ALCOHOL: Eat, Drink and Be Wary

From Harvard to China, scores of studies from around the world involving hundreds of thousands of participants, consistently show that those who are moderate alcohol consumers have greater longevity than abstainers or heavy drinkers. Moderate users are more likely to be a healthy weight and exercise regularly, but even when researchers account for such factors alcohol clearly reduces risks for gallstones, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, and especially cardiovascular disease.

These benefits are less significant for the young than the middle aged, and what you drink seems less important than how you drink. Probably the #1 cause of death in the more affluent nations is suicide by instalment. With the luxury of lifestyle choices you can smoke, sloth, eat or drink your way into an early obituary. Be suspicious of the highly developed, default human capacity for self-deceit and justification. Alcohol like food readily becomes destructive in excess.

Some of the benefits for your heart, arteries and other blood vessels include raised HDL cholesterol (which can remove potentially obstructive LDL cholesterol from blood and blood vessels for excretion) and lowered fibrinogen (a clotting factor implicated with stroke and thick, slow moving blood). The many flavonoids and hundreds of other phytochemicals or health-protecting compounds in plants are substantially responsible. These are often high in antioxidant ability while some are hormone-balancing. They help protect your heart and blood vessel lining and keep them less inflamed. Ageing and disease usually involve Inflammation and excess oxidation, which phytochemicals can subdue. Often the skin of fruits, such as grapes, has the highest concentration.

Happy Hearts

Another phytochemical, resveratrol, has shown particular ability to reduce blood clots and sticky cholesterol plaques. But excess or binge drinking increases such heart disease risks. Any beverage or food which is slowly and naturally fermented is also potentially beneficial. As with high quality yoghurt, it can help increase your good guy bacterial population. This enhanced environment helps you to produce some of your own vitamins (especially B and K) and diminish pathogens (viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic).

All alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, often called pure alcohol. This is a by-product of fermented yeast and sugar: one of the earliest organic reactions humans mastered. Residues on 9,000 year old Chinese pottery show that even Neolithics enjoyed happy hour. Ethanol dissolves easily and is rapidly absorbed: about 20% from the stomach; 80% from the small intestine. Alcohol dehydrogenase is the stomach enzyme that begins its breakdown.

Men (until about age 50) are 70-80% more efficient at this task than women, especially young or small women. The more time your stomach can work on ethanol the less harmful its effects. When food is eaten, the stomach exit valve closes and prevents speedy release (though bubbles in sparkling wines will particularly stimulate gastric emptying). Men average about 11% more diluting fluid in their bodies. If a man and woman are the same size and drink the same amount, the woman will have a third higher blood alcohol and take a third longer to eliminate it. Taking the oral contraceptive increases this further.

Once in the bloodstream alcohol heads for the liver (TIPS: Love Your Liver). A healthy young male liver can process one unit of alcohol in about an hour. If you drink faster than your liver can process it, you feel intoxicated. 90% of alcohol is metabolised there with the remainder excreted through urine and breath (which can be tested by breathalyser). The liver needs water to accomplish these and other detoxification jobs. Since alcohol is a diuretic it forces water and fluid-management Minerals out of the body (also see Kidneys) so the liver has to tap other sources such as the brain. There alcohol acts as a depressant on some areas and a stimulant on others. In small amounts it increases electrical activity accelerating pleasure; accesses GABA centres for calm; and serotonin ones for self confidence – however, so can exercise (Free Medicine For Your Brain).

Too Much of a Good Thing Becomes a Bad Thing

Too many drinks and disturbed brain messages result in clumsiness, slurred speech, and loss of memory, lowered inhibitions and assessment skills. Resulting toxic liver by-products – plus artificial colourings, preservatives and other drink Additives – can lead to headaches from dehydration. While sugar can slow alcohol absorption, studies show comparable diet drinks with artificial sweeteners raise levels to those illegal for driving. Heartburn is likely (from forced-up gastric juices inflaming the delicate esophagus); nausea and vomiting (from accumulated stomach acids and delayed digestion); cramps and diarrhea (from urinary loss of potassium, magnesium and other minerals). This digestive damage and lowered pancreatic enzyme secretion impairs absorption and utilisation of Zinc, vitamins B1, B6, B12, folate, A, C and D.

