As early as 10,000 BC, humans have already been drinking fermented beverages. Alcoholic drinks are common in many cultures and often reflect their heritage and religious practices as wells as geographical and sociological conditions. All through the centuries, there have been endless arguments about alcohol’s merits and demerits. To this date, the debate still simmers.
This article offers another perspective on alcohol based on scientific studies. It discusses the effects of alcohol on the body, its possible health benefits as well as risks. It is important to realize that alcohol has its dark side due to its addictive nature. If you are a regular drinker, balance your risks and benefits and drink responsibly. Also, know that there is something you can do and nutrients you can take to mitigate the damages caused by chronic alcohol consumption.
How Alcohol Affects You
The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages is a simple molecule called ethanol, which affects the body both positively and negatively. Studies showed that what makes the difference is the dosage of alcohol consumption.
In general, light to moderate drinking refers to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men. Heavy drinking is more than 3 drinks per day for women and 4 drinks for men. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (40% alcohol).
Alcohol acts as a depressant to your central nervous system. That means when you drink, your brain cells communicate at a slower rate than normal.
- The function of your brain’s limbic system, which controls emotions such as anxiety and fear, decreases. Your inhibitions may disappear and you become more outgoing and social.
- The function of your prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with reasoning and judgements, slows. You may be more impulsive, impairing your ability to make sensible judgements.
- The function of your cerebellum, the brain area that plays a role in muscle activity, decreases. As you drink more, you may feel dizzy and lose your balance. Therefore, at this stage, you should definitely not attempt to drive.
If you drink too much, you may have a blackout, a phenomenon characterized by memory loss. These effects are only temporary, but chronic alcohol abuse may cause permanent changes in the brain, increasing the risk of dementia and causing brain shrinkage in middle-aged and elderly people.
During a very heavy drinking episode, the neurons in the brain that control your heart rate and breathing may slow down their communication to the point that your breathing stops completely. This is called alcohol poisoning and it may lead to death.
Women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning than men, in part because they have lower body water percentage. The average female has only 52% while the average male has 61%. Women also have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme designed to break down alcohol in the body, than men.
Drinking too much is definitely damaging to brain health. But recent studies found that moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, than non-drinkers. Wine seemed to have more benefits than other alcoholic drinks, probably due to the presence of resveratrol, a type of polyphenol in wine that reduce inflammation.
One of the liver’s main functions is to neutralize all sorts of toxic substances we consume. Hence, the liver is particularly vulnerable to damage by excessive alcohol intake.
- Since alcohol is metabolized and neutralized by the liver, drinking excessively can create an inflammatory response that leads to increased fat inside liver cells. Fatty liver is usually symptomless and may be fully reversible by making lifestyle changes.
- Chronic binge drinking results in cirrhosis where liver cells die and get replaced with scar tissue. In general, binge drinking occurs when women consume over four or men consume over five alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period. Cirrhosis is very serious and is irreversible; getting a liver transplant may be the only option.
There are trillions of bugs that live in the human stomach, small intestines, and colon. Collectively known as the microbiome, these microbes or bacteria have a huge impact on health and well-being.
- Studies found that the beneficial bacteria play a huge role in the digestion and assimilation of food. They have a tremendous influence on the immune function and your ability to fight off illness and disease.
- Research showed that alcoholics are associated with altered gut microbiome. As alcoholism progresses, the gut undergoes a form of dysbiosis whereby the levels of good bacteria drop while those of bad bacteria increase. This weakens the immune system and the body becomes far more susceptible to all sorts of foreign invaders, inflammation, and diseases.
- It is now understood that altered gut microbiome as a result of alcoholism may lead to chronic low-grade inflammation and many modern diseases such as insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, leaky gut (intestinal permeability), and even depression.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. About 610,000 people die of heart disease every year.
Alcohol’s biggest beneficial effect is the heart, but it also depends on the dose. Hundreds of studies have shown an inverse association between light to moderate drinking and risk of cardiovascular disease. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to as much as 40% reduction in risk. That said, heavy drinking appears to increase cardiovascular risks.
Research shows that moderate amounts of alcohol:
- raise HDL or the “good” cholesterol,
- decrease blood pressure,
- lower the concentration of fibrinogen in the blood, a substance that contributes to blood clots, and
- improves insulin sensitivity, lowers blood sugar, and reduces the risk of diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Despite the heart benefits, there is convincing evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer among women in the general population. Researchers found that having 2 or more drinks a day increases the chance of developing breast cancer by as much as 40%.
However, do know that heart disease kills 10 times more women in the U.S. than breast cancer every year. If you are more at risk for heart disease than breast cancer, you may want to balance your risks and benefits accordingly.
