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What you should know about alcohol consumption

Nectar of the gods, lethal intoxicant, social lubricant, water of madness, sacred medicinal drink … since ancient times alcohol has been the intoxicating subject of artists, philosophers, physicians, monks, mystics and scientists. So does drinking alcohol have any virtues? What of its vices?

The good news

Alcoholic beverages produced by fermentation only are never stronger than wine, the reason being that the yeasts that convert the fruit sugars into alcohol do not function when the alcohol content exceeds 14 per cent. Only through the method of distillation can stronger alcoholic beverages be made. Any positive effects of alcohol are restricted to wine only.

Wine is one of the mildest in the family of alcoholic drinks and can be a good medicine when consumed in small quantities. Wine aids digestion, relaxes the heart and can decrease tension. Today, world health organisations advocate that moderate consumption of wine (one glass a day), preferably with meals, prevents the formation of cholesterol plaques in the arteries, reduces the risk of heart disease and even promotes a strong antioxidant effect.

Studies have revealed over and over that the low incidence of heart disease and stroke in Mediterranean countries is because of the consumption of red wine. The French, who tend to enjoy fatty food and are reported to have as high cholesterol and blood pressure as Americans do, have only a third the incidence of heart attacks of Americans. It has been suggested this is because of the high intake of red wine by the French.

What’s in a grape?

Beneficial OPCs

Red wine is said to be a rich source of oligomeric proanthocyanidine (OPC) complexes, red flavonoid compounds that are present when a fruit ripens. Flavonoids are a group of 4000 compounds that occur naturally in fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, green tea, flowers and bark. They play a major role in the maintenance of health. It is the use of the seeds and skin of the grape in the making of red wine that makes it a valuable agent in therapeutic terms. The making of white wine requires only the juice of the grape, therefore it has less therapeutic value.

The primary therapeutic use of OPC is to strengthen the walls of the capillaries, veins and arteries. This makes OPC a useful agent in disorders such as venous insufficiency, varicose veins, diabetic retinopathy and muscular degeneration. Just about everyone will benefit from the use of OPC in their daily diet because it is also a good antioxidant (50 times stronger than vitamin C), which means it will protect your whole body from the adverse effects of oxidation.

Although red wine helps to protect against lipid peroxidation, you should not forsake other simple preventative measures, such as simply avoiding all saturated fats (especially of animal origin) and increasing the consumption of fresh foods. Robert Buist PhD, a nutritionist and naturopath, suggests, “For those wishing to increase their daily intake of polyphenolic antioxidants (OPC) without the daily intake of red wine, one of the best alternative sources is grapeseed extract … or just get used to eating apples and grapes whole, including the seeds.”

Resveratrol

Another compound found in wine to which some health benefits are attributed is resveratrol. This compound is found in the skin of the grapes and helps the platelets in the blood become less sticky, which is especially beneficial for those with symptoms of ischaemic heart disease (angina) and atherosclerosis. If you don’t eat grapes, you can also obtain resveratrol by drinking grape juice from the whole grape — seeds and skin included.

The bad news

World health organisations claim that excess alcohol consumption will override any positive benefits of moderate consumption, turning alcohol into a health hazard. Wine is a powerful pharmacological agent. Taken in moderate therapeutic doses it might prove beneficial. However, in larger doses and with habitual use, it will prove a health hazard.

In Australia today it’s estimated there are more than 124,000 alcohol-related deaths per year. Alcohol abuse results directly in more than 40,000 deaths per year in the US. The French, while considered to have the lowest incidence of coronary heart disease, have a very high incidence of cirrhosis.

Alcohol can damage the heart and liver, increase the likelihood of high blood pressure and lead to obesity and malnutrition. Even in low doses, alcohol interferes with memory and makes it difficult for the hippocampus to process new information. Even worse, alcohol abuse can lead to confusion and loss of muscular coordination and can eventually destroy just about every organ in the body.

Alcohol is a factor in domestic violence, divorce and crime. It’s said that one in four hospital admissions is the result of alcohol abuse. In addition, the cost to governmental budgets every year is enormous. It’s estimated that in the US the direct material and medical cost of alcohol abuse is more than 20 billion dollars per year.

What happens on a big night out

Alcohol is toxic in large amounts. Most people at some time have suffered firsthand experience of this after a big night out, complete with the unpleasant hangover after-effects. Once alcohol is in the body, it’s broken down and converted into the precursor of ethanol — acetaldehyde — a chemical that also accounts for the addictive nature of alcohol and is responsible for the degeneration of the liver and heart as well as arterial diseases. Shortness of breath, headache, fast and irregular heartbeat, vomiting, weakness and collapse are a few of the telltale signs of acetaldehyde accumulation in the body.

While the liver tries to unload alcohol from the body during intoxication, the heart continues to pump the rest of it around with devastating effects, particularly to the brain where it is felt as a throbbing hangover headache.

