcohol and the time you used to waste recovering from its effects to better use? Buddhists are not supposed to drink alcohol. This is one of the five universal codes of conduct we should keep in our daily life:

  • Not to kill living beings
  • Not to steal
  • Not to commit adultery
  • Not to tell lies
  • Not knowingly to drink alcohol or consume intoxicants.

Some believes take this very seriously; e.g. in Buddhism, breaking the fifth code of conduct is actually the most serious of all.

If you consider self-discipline based on the five codes of conduct, you will find that each of the five codes of conduct are more or less independent from one another — except for the fifth. If you break the any of the first four codes of conduct, normally it will not cause any other of the codes of conduct to be broken. However, if the fifth code of conduct is ever broken, it subsequently increases the risk of breaking all the other four code of conducts.

When you drink, you say more than you mean to, some is true, the rest breaks the fourth code of conduct. If you have some latent adulterous tendencies, they will manifest themselves when you are drunk. If you have tendencies to steal then you will find it hard to keep your hands to yourself when you are drunk. If you are normally bad-tempered, when you are drunk you will be uninhibited in your violence. Alcohol may be the single reason why you break all the codes of conduct. (A Manual of Peace, page 234).

Even if you are not Buddhist, there are many good reasons not to drink alcohol. However, many people will say that there are also good reasons not to stop drinking alcohol. Let's have a closer look at some of the pros and cons of alcohol consumption, from a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist perspective.

Health and physical well-being

Alcohol consumption leads to many deaths each year. Alcoholism is the third most common preventable cause of death in the USA after smoking and obesity. These deaths may be from health complications caused by alcohol (e.g. csirhosis of the liver) or from accidents caused because of alcohol (e.g. drink drivers).

Alcohol also creates a risk to children. There is a health risk to unborn babies when a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant. Also, when parents drink alcohol they may not be as alert and thus less able to protect their children from harm.

Speaking of obesity, alcohol is quite fattening but does not have great nutritional value. Alcohol is metabolized extremely quickly by the body. The liver, which normally metabolizes fatty acids, first metabolizes any alcohol in our system, and lets the fatty acids accumulate. When alcohol is consumed regularly, this can permanently change the liver cell structure, leading to a fatty and less well functioning liver.

The World Health Organisation, in a document called "Healthy Living" explains the physical risks of alcohol consumption:

The risks to you:

  • Raised blood pressure which increases the risk of Stroke;
  • Stomach disorders;
  • Depression and emotional disorders;
  • Cancers, particularly of the mouth, throat and gullet;
  • Hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver;
  • Malnutrition;
  • Accidents, at home, at work and on the roads;
  • Suicide.

The risks to your family

  • Violence, accidents (perhaps influenced by you);
  • Less to spend on food (leading to poor nutrition);
  • If you are pregnant you can damage your baby by drinking alcohol.

Admittedly, there are also some studies that show that moderate consumption of alcohol has some health benefits. I guess the question is whether or not those benefits outweigh the risks and the benefits of not drinking.

Mind

Alcohol also has an effect on your mind, both short term and long term. The World Health Organisation describes some fairly serious mental health consequences of alcohol consumption, including depression and emotional disorders, suicide, poor role model for children, and an increased risk of divorce.

Most of us may not be at risk of such serious consequences, but it is still worth consider how our mind is impacted by the consumption of alcohol. We need to consider two aspects:

  • Our state of mind in deciding to drink alcohol (ie. why we drink it, the cause); and
  • The effect on our state of mind of drinking alcohol.

CAUSE: Why do we drink?

Many people enjoy having a drink or two. However, there are probably lots of things that you enjoy that are probably not very good for you. Why do we minimise some things and not others? For example, you might love chocolate, but you wouldn't have two blocks every night when you get home from work. But many people have a couple of glasses of wine or beers after work each night as a normal thing to do. What is the difference?

I guess the burning question is "why exactly do we enjoy drinking"? This is a really difficult question to answer. Here are a few possible answers: I like the taste, it's sociable, it makes me feel more relaxed, it makes me less inhibited and more fun to be around (this last one is probably arguable, depending on whether you think loud talking, bad singing and silly dancing is fun to be around, and is also inversely proportional to the amount of alcohol that I consume). Again, there are potentially good and bad reasons to drink, just like there are potentially positive and negative consequences of doing so. Everyone needs to make their own decision about how to weigh up the pros and cons.

