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Alcohol: Toxic Or Tonic?

Alcohol Poison or Tonic?

Alcohol Poison or Tonic
Alcohol Poison or Tonic

For some people, alcohol in moderation can be beneficial. But at higher levels, it’s deadly.

The health effects of alcohol have been debated for hundreds of years. The consensus today is that alcohol, like many things in life, can be either beneficial or damaging depending on how it’s used.

After exhaustive investigation, researchers have concluded that any health benefits of alcohol come from “moderate” drinking only, defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. (A “drink” equals 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, five ounces of wine or an ounce and a half of distilled spirits.) With heavier drinking, the benefits are lost and significant risks kick in.

When it comes to alcohol, women are at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with body size: A 250-pound woman is more likely to be damaged by alcohol than is a 140-pound man. That’s because women have higher levels of the liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the body, which allows them to metabolize alcohol about 20 percent faster than men. Although this might seem to be an asset, faster alcohol metabolism isn’t a good thing. Much of the damage done to the body is caused not by alcohol itself but by acetaldehyde, a highly reactive byproduct of alcohol metabolism. When alcohol is broken down quickly, as it is in women, more of this toxic chemical is produced in less time, causing more damage.

Health Benefits of Alcohol

The greatest health benefit of alcohol is its apparent ability to protect the arteries and the heart. Studies have shown conclusively that moderate alcohol consumption decreases the risk of death from coronary heart disease. New research indicates that moderate alcohol use may reduce the risk of stroke. Although scientists still are not certain why alcohol has such a protective effect, two theories have been suggested: First, alcohol increases blood levels of the “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which clears plaque from the arteries. Second, alcohol affects the body’s clotting mechanisms, decreasing the likelihood that a clot will block a blood vessel.

Regardless of whether you drink beer, wine or spirits, the beneficial (and harmful) effects of alcohol are the same. However, there is some controversy about whether red wine has additional heart benefits that stem from something other than its alcohol content. Red wine — and red grape juice, for that matter — has high levels of natural chemicals called flavonoids, which act as antioxidants and may decrease the harmful effects of “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Other studies suggest that it is alcohol itself, rather than other ingredients in wine, that confer the health benefits.

Health Hazards

Despite the psychological and physical health benefits, alcohol is far from benign. Even at moderate levels of just a drink or two, alcohol can cause serious problems:

  • Drug interactions. Many drugs, like alcohol, are metabolized by the liver. Because the liver has limited processing capacity at any given time, these substances can compete with each other. As a result, the effects of some drugs may be blocked while others may be augmented.
  • Night blindness. Alcohol can decrease the retina’s ability to adapt to low light
  • Accidents. Alcohol affects judgment and slows reflexes, which can lead to falls or to accidents with vehicles or other machinery.
  • Breast cancer. Even consuming just one drink per day may increase the risk of breast cancer in women. Although scientists are not certain why this might be true, some studies suggest that alcohol increases the body’s estrogen levels, which may promote breast cancer. Women can decrease the breast cancer risk by taking extra folic acid daily.

Heavy drinking — more than two drinks a day for women or more than four a day for men — can have additional health consequences:

  • Liver disease. Alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis are the two most common consequences of heavy drinking. Alcoholic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, which ultimately can cause permanent damage if drinking continues. Cirrhosis occurs when damage to the liver is so severe that scarring interferes with blood flow and liver function.
  • Other cancers. Heavy alcohol use, especially when combined with smoking, appears to increase the risk of cancer of the throat and esophagus. The risk of liver cancer increases in alcoholics who have hepatitis or cirrhosis. In addition, some studies have found that the risk of colorectal cancer also increases with alcohol use.
  • Hypertension and stroke. Heavy drinking leads to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke.
  • Heart problems. Alcoholism can directly cause cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease in which the heart enlarges, weakens and ultimately loses its ability to function properly. Consuming extremely large quantities of alcohol can cause sudden death from heart arrhythmias.
  • Pancreatitis. Overuse of alcohol can result in recurrent attacks of severe pain caused by inflammation of the pancreas, the organ responsible for many of the enzymes needed for digestion. If alcohol use continues, the pancreas can ultimately sustain permanent damage and stop functioning.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms. Alcohol can cause a wide range of common, uncomfortable but reversible problems, including gastritis (inflammation of the lining of the stomach), diarrhea and weight loss. These interrelated problems are all due to the effects that alcohol has on the lining of the stomach, as well as impairment of intestinal enzymes and transport systems.
  • Reproductive effects. People who drink heavily may become infertile. In men, alcohol lowers sperm count and can cause impotence. In women, alcohol can cause hormonal changes that can result in irregular menstruation and infertility.

Adults who choose to drink should remember that the health benefits come only from low to moderate consumption. For those who don’t drink, most experts don’t recommend starting. The risk of alcoholism is real, The only way to avoid developing that disease is never to start drinking in the first place.

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