The way alcohol produces its effects is by acting on neurotransmitters and receptors, primarily gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), the prime inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that tells it how to behave and metabolise. Consuming alcohol, then, is akin to hijacking a plane and telling the pilot where to fly! What GABA does exactly is slow down the ‘firing’ of the cell on which the receptor is located. This inhibition accounts for the signs of alcohol intoxication, which range from slurred speech to nodding off mid-sentence (effects also shared by barbiturates such as Valium and Seropax).

Alcohol acts as an irritant to the digestive system. It disrupts the natural microflora in the gut and consequently leads to the gastritis, indigestion, feeling of bloatedness and abdominal ballooning (ascites) often seen in chronic drinkers. Further, alcohol can affect the neural system, causing tremors, coma and confusion. A night’s heavy drinking is equal to the effects of alcohol poisoning.

The potency of alcohol is such that, compared with the mood-altering substances that can be active in the bloodstream in minute amounts, alcohol strongly exerts its effects on virtually every organ in the body, especially those of a heavy drinker.

The ‘drugs’ in alcohol

In alcohol, the most common naturally occurring ‘drugs’ are the biologically active amines. These drug-like amines are usually psychoactive (act on neurotransmitters) or vasoactive (act directly or indirectly on the blood vessels). Although wine has some cardioprotective ability, it must also be pointed out that the effects of alcohol as a vasoactive agent might undo all such good potential.

Some of these bio-active amines are dopamine, tyramine, histamine and serotonin. They are involved in the regulation of mood and sleep, among other functions, and are predominantly found in fermented foods, including beer, wine, yeast extracts, cheese, sausage, beef, chicken liver and even in some fruit and nuts, such as banana and avocado.

Dopamine

Alcohol addiction is believed to be caused in part by natural opiates that arise from dopamine in the brain.

Tyramine

Tyramine (found in wine and beer) has the ability, when consumed in large amounts, to constrict the blood vessels and cause a rise in blood pressure. People with high blood pressure should be wary of these effects when drinking alcoholic beverages or consuming fermented foods.

Histamine

Histamine, on the other hand, also formed during the fermentation process, is a powerful capillary dilator that causes a decrease in blood pressure. People particularly susceptible to this effect are those with allergies, asthma and peptic ulcers. Histamine also accounts for the facial flush and increase in pulse rate that can occur with heavy drinking. Note that histamine is also a major component in the inflammatory process in the body, so all alcohol is to be avoided if you suffer from chronic or recurring inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, gout or eczema, among others.

Ethanol as ‘fuel’

It’s worth mentioning that although alcohol is generally regarded as a stimulant, it is in fact a depressant that slows down the function of all organs in the body. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol), which acts as a brain depressant similar to anaesthetic, might well be responsible for this.

Ethanol is a two-carbon alcohol compound formed from pyruvate (an end product of glycolysis, the biological breakdown of sugar molecules) in yeast and several other micro-organisms during the fermentation process. Once in the body, ethanol is broken down into acetaldehyde, then acetate, then carbon dioxide and water. As an energy molecule and derivative of glycolysis, ethanol has the ability to disguise itself as a fuel molecule (non-essential), with the dual action of a catabolic cellular toxin that causes structural tissue loss. Ethanol supplies cells with energy and replaces other foods at the level of basic fuel.

An early 20th century doctor, in his treatise on the prevention and cure of disease, wrote that “alcohol was regarded formally as a food by some people, since a portion of it can be utilised in the body”. However, the following characteristics of alcohol certainly argue against it being classified as a food product:

  • It has a local irritant action.
  • It has a destructive action on tissue.
  • It has a narcotic action on the central nervous system.
  • Its use can tend to form a vicious habit.
  • A study in the US revealed that about half of a group of middle-class alcoholics obtained 20 to 40 per cent of their daily dietary calories from alcoholic beverages. Chronic habitual drinking inevitably causes severe nutrient imbalances, malnutrition, enervation (lack of nervous energy) and, consequently, the development of chronic disease.

    Additional effects on the body

    Reproductive system

    Continual use of alcohol might well interfere with the healthy functioning of the reproductive system. More specifically, it might cause the penis and testes to shrink and sperm count to diminish and could even precipitate the enlargement of female breasts in men (gynaecomastia). In women, it might alter menstrual flow and reduce breast size, sexual fluids and fertility. Women who habitually drink and still manage to conceive are in further danger of giving birth to a baby with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), one of the leading causes of mental retardation.

    Nutrient deficiency

    Another major concern of chronic alcohol consumption is the fact that it reduces the level of many antioxidants in the body. It lowers the levels of magnesium, selenium, calcium and zinc. Additionally, it causes malabsorption of folic acid, vitamin B12, a great deal of amino acids and fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K, accounting for the poor physical, mental and emotional health of chronic alcohol consumers.

