MS and Alcohol: Will Raising Your Glass Raise Your Risks?

The festive holiday season, birthdays, weddings…let’s face it, no celebration is complete without cracking open the bubbly. But while a glass or two can lift your spirits – and make hitting the dance floor seem so much more fun – alcohol is also associated with a number of short-and long-term effects on health. If you’re living with a chronic illness like multiple sclerosis, this can definitely be cause for concern.

The good news

So is it OK to drink when you have MS? It’s a tough one. Regardless of whether you have MS or not, healthcare professionals warn of the perils of excessive drinking. Certain headlines, however, seem to suggest alcohol is a veritable health tonic. Take the recent news that enjoying a glass or two can reduce your risk of MS. It followed a study that found people who drank regularly were less likely to develop the disease than those who didn’t. The authors couldn’t conclude the exact mechanism underlying these observations but they referred to previous studies that report beneficial effects of alcohol on the immune and nervous systems. Even if you’re living with MS, it seems that a glass from time to time could be actually be beneficial. Another study found that moderate consumption of alcohol (in this study this included everything from 1 drink per week to 2 or more drinks per day) could slow the rate at which the disease progresses in relapsing-remitting MS.

The not-so-good news

But before you pour yourself a large one, remember the key here is moderation – because for all the possible benefits of alcohol there are other serious drawbacks. For starters, alcohol can interact with certain prescription drugs, so discuss this with your doctor if you are taking any medication. There’s also the fact that excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a number of long-term health issues, including liver disease, dementia and cancer.

Even if you don’t drink excessively, alcohol has a number of short-term effects that can exacerbate many of the symptoms of MS. Like the impact it has on the central nervous system, for example, affecting balance, coordination, speech and thinking – symptoms that you may already be experiencing. And if you’re someone who already has bladder concerns, then alcohol will almost certainly make them worse. Alcohol is a strong diuretic, which means it triggers the formation of urine by the kidney – in fact, for every 10 g of alcohol drunk (that’s about one small glass of red wine), urine excretion increases by 100 ml. In other words, even more trips to the toilet than usual!

Alcohol won’t do your sleep patterns any favours either. One review of 20 sleep studies found a drink can help you nod off, but high doses of alcohol interfere with the body’s ability to achieve REM sleep, which is vital for memory and concentration. As the alcohol wears off, sleep becomes disrupted and you may suddenly wake up and find it hard to go back to sleep. Even if you do manage to snooze all night, you’re likely to wake up feeling exhausted due to your lack of REM sleep. So much for a night cap, eh?

Unfortunately, broken sleep isn’t the only way having a drink can affect your mood. We might think of it as a stimulant because it helps us relax and gets us in the mood to party, but alcohol is actually a depressant. In the long term, excessive drinking interferes with brain chemistry, putting you at increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Drink smart

As with most things in life, the key is moderation. Binge drinking in particular is associated with a number of health risks, so know your limits and keep an eye on how many glasses you’re having. If you’re not sure then download one of the many free smartphone apps to help you keep track. Eating a decent meal before you go out can help as this appears to slow the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream. Drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated (before, during and after a night out) and pace yourself by not drinking excessively.

For all the guidelines, alcohol affects everybody differently. If it doesn’t agree with you, give it a miss. If you can enjoy a glass on a night out without too much fallout then do. Just don’t expect it to improve your dancing!

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