Dehydration draws fluid from your Skin and encourages dryness, wrinkles, puffiness, red blotches, permanently enlarged peripheral blood vessels and broken capillaries. Shaking, sweating, dizziness and blurred vision can be due to low blood glucose. Even without a hangover, alcohol is a rapidly burned carbohydrate that interferes with blood sugar, the hormones that regulate it and thus encourages Weight gain. Excess insulin is released to remove glucose from the blood, which can leave you weak and exhausted. Sleep may occur readily but is often not sustained or satisfying (rather like any accompanying sexual activity). Snoring becomes more likely as muscles in the back of the mouth over-relax. Heart palpitations can occur as shut down parts of the brain impede signals to keep the heartbeat regular.

Over time life-threatening high blood pressure develops; nervous system damage can be evident by tingling or numbness in toes or fingers. Ulcers, and liver disease are likely (such as damage and scarring from cirrhosis), as is cancer in already damaged throat, esophageal and mouth tissue. Alcohol also alters Sex Hormone levels (TIPS). Within 30 minutes of modest drinking estrogen levels can rise up to 300% especially for men. High estrogen levels are associated with weight gain; menstrual, Menopause and prostate problems; testicular shrinking, male breast development, and erectile dysfunction; cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes; prostate, cervical and other hormone sensitive cancers. If consuming 2-5 drinks per day, breast cancer risks go up 41%.

Liquid Stress

Alcohol can additionally increases cortisol levels. When over-activated, this Adrenal stress hormone can lead to poor sleep, weight gain, inflammation and lowered immunity. The liver can eliminate excess hormones (see Linseed Cereal; The Shape Diet) but inefficiently when impeded by alcohol, street drugs or Medications.

Alcohol increases the effects of many medications and street drugs, worsening their load on the liver and digestion. Especially ill advised are antihistamines, codeine, antibiotics, sleeping pills, painkillers (aspirin substantially reduces alcohol breakdown by stomach enzymes; 2 tablets can increase blood alcohol levels by 30%); depression and anxiety medications. Women using oral contraception or hormone replacement therapy (both raise estrogen) will absorb alcohol faster and store it longer. Even worse is the potential damage to a baby in utero. Like forcing a glass to their lips, alcohol is delivered via the bloodstream straight to the placenta and can cause permanent brain damage. It also passes through breast milk.

For some, the problem is not so much the alcohol but the food it is produced from. You may have a sensitivity to the barley or yeast in beer; the Wheat  or rye in whiskey, vodka and other spirits; the cane sugar in rum; the histamines or salicylates in wine. Ironically, such intolerances encourage repeated intake. As undigested fractions pass through the Gut wall, cortisol and blood sugar levels rise in response to the emergency. You get a brief, empowering ‘buzz’ but at wearying, long term cost. Contact this office for an allergy test.

Set Your Standards

A unit of alcohol or ‘standard drink’ is 10 grams of alcohol: about 330 ml of beer; 100-120 ml of wine; 30 ml of spirits. Generous official allowances for any one occasion are: for women no more than 4 units, or 6 units for men. Weekly, women should have no more than 14 units, and men 21 units (even less over age 65). Each gram of alcohol contains 29 kilojoules or 7 calories – not much less than fat (37 kJ; 9 cal) and far more than protein or carbohydrates.

When drinking, have one hydrating glass of water after each alcoholic beverage. Try diluted drinks such as a wine spritzer. As a host, always set out a pitcher of water and serve food. Even with modest intake, to help your body process and recover, enjoy at least 2 alcohol-free days each week. If alcohol has become a norm either nominate 2 set days of the week, or have 2 days on then 1 day off. To successfully replace a substance or behaviour, think about what it provides for you on as many levels as possible. For instance, alcohol is an adult drink served in special glasses; it might be used to signify the end of a busy day. So use an expensive glass and fill it with a drink you only have at that time.

Try sparkling San Pellegrino mineral water with a slice of lime, gingerroot or mint sprig; or mix half with unsweetened, specialty fruit juice such as Phoenix Feijoa; or with pureed fruit such as melon, berries, or kiwifruit; or with cold herb tea such as liquorice or other exotic blend. If you need a relaxant or mood shifter then do at least 15 minutes of brisk exercise (vigorous gardening, walking, running up stairs or on the spot to music) to chemically reorder mind and body before convivially saluting your positive new behaviours.

If you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol, contact the Alcohol and Drug Helpline (toll-free in New Zealand: 0800 787 797). The Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand offers a questionnaire as a means of assessment.

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