In the West, drinking is what we do to socialise. We go out for drinks. We have a nice bottle of wine over dinner, or with cheese and crackers. We have a few beers at the football. The other night I was watching a television show and a family was clinking their glasses of wine over Christmas dinner, and I suddenly felt a great sense of loss at having decided not to drink wine any more. I wanted to be in that picture, clinking glasses and laughing. Afterwards, I thought about this and tried to identify what it was that I felt that I was missing. Was it the sense of being with a group of people who were happy and laughing and enjoying themselves, or was it the wine. I tried to picture the scene with everyone clinking glasses of orange juice. It seemed a little weird. I struggled to imagine everyone quite as happy without the wine. The more I thought about it, the more this began to disturb me. Why did I felt that without the alcohol everyone would not be as happy? Was I effectively saying to myself that we needed the alcohol in order to be happy? What did that say about us? Why shouldn't we be able to be as happy without the alcohol? The idealist in me believes that we could, and that it's just habit that makes us automatically include alcohol in those kinds of situations. Could we unlearn that habit and still have as much of a good time? I would like to think so, otherwise it's a pretty sad state of affairs if we are not able to be happy without alcohol in our system.

We sometimes use alcohol in a kind of medicinal sense, to relax us and make us feel better. We have a rough day. We have worked hard all week. We deserve a drink. Our girlfriend/boyfriend has just dumped us. We need to forget how much this hurts. Many people use alcohol as a way of avoiding having to deal with difficulties that arise in life.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

"Sometimes we don't need to eat or drink as much as we do, but it has become a kind of addiction. We feel so lonely. Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modern life… We feel lonely so we engage in conversation, or even a sexual relationship, hoping that the feeling of loneliness will go away. Drinking and eating can also be the result of loneliness. You want to drink or overeat in order to forget your loneliness, but what you eat may bring toxins into your body. When you are lonely, you open the refrigerator, watch TV, read magazines or novels, or pick up the telephone to talk. But unmindful consumption always makes things worse." (For a Future to be Possible: Commentaries on the five wonderful precepts, 1993).

Buddhism encourages people to deal with life's difficulties and challenges in a highly conscious and intentional way. It encourages individuals to view problems as opportunities to learn and grow. By practicing meditation, an individual can develop the courage and determination to deal with life, rather than rely on alcohol to create an artificial sense of contentment.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that "we have to touch the feeling of deep-seated well being within ourselves" without having to rely on what we consume to give us that sense of happiness. He also points out that we need not deprive ourselves of the joys of living: We know that there are many items that are nutritious, healthy and delightful that we can consume every day when we refrain from consuming alcohol. There are so many delicious and wholesome alternatives: fruit juices, teas, mineral waters. We don't have to deprive ourselves of the joys of living, not at all. There are many beautiful, informative and entertaining programs on television. There are many excellent books and magazines to read. There are many wonderful people and many healthy subjects to talk about. EFFECTS: What are the consequences on our mind?


I've already discussed the potential serious physical harm and health impacts of drinking alcohol. Alcohol also has an effect on our mind.

Alcohol can encourage irresponsibility, making it difficult for us to be responsible for the consequences of your own actions, speech and thoughts. We say things we shouldn't say; we do things we shouldn't do; we embarrass ourselves; we damage our reputation or others'.

Alcohol can damage friendships and relationships. People may start out drinking to be sociable, but at the end of the night they may be breaking bottles over one another's heads. Or they may be saying things that they would not be saying if they were sober. Or they may be doing things that they would not be doing if they were not under the influence of alcohol.

Even if we have a fabulous time and manage to avoid doing anything too damaging to our own or others' bodies, minds or reputations, the next day we are likely to have a hangover and waste time that we could have used more productively.

How do we use the energy we gain from alcohol?

When we think about the health impacts of what we consume, we usually think about the quality of the food or drink, it's nutritional value, whether or not it has any impurities such as bacteria or artificial preservatives. However, we rarely think of the impact of how we tend to use the energy that we gain from what we consume. It is important to consider how we use our energy, and whether we use if for something positive or something less worthwhile.

For example, in the morning you wake up and eat breakfast. This provides you with calories that you can burn as energy during your daily activities. You probably burn some of that energy getting to work (walking to the bus, riding your bike, etc.) and you burn some more of that energy working so that you can earn an income to provide food and shelter to you and your family. While we can also use the energy provided by our daily meals for less worthwhile purposes, we are more likely to make smart choices about our actions while we are sober!

Buddhism suggests that we should be very careful about what we take into our bodies, and also about how we use the energy that we gain from what we consume, so that we are not wasteful and we expend our energy doing things that are worthwhile. It's worth thinking about the kinds of activities that we tend to engage in after drinking. For most people the activities are probably not that harmful, but a more important question is whether the activities are particularly helpful. After a few drinks, you might engage in some extra loud singing, some outrageous dance moves, or even take a nap. However, if you can't keep your drinking under control you might do some things that are not sensible at all, and which you might live to regret. Even if you are able to control your drinking to such a level that you do not create any harm, physical or mental, to yourself or others, ask yourself: Could you be putting your energy to better use? Are you wasting energy on frivolous activities when that energy could be better used elsewhere? If you're struggling a bit with the notion of alcohol as energy, try substituting the word 'energy' for 'money' in these questions.

