Think before you drink, says a new Ottawa Public Health campaign

A few casual drinks between friends can become a health risk

Health officials launched a new campaign in March to curb binge drinking after a report outlined that alcohol leads to an estimated 110 deaths and 970 hospitalizations in Ottawa each year.

Substance Misuse in Ottawa also showed that almost 75 per cent of males and 50 per cent of females between the ages of 19 and 24 engage in frequent binge drinking.

Frequent binge drinking is defined as consuming five drinks in two hours for males and four drinks in two hours for females at least once a month, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the United States.

The number of people who engage in this pattern of drinking is rising steadily in Ottawa and is higher than the provincial average, says public health nurse Terry-Lynne Marko.

“We get concerned when we see numbers like that because if people continue that [pattern of drinking] over a long period of time they run the risk of more chronic diseases of stroke, cancer and high blood pressure,” she says.

The long-term health risks of alcohol can be reduced by drinking fewer than 10 drinks per week for women with no more than two drinks per day, and fewer than 15 drinks per week for men with no more than three drinks per day, according to Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.

Binge drinking may lead to cognitive impairment, study shows

People who drink more alcohol a few times weekly  may have more cognitive deficits than those who drink lesser amounts of alcohol every day, says Olivier George, a senior staff scientist at the Scripps Research Institute in California.

His team was interested in studying binge drinking after World Health Organization statistics indicated countries like Canada and the United States consume less alcohol but have higher rates of alcohol dependence and binge drinking in comparison to countries like France, George says.

George is the lead author of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Over five months, one group of rats was given constant access to alcohol and the other group was only given access three times a week.

“The rats with the constant access would drink the equivalent of one or two glasses of wine per day,” he said. “The rats with access three times per week drank two to three times more than the other group after three weeks.”

The rats with restricted access to alcohol were drinking the equivalent of what an adult would consume during happy hour, he says, which was just under the 0.08 blood alcohol concentration that characterizes a binge.


The study found the binge drinking rats performed much worse in tasks that looked at working memory and impulsivity.

The most surprising finding was that there was an activation of inhibitory neurons in the binge drinking rats after they stopped drinking, George says.

These inhibitory neurons control the activation of a second group of neurons called principal neurons. Principal neurons control cognitive function, motivation and emotion, he says.

This could mean that although binge drinkers do not show physical withdrawal symptoms that characterize alcoholism, their brain might be going through a withdrawal in excitatory function, he says.

The problem is that in humans, current technology only allows scientists to look at net changes in the prefrontal cortex. Since this binge drinking mechanism is inhibiting an excitatory response, no net activity is happening, he explains. It would be like pressing the brakes and gas pedal of a car at the same time.

The area of the rat’s brain affected by this pattern of drinking is also strongly connected to the amygdala, which controls emotion, mood, and stress.

“Normally the prefrontal cortex inhibits this region so you can cope with adversities in life,” he adds. “What we see with binge drinking is that this connection disappears so that makes the rats more susceptible to stress and becoming depressed.”

If this is happening in humans, it can be a major concern for young binge drinkers. They may start drinking to feel better not just to be social, he says, which could lead to alcoholism.

“It’s a little scary if you think about it,” he concludes. “I enjoy my happy hour too but it makes you think twice.”

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