    Susceptibility of women

    Women seem to be more susceptible than men to the effects of alcohol and are generally advised to be more cautious with its use. The reason for this might be explained by the fact that women have a decreased capacity to metabolise alcohol in the gastric mucosa, which means more alcohol will be delivered to the bloodstream.

    Mixing alcohol and drugs

    Alcohol can have serious implications when used together with any prescription drugs, including contraceptive pills and hormone replacement therapy (HRT). In fact, the mixing of alcohol with any other drug (illicit or prescription) can cause anything from sudden collapse and coma to complete respiratory or cardiac arrest.

    Development of disease

    Cancer

    Recent research in Finland investigating 87 cases of colon cancer and 53 cases of rectal cancer found alcohol was a major contributing factor. More specifically, beer was the most positive risk factor, with every drink increasing the likelihood of colon cancer by 17 per cent. The risk was higher for those who were also smokers.

    Hypoglycaemia

    Alcohol stimulates insulin levels, and continual use can cause a pathologic response known as reactive hypoglycaemia, a condition where lowered blood sugar stimulates the craving for food, especially sweet food. Extreme cases can lead to hypoglycaemia and, with alcohol withdrawal, symptoms such as tremors, sweats, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and depression.

    Chronic liver injury

    The liver is the main detoxification organ in the body, so once the liver is badly affected the rest of the body suffers.

    Stage one: fatty liver

    Fatty infiltration of the liver occurs in chronic habitual drinkers, compromising its function (susceptible individuals might be affected by even moderate drinking). This is characterised by an enlargement of the liver, primarily a result of the accumulation of fat.

    Stage two: alcoholic hepatitis

    The second stage of liver injury from the continual abuse of alcohol is alcoholic hepatitis. This is also characterised by a profound enlargement of the liver, only this time it is also the result of the accumulation of water, accompanied by necrosis (death) of several hepatocytes (liver cells), with subsequent formation of scar tissue.

    Final stage: cirrhosis

    The final stage of liver injury from continual intoxication is cirrhosis, the complete hardening of the liver. The necrosis of hepatocytes and the subsequent formation of scar tissue is now so extensive in the liver that its normal functioning is impaired to the extent that it can lead to death. Cirrhosis is the leading cause of death from alcohol abuse in the US, Europe and France.

    The major source of collagen in cirrhosis is believed to derive from the fat-storing cell ‘ito’, which stores vitamin A in the liver. Ito cells become activated during inflammation, release their retinyl ester stores (vitamin A) and transform into myofibroblasts, the principal collagen-forming cells of the liver. These cells then begin to form the distinct tide-bands seen in cirrhosis.

    Compared with the final stage of cirrhosis, which requires massive effort to repair only some of the damage, the first two developmental stages of chronic liver disease (fatty liver and alcoholic hepatitis) appear to be easier to reverse with complete abstinence from alcoholic drinks.

    Chemical cocktail menu

    There are dozens of different chemicals found in conventional non-organic brands of alcohol. These range from artificial fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and insecticides to texture and colour stabilisers and improvers, preservatives, solvents and clarifiers. This chemical cocktail, far from its original pure state, is believed to also be accountable for the ill effects of a big night out.

    Some people might appear to be unaffected by the ingestion of reasonable amounts of food additives, colour agents, preservatives, naturally occurring biological amines and other chemical substances. However, without a doubt, a large number of people will suffer many unspecific effects from ingesting such chemicals, which are present in food and drinks, including wine and most alcoholic beverages. Indeed, for some people, even a single glass of wine, beer or champagne containing these chemicals can be enough to create a range of unpleasant feelings. Some of these chemicals might, in small quantities, elicit hyperactive behaviour. Other chemicals might cause gastrointestinal problems and increased heart rate, even provoking a number of allergies such as asthma and urticaria (hives) in sensitive individuals.

    What are the alternatives?

    Organic and biodynamic wines

    A reasonable measure to avoid ingesting a chemical cocktail is to purchase and consume organic and biodynamic products wherever possible, and this, of course, also applies to wine. Australia is lucky to have such a vast and relatively clean land, which makes organic farming a comparatively easier task than it is in Europe and the US.

    To avoid the deleterious and wide-ranging effects of the nasty chemicals used in conventional vine growing and wine making, seek organic alternatives. Organic and biodynamic wines are healthier and superior in taste, are of higher quality, have more distinct flavours and leave a cleaner palate. This makes sense, as they don’t contain dozens of chemicals. Not only are they eco-friendly, they are now widely available on the market.

    A note on preservatives

    It’s important to know that organic does not necessarily mean preservative-free. Comparatively smaller amounts of the preservative sulphur dioxide are still used to increase the shelf life of organic wine. The legal maximum for the total sulphur dioxide in conventional wines is 400ppm (parts per million); in organic wines it is less than 125ppm. Some wine makers also produce smaller ranges of preservative-free wines. Be sure you read the labels. If you have any queries, contact the wine maker.

