The Truth About Alcohol

  • 16 Aug 2009
  • Reading time 13 mins
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Does a small amount of alcohol do you good and, if so, how much is too much? Find out the truth about alcohol.

Good for the Heart?

One plus for alcohol in moderation is the well-established finding that it increases HDL (good) cholesterol. This is true for both beer and wine, and seems to relate more to the quantity drunk than the type of drink. Red wine, in particular, may confer additional cardiovascular benefits by virtue of being high in proanthocyanidins, the antioxidants found in grapes and berries. Alcohol itself, however, is an oxidant. Another potential benefit of alcohol is a mild reduction in platelet aggregation – in other words, it makes your blood thinner.

This occurs because alcohol blocks the formation of prostaglandins from essential fats. For the body to make use of essential fats, however, these fats must be converted into their active compounds – a process which is blocked by alcohol. So the combination of being essential fat deficient and drinking alcohol is especially bad. The bone of contention is the dose: does a glass of wine a day confer benefit? Most reviews conclude there is a clear risk reduction from light or moderate drinking, the positive benefit primarily for red wine, high in resveratrol. However some studies show a link between moderate to heavy alcohol consumption and increased blood pressure and incidence of strokes. Diabetes risk also appears to be lower with light or moderate drinking, but not heavy drinking. Since the overall effect of alcohol might impact on increased mortality, it appears that drinking lightly, less than a drink a day, confers protection both from cardiovascular disease and stroke, but also mortality, compared to abstainers.

Bad for the Liver

Alcohol is detoxified by the liver, which involves a liver enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, but when you consume more alcohol than this enzyme can handle the liver will instead metabolise the alcohol to chloral hydrate, also known as Mickey Finn drops, which knocks you out. Normally alcohol is metabolised to acetaldehyde by an enzyme called acetyldehyde oxidase, and, from there, to harmless chemicals that can be excreted from the body. But if you overload this second enzyme you end up with too much circulating acetaldehyde. This very acidic and toxic substance leads to ketoacidosis – what we commonly refer to as a hangover: namely headache, nausea, mental and physical tiredness, and aching muscles.

Acidosis occurs when the blood has become too acid, in this case through the toxic metabolites of alcohol. Acidosis is a cause of premature ageing and osteoporosis and can lead on to other disease states. It is a frequently reported finding in excess alcohol consumption. The liver enzyme responsible for detoxifying alcohol depends on a good supply of antioxidant nutrients, especially vitamin C. Yet, even before alcohol gets to the liver it has negative effects in the gut where it acts as an intestinal irritant. This increases the risk of increased intestinal permeability, which in turn increases the risk of allergic reactions to absorbed particles of incompletely digested food and to the ingredients within the alcoholic drink itself. For this reason, many beer and wine drinkers become allergic to yeast. About one in five people, on testing, have this sensitivity.

In addition, wine drinkers may become sensitive to sulphites, which are added to grapes during the winemaking process to control their fermentation. Sulphites are also found in exhaust fumes, and the liver enzyme that detoxifies sulphites is dependent on molybdenum, a trace element that is frequently deficient in the diet. Organic, sulphite-free wines and champagne are better for you, the latter of which has the added bonus of being yeast-free.

Alcohol Destroys Nutrients

There is little question that alcohol acts as an ‘anti-nutrient’. Although some forms of alcohol (such as stout or red wine) do deliver a few nutrients, alcohol itself is a potent destroyer of these same nutrients. It also affects your nutrient intake by disturbing the digestion and absorption of food, and suppressing appetite. Chronic alcohol consumption leads to multiple deficiencies of nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. Having alcohol with a meal also reduces the amount of zinc and iron you absorb from your food.

Gut Problems

Alcohol irritates your intestinal tract, making it more permeable to undigested food particles, and increasing the chances of an allergic reaction to substances in both the food and the alcohol. This is why many beer and wine drinkers become allergic to yeast. Wine drinkers may also become sensitive to sulfites, which are added to grapes to control fermentation. Better choices include organic, sulfite-free wines and champagne – the latter of which has the added bonus of being yeast-free. As well as increasing intestinal permeability, alcohol wreaks havoc on intestinal bacteria. It has been reported to convert gut bacteria into secondary metabolites that increase proliferation of cells in the colon, initiating cancer.

It can also be absorbed directly into the mucosal cells that line the digestive tract and converted into aldehyde, which interferes with DNA repair and promotes tumors. In addition, some alcoholic drinks contain the carcinogen urethrane. Urethrane has been found in bourbon whiskeys, European fruit brandies such as cherry brandy, cream sherries, port, sake and Chinese wine, but not in vodka, gin and most beers.

Alcohol and Cancer

There is no question that alcohol is a powerful carcinogen. It damages intestinal bacteria, converting them into secondary metabolites that increase proliferation of cells in the colon, hence initiating cancer. It can also be absorbed directly into the mucosal cells that line the digestive tract, and is converted into aldehyde, which interferes with DNA repair and promotes tumour development. In addition, alcohol consumption may lead to nutritional deficiencies, affecting the absorption of cancer-fighting nutrients.

When a number of studies were ‘pooled together’ ......

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