Alcohol and Your Health
Women tend to be more sensitive to alcohol than men due to their bodies’ lower water content and higher fat content. This results in alcohol becoming more concentrated in the bloodstream and being retained in their bodies for longer. Regular alcohol use also has more serious long term consequences for women than it does for men. The reason for this is that men produce more of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in the stomach, which breaks down alcohol before it reaches the bloodstream. Women develop liver disease at lower levels of consumption than men and are at risk of osteoporosis due to alcohol’s adverse effects on bone metabolism. Women are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and eating disorders from an overindulgence of alcohol than men. Prolonged consumption of alcohol can also cause irregular, inefficient beating of the heart and can lead to a stroke. Respiration rates are lowered and reflexes and reaction times are slower. 1
Alcohol is a poison as far as the body is concerned. Effects of long term alcohol consumption include damage to the liver, pancreas, duodenum, brain and the central nervous system. It is one of the most damaging substances to the stomach and small intestine and is one of the few substances that can penetrate the lining of the stomach and cause damage.1 Alcohol is absorbed directly through the walls of the stomach into the bloodstream and acts upon the central nervous system by changing the most basic mental functions through the destruction of brain cells.4 It also reduces the amount of oxygen going to the brain. ‘The damage to the brain starts as soon as you start getting drunk. The brain is not capable of detoxifying alcohol so once the liver’s capacity to detoxify is exceeded; alcohol starts to disrupt normal communication signals in the brain which worsens memory.’5
The liver processes 95% of alcohol ingested and regular consumption inhibits the liver’s production of digestive enzymes. As a result the body being unable to absorb proteins, fats including the fat soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E and K), as well as water soluble vitamins such as the B vitamins. The inability to absorb protein leads to amino acid deficiencies and reduces the body’s storage of zinc. ‘Zinc forms an essential part of the enzyme dehydrogenase which when depleted, can affect alcohol metabolism’.6
It has been found that alcohol is the greatest anti-nutrient as it is well proven to deplete almost every vitamin, mineral, amino acid and essential fat as well as disturbing blood sugar levels. As a result of the body’s inability to absorb fats properly, the liver becomes fatty as it cannot decompose the glucose and fat and is less able to metabolise the alcohol. 4 With chronic alcohol consumption, excessive amounts of fat accumulate in the liver which can lead to hepatitis, a condition in which liver cells become inflamed. 1
Even though the liver can regenerate itself after certain types of damage, alcohol is one of the toxins that the liver does not cope well with. Once damaged by alcohol, the liver cannot regenerate itself. 1
Chronic drinking can also cause inflammation to the pancreas which can lead to diabetes. This in turn affects the production of digestive enzymes and can also impact on the release of insulin causing an imbalance in blood sugar levels.6 There is also an increased risk of mouth, throat, stomach, liver, colon and breast cancer through regular alcohol abuse. The risk of cancer can increase by as much as 50% when smoking goes hand in hand with drinking. 1
High coffee consumption can also precipitate an increase in alcohol use because alcohol is often used to control the shakiness from the coffee. 4
The consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects and increases the chance of miscarriage. It can also depress the central nervous system of the foetus. Women who drink during pregnancy give birth to babies with lower birth weights. Their brains are generally smaller and they may have lower intelligence than normal. It is advisable to consume no alcohol while pregnant.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation only. A study in the October 2008 issue of the Archives of Neurology notes that alcohol causes shrinkage of the brain. The more you drink, the more your brain shrinks. It's best to drink alcoholic beverages with your meal and choose organic red wines and unprocessed darker beers that contain higher phenolic levels. Experts generally advise against more than one alcoholic beverage a day for women and two for men. 3
Although it isn’t the most fattening food, alcohol provides seven calories per gram, making it more fattening than protein or carbohydrates (four calories per gram).2 Alcohol is pure carbohydrate, but does not contain the vitamins and minerals needed for carbohydrate metabolism. For the breakdown to happen, vitamins and minerals are taken from other parts of the body leading to deficiencies and tissue depletion.4
When fatty foods are eaten, the feeling of fullness will stay with you for a while. Your hunger is not reduced by drinking alcohol though, so you will still need to eat to satisfy your stomach. The calories from alcohol will be added to the calories you would have consumed normally. Since your body has no way of storing alcohol, your digestive system works on the alcohol first and stores the other nutrients as fat. If you’re having some cheese with your wine, before too long it’s likely that you will be wearing the cheese as fat. But if you’re having a mixed drink, such as the kind with the cute umbrellas, fat will accumulate even when you do not eat anything. The sugar in the mixed drink will do the trick. In addition to the metabolic properties of alcohol, the psychological effects of drinking will have a real impact on your weight regulation methods. The controls on eating you have set for yourself will be abandoned when you’ve had a few drinks because alcohol is disinhibiting. This was demonstrated in two studies of ice-cream eating. Women on a diet ate more ice-cream after drinking, while non-dieting women did not. If alcohol is dangerous to your weight-loss efforts, should you give up drinking? If you enjoy drinking and are a moderate drinker, (one drink per day for women, two for men), you shouldn’t have to give it up.
Instead, plan your drinking:
Avoid high calorie mixed drinks, choosing instead white wine (80 calories) or light beer (100 calories)
Avoid drinking before a meal, since alcohol can increase your appetite
Avoid alcohol-food pairings such as beer and pretzels or wine and cheese, have your wine or beer with the meal rather than with snacks. 2
1. Phyllis A Balch CNC & James F Balch, MD – Prescription for Nutritional Healing Third Edition
2. Abramson, E, Ph.D. Body intelligence. The McGraw-Hill Companies. 2005.
3. October 2008 issue of the Archives of Neurology
4. Gayla J. Kirschmann and John D Kirschmann - Nutrition Almanac (Fourth Edition), Published by McGraw-Hill International Editions
5. Patrick Holford - Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, published by Piatkus Publishes.
6. Mary E Barasi – Human Nutrition, A Health Perspective
Submitted by Stuart Wilson
Stuart Wilson & Associates
Tel: 031 208 8896/076 359 2395