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.


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