How much money do we spend on alcohol?

Alcohol is expensive. Even if you can afford it, and you and your family are not starving, it's worth thinking about whether or not that money could be put to better use. Every day forty thousand people starve to death in a world where there is an abundance of food. The Word Bank official poverty line is $1.25 a day. Figures from August 2008 show that about 1.4 billion people in the developing world (that's one in every four people) were living on less than $1.25 a day (that's about $8.75 a week). Peter Singer in his book "The Life You Can Save" (http://www.thelifeyoucansave.com/index.html) asks us to think about how much money we spend on things that are not really necessary (like alcohol), while there are people starving and dying because they do not have enough money to eat and obtain medical treatment.

Let's say you drink two bottles of wine each week, and they cost about $18.00 each. So you spend $36 a week on alcohol. That same amount of money could:

  • Be used to allow 20 people to eat two meals for a day instead of just one a day for an entire week;
  • Mean the difference between life and death for a sick child, whose parents can't afford the cost of taking it to a hospital for treatment.

While it's admittedly not easy to get that money directly to those who need it, it's not impossible. And the fact that if we donate $36 a week, only some of it will actually turn into food or medical treatment for those in need is not a reason not to help. Some money is better than none at all. Read Peter Singer's book and do the maths for yourself. Are you spending as much (or more) money on alcohol as some people have to feed their families for the week?

Is alcohol acceptable if used in moderation?

Mindfulness is central to Buddhist philosophy. This concept requires a constant awareness of changes occurring in the mind and body. Mindfulness enables the individual to react wisely to emotions and sensations when they arise. Even a small amount of alcohol can affect our ability to think clearly and react wisely.

Intoxication is bringing something into yourself to manipulate your experience, as a way to soothe and distract ourselves from the direct and intimate experience of life. Whatever we use to distract ourselves into heedlessness is an intoxicant. This could include something other than alcohol (such as coffee, chocolate, power, food). This doesn't mean that we have to give up anything that we enjoy. However, it does mean that we should consciously decide how much of an impact any potential intoxicant has on our ability to remain clear and focused and to keep control of our thoughts and actions. This decision requires quite a lot of spiritual maturity and self-honesty. It also means that we have to have the insight and will power to ensure that if we do drink, we can stop before it has a significant impact on our sense of clarity and responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

There are people who drink alcohol and get drunk, who destroy their bodies, their families, their society. They should refrain from drinking. But you who have been having a glass of wine every week during the last thirty years without doing any harm to yourself, why should you stop that? What is the use of practicing this code of conduct if drinking alcohol does not harm you or other people? Although you have not harmed yourself during the last thirty years by drinking just one or two glasses of wine every week, the fact is that it may have an effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply in order to see it.

You are practicing not for yourself alone, but for everyone. Your children might have a propensity for alcoholism and, seeing you drinking wine every week, one of them may become alcoholic in the future. If you abandon your two glasses of wine, it is to show your children, your friends, and your society that your life is not only for yourself. Your life is for your ancestors, future generations, and also your society. To stop drinking two glasses of wine every week is a very deep practice, even if it has not brought you any harm.


Giving up drinking

Giving up drinking is not easy. In the Western world there is considerable peer pressure around alcohol consumption. If someone offers you a drink and you decline, they are likely to think you are weird (or a closet alcoholic). For some reason, some people seem to be personally offended at another person's choice not to drink, and will try very hard to persuade the non-drinker to drink with them. What is this about? Why do some people find it so difficult to accept another person's decision not to drink? This is a very interesting question to think more deeply about.

The Buddha taught that true happiness was to be found in letting go of attachments. Many people are deeply attached to the feelings they experience when drinking alcohol. Through meditation it is possible to let go of this attachment. Buddhist meditation has even been successful in treating alcoholism.

If you are unable to completely stop drinking, then stop four-fifths, or three-fourths. … Alcohol is addictive. One drop brings about another. That is why you are encouraged to stop even one glass of wine. One glass can bring about a second glass. … you are strongly recommended not to take the first glass of wine. When you see that we are in great danger, refraining from the first glass of wine is a manifestation of your enlightenment. You do it for all of us. We have to set an example for our children and our friends. (Thich Nhat Hanh).

Thich Nhat Hanh expresses a vow to keep the fifth code of conduct in these words:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.


He acknowledges that nobody can practice the codes of conduct perfectly. We are all, after all, human. But this is no reason not to try.

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