In addition, a recent Canadian study found some interesting observations regarding women who have inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These are tumor suppressor genes and having inherited mutations is linked to increased lifetime breast cancer risks.
- BRCA1 carriers have a 55-65% chance of developing breast cancer by age 70.
- BRCA2 carriers have a 45% chance of developing breast cancer by age 70.
- Women in the general population have about an 8% chance of getting breast cancer by age 70.
The study found that if the BRCA carriers were wine drinkers, the BRCA1 group showed a 62% lower risk of breast cancer than the general population but the BRCA2 group showed a 58% greater risk.
Scientists believe the impact they observed may be due to resveratrol in red wine. Resveratrol binds to estrogen receptors and helps regulate the activity of BRCA1 mutated genes. Scientists have not found out why BRCA2 mutated genes were unreceptive to resveratrol. Much more research is required in this area.
The Dark Side Of Alcohol
Abraham Lincoln once said, “It has long been recognized that the problems with alcohol relate not to the use of a bad thing, but to the abuse of a good thing.”
Alcohol abuse is the third main cause of preventable death in the U.S., being an important cause of accidents, social problems, and chronic diseases. Moderate alcohol consumption may increase life expectancy, but alcohol abuse is undoubtably a strong risk factor for premature death.
- 18.2 million Americans meet the standard criteria for alcohol abuse.
- Alcohol plays a role in 1 in 3 cases of violent crime.
- More than 16,000 people die each year in alcohol-related car accidents.
Alcohol is additive, and may lead to alcohol dependence in predisposed individuals. Numerous factors can predispose people to problem drinking, such as family history, social environment, mental health, and genes. As a rule of thumb, if alcohol is causing problems in your life, then you may have a problem with alcohol dependence.
As discussed above, heavy drinking and chronic alcohol abuse have catastrophic health effects. The number one priority is to get your consumption under control or seek professional help and abstain completely in case of alcoholism.
Protocol To Lessen Alcohol’s Damage To The Body
- Studies showed that the most physically active long-time drinkers had less damaged white matter in their brains compared to those who were inactive. White matter is the wiring of your brain’s communication system. It is known to decline in quality with age and heavy alcohol consumption.
- Exercising regularly can greatly reduce your risk of becoming dependent on alcohol. When you drink alcohol, it alters your brain to release dopamine, a chemical that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. However, when you exercise, the same reward chemical is released, that means you get the same buzz from working out, like what you get from a drink.
- For those who are already addicted, exercise is beneficial too and may actually help to lessen cravings.
Alcohol depletes certain nutrients in your body and places great burden on your liver. If you regularly consume alcohol, taking the following nutrients beforehand will help mitigate the damage alcohol does to your body.
Alcohol depletes the B vitamins, in particular, folate. It is possible that this interaction is how alcohol consumption increases the risks of cancer. Studies found that among women who consumed one or more alcoholic drink a day, those who had the highest levels of folate in their blood were 90% less likely to develop breast cancer than those who had the lowest level.
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant and helps reduce alcohol-induced oxidative stress in the liver. Since alcohol zaps the body’s store of vitamin C, getting more vitamin C in the body either via food or supplements may help speed up the metabolism of alcohol by the liver.
To start with, many people are already deficient in magnesium because of a diet heavy in processed and nutrient-poor foods. Alcohol further depletes your body’s store of this mineral. Magnesium is found in more than 300 different enzymes in the body. It is critical in many different body functions including energy production, heart function, regulation of blood pressure and blood sugar, bone and teeth formation, and bowel function.
Silybum marianum is the scientific name for milk thistle. For thousands of years, it has been a popular herbal remedy for the treatment of liver problems. It possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can be highly beneficial to the liver.
N-acteyl cysteine (NAC)
NAC is a form of the amino acid cysteine which helps increase glutathione (also known as the “master” antioxidant in the body) and reduce alcohol toxicity which causes many hangover symptoms.
Alcohol’s effects on the body can range from “probably beneficial” to “absolutely detrimental”. It all depends on the dosage and your individual genetic disposition.
If you currently do not drink, there is truly no need to start as alcohol can be addictive.
If you are pregnant, you should not drink as it may have adverse effects on the development of the fetus.
If you have an alcohol addiction problem, you should seek help and abstain from alcohol completely.
If you are a regular drinker, moderation is the key. Watch out for your pattern of drinking. There is a huge difference between having a glass of wine everyday versus having 7 drinks on the weekend.
Among all the alcoholic drinks, red wine seems to be the best due to the presence of resveratrol. Organic and biodynamic wines are preferable as they do not use toxic chemicals and additives in growing and making the wine. Sweetened cocktails are the worst as they contain a high sugar content, a double whammy for your liver.
Exercise regularly and take some additional nutrients to lessen alcohol’s effect on your body.
For the drinkers, drink responsibly.