    Vegetarian wines

    Interestingly, vegetarian-friendly wines are also available. Most wines are commonly clarified with a derivative of clay but some are clarified with the use of fining agents such as gelatine and isinglass (fish air-bladder). If, as a vegetarian, you are concerned about this, keep an eye out for the appropriate wine label, as most organic wine makers who are aware of the need will specify.

    Non-alcoholic wines

    Some of the wineries specialising in organic wine also carry non-alcoholic wine. Non-alcoholic wines of various flavours, such as Lambrusco, Strawberry, Passionfruit and Premier Muscat, have grown in popularity over the past few years. They are promoted as an alternative to alcohol if you wish to maintain a healthy body and mind.

    Studies of subjects fed de-alcoholised red wine showed they developed fewer tumours than their counterparts fed on alcohol-containing wine. This suggests once again that the health properties found in wine are from the grape and not the alcohol. Of course, non-alcoholic wine will not seem as relaxing. Nevertheless, for those with sensitivities to alcohol, it might be a viable option and one that will ensure a good dose of the favourable OPCs.

    Social influences

    Studies suggest the attitude of society to alcohol use strongly influences the way the individual handles drinking in their particular social environment. As Harry Levine, PhD Professor of Sociology at Queens College, New York, puts it, “In the Mediterranean non-temperance cultures, where wine is as common as bread and many individuals drink every day, drinking does not become a problem. The percentage of alcohol consumption and consequently liver problems is high but there is little [in the way of] behavioural problems.” On the other hand, in temperance societies like America, England and Australia, people who drink to get drunk, as a means of relaxing and escaping from social programming and stress, can potentially develop a drinking problem. The reason why you drink, rather than how much you drink, may be a more significant factor in whether it is either a harmless or disastrous activity.

    While it can be said that wine might indeed have some therapeutic value against disease, the individual’s attitude, disposition and societal influences can be even greater components in determining the prevention, outcome or development of alcohol-related disease. While a little wine might help you to reduce stress levels, relax and unwind, improve digestion and stimulate the appetite, more of it will definitely not be better.

    Alcohol addiction

    Dr Sidney Cohen, a drug abuse expert, describes alcohol as “the most dangerous drug on earth”.

    Alcohol is habit-forming but its social acceptance makes addiction relatively undetectable. There are many alcoholics who are seen to be moderate drinkers. Yet, every night they might consume a few beers followed by a bottle or so of wine, wake up the next morning, have a cold shower, take some vitamin B tablets and start all over again. Ask this person not to drink for a night or two and see their response!

    Alcohol addiction is real and withdrawal from it can require a period of unpleasant detoxification. Natural remedies, such as liver- and blood-toning herbs (St Mary’s thistle, wild indigo, golden seal and dandelion), might be helpful to ease the process of detoxification. However, some symptoms, such as irritability, inability to sleep, increased blood pressure and acute anxiety, might not be initially avoidable.

    Intoxicating thoughts

    According to an early 20th century doctor, “Alcohol is a deceiver. It makes the drinker feel that he or she is rich when they are really poor, strong when they are really weak, and warm when they are cold.”

    Alcohol is similar to other habit-forming drugs in that it has the ability to heighten feelings of self-esteem, cover depression and generally hide many problems. Perhaps that’s why it’s used by a large number of people as a self-medicating substance, with potentially devastating consequences. Some people say they drink to overcome sleeplessness, depression and feelings of social alienation, problems that are often caused and exacerbated by drinking and disappear when drinking stops.

    Alcohol has been described as a direct substitution of one ‘spirit’ for another — a kind of spirit that makes you worry slower.

    Unfortunately, alcohol encourages procrastination on the true psychotherapy and inner work that can identify and potentially rectify any psychological or emotional issues. Statistics show that 20 per cent of alcoholics suffer from psychiatric disorders. Psychi refers to ‘soul’ in Greek, so perhaps alcoholism can be interpreted as ‘deep-seated worries of the soul’.

    Drinking should never be used as a means of self-medicating or to cover shyness, nervousness, boredom or any other social ill-feeling. One of the best ways to become free of such emotions is to ‘feel’ them and see what they tell you about yourself. Be aware that you are not the only one feeling this way. Most people have probably experienced these feelings at some stage in their life. Work with yourself and find true solutions to your problems. If you need to, seek professional counselling or read personal development books. When you have dealt with these issues, you might find yourself intoxicated with a different kind of spirit, no longer requiring external substitutes or ‘enhancers’. Then, if you choose to still have the occasional small glass of wine (organic, of course!), it’s likely it will not be a problem but an adjunct to your general wellbeing.

    The WellBeing Team

    The WellBeing Team

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