This is the last of this series on educating the masses about the basic building blocks of nutrition which are Carbohydrates (4cal/g), Proteins (4cal/g), Fats (9cal/g) and Alcohol (7cal/g). I started this series after having conversations with friends, family and clients in our family practice office who revealed to me their general nutritional knowledge was filled with misunderstandings of what makes up a healthy diet. I dedicated time and space to offer the latest research in these areas and now I would like to discuss how Alcohol effects our bodies and good health.
What is it about alcohol that causes such a breakdown of body systems? Are there any positive effects to alcohol with regard to a healthy diet? What role has alcohol played historically in our diet and lifestyle? Let’s review what the current research has to say about alcohol in our lives today.
Historically, fermented starches and sugars were used for beverage by people who toiled in the fields. Wheat and barley was readily available back then as it is today and we know this drink as beer. Fermented barley was invented by the Sumarians over 6000 years ago in the Middle East. Wine was perfected by the Greeks and Romans and considered an upper class beverage. Coffee was invented in the Arabian Peninsula around 1000 AD as alcohol was not allowed as a beverage in Muslim society. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries hard liquors were distilled and, particularly in the early years of Colonial America, molasses was distilled for rum which proved an economic boon to a young nation. An important solace to sailors and pirates the world over. In Britain, tea was economically and historically important as well as a health aid, in that water had to be boiled in order for proper tea to be consumed, thus bacteria were controlled when entering uncharted lands.
Brain: A neurotransmitter is the action by which your brain communicates with your body and its functions. Alcohol interferes by slowing down the speed of this action. When you drink you go from feeling relaxed to sluggish to blacking out depending on how much you consume at one time and how many years you consistently drink. Damaged brain cells caused by alcohol consumption can account for symptoms like depression, memory loss, anxiety, sleep disturbances and mood and personality disorders.
Lungs: Recently researchers have noticed a connection between alcohol abuse and reduced lung function. Investigators have found a chronic imbalance in the cells among the lining of the lung tissue correlated with reduced oxygen available to the lung. This stress on the lung may become a problem in situations of bacterial infection.
Heart: The heart normally works on a pace-maker rhythm but during episodes of binge drinking or long-term drinking irregular heartbeats may occur. This can lead to strokes even when there is no history of heart disease. Cardio-myopathy, the weakening of the heart muscle, is a disease which occurs when a person has been a heavy drinker for a long time.
Stomach: The stomach is designed to digest and transport food into the small intestine. Some alcohol is directly absorbed into the bloodstream while in the stomach. Alcohol will continue into the small intestine where it will get absorbed again into the bloodstream. When alcohol sits in your stomach and there is no food to help buffer the acidity it becomes an irritant to the stomach lining often causing pain. This pain is from the increased levels of Hydrochloric Acid (HCL), a chemical naturally found in the stomach and used to kill bacteria and help break down food. Too much drinking can cause chronic gastritis which is the constant inflammation of the stomach lining. Severe bleeding can occur when you drink alcohol and take medication even as simple as an aspirin.
Liver: The liver breaks down alcohol and releases toxins such as ammonia and manganese. These toxins not only damage liver cells but can travel back to the brain and damage brain cells, too. The liver can become fatty with chronic heavy drinking. Inflammation as in the case of alcoholic hepatitis and scar tissue, known as cirrhosis, can prevent the liver from breaking the toxins which then build up in the blood stream.
Kidneys: The job of the kidneys is to act as a filter. Kidneys retain needed electrolytes like sodium and potassium and filter out excess fluids and other substances the body does not need. Alcohol changes the function of the kidneys by disrupting the filtration process. Excessive fluid release (peeing too much) changes the balance of electrolytes in the body and leads to dehydration.
Pancreas: The pancreas sends digestive enzymes to the small intestine to help break down food. When alcohol abuse is involved it can disrupt this process where the digestive enzymes do not leave the pancreas and end up digesting itself. The end result is chronic pancreatitis with symptoms of stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and fever. This slow process over time can destroy the pancreas and lead to diabetes or even a precursor to pancreatic cancer.
Does Alcohol do anybody any good? Research suggests if you limit your consumption of alcohol to one glass of wine for women and two for men per day that there may be some benefit to the heart. Social activity can help reduce stress and in moderation can help with relaxation.