Having just returned from a wonderful wine tasting weekend in the beautiful Napa Valley, I can wax on about the beneficial effects of alcohol.
Most of us enjoy a drink from time to time, and studies show positive health effects (under certain circumstances) from drinking in moderation.
However, excessive drinking over time, or even on a single occasion, can take a serious toll on our health. Every sip of beer, wine, or other alcoholic drink quickly enters the bloodstream and comes into contact with nearly every organ in the body.
When we consume more alcohol than our body can efficiently metabolize, the blood alcohol level rises. The affect it has on us depends on a number of factors, including weight, age, gender, body composition, general health, food consumption, and the presence of other drugs or medications. What actually happens to our organs when we drink?
Alcohol affects the *brain* in a number of ways, changing coordination, mood, memory and thinking. Speech can become slurred and more difficult. Changes in coordination interfere with balance and the ability to walk. Thought processes, impulse control, and ability to form memories change. Over the long term, drinking can actually shrink the brain’s frontal lobes, and severe alcoholism can lead to permanent brain damage and dementia. Damage to the nervous system may result in pain and numbness. Alcoholism can cause a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, which can result in rapid eye movements, weakness, or paralysis of the eye muscles. Acute alcoholic withdrawal can cause seizures and delirium.
Drinking excessively over time, or even a one-time binge, may damage the *heart*. It can lead to cardiomyopathy, heart arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure. (Of course, in moderate amounts, it can protect healthy adults from developing coronary heart disease.)
Alcohol can wreak havoc on the *digestive system*, from the mouth to the colon. Even a single incidence of heavy drinking can cause injury to the digestive tract. It can damage the salivary glands and irritate the mouth and tongue, leading to gum disease, tooth decay, and tooth loss. It can lead to ulcers in the esophagus, acid reflux, heartburn, stomach ulcers and inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). It can cause gassiness and diarrhea. It can also lead to internal bleeding from ulcers, hemorrhoids, or esophageal varices. It makes it harder for the digestive tract to absorb nutrients and vitamins and to control bacteria. As a result, alcoholics often suffer from malnutrition.
The *liver’s* job is to break down and detoxify harmful substances, including alcohol. Liver disease is life threatening because it allows toxic substances to remain in the body. Excessive drinking can cause fatty liver, fibrosis, and ultimately cirrhosis (scarring caused by chronic liver inflammation), which can destroy the liver. Another danger is alcoholic hepatitis, which can lead to jaundice. Women are at higher risk for alcoholic liver disease than men, because women’s bodies tend to absorb more alcohol and take longer to process it.
Drinking can cause pancreatitis, a serious inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels of the *pancreas,* which interferes with digestion and regulation of metabolism. A damaged pancreas can result in a lack of insulin, which then leads to hyperglycemia and diabetes.
The *reproductive system* is significantly impacted. For men, heavy drinking affects the testosterone level, leaves the penis limp and the libido reduced. As few as five drinks per week decreases the sperm count and affects their ability to swim. Almost three-quarters of men who drink excessively have at least one sexual health issue such as low desire, erectile dysfunction, or premature ejaculation. It can cause infertility by affecting the testicles. Excessive drinking can cause a woman to stop menstruating and become infertile. It also can increase her risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, and stillbirth. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (and related disorders) can result in a baby with physical abnormalities, learning difficulties, and emotional problems.
Long-term alcohol use makes it harder for the body to produce new *bone*, and increases the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. It can lead to broken *blood vessels*, which turn the skin and eyes red, and cause puffiness in the face. Alcohol affects the ability to make *muscle*, leading to weakness, cramping, and even atrophy.
Alcohol weakens the *immune system*, making the body an easier target for infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis. It is associated with an increased risk of developing a number of cancers, including cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, breast, and colon.
It is clear that there is an enormous difference between drinking moderately (never more than two drinks per day) and drinking excessively.If you are not able to limit your alcohol consumption, I urge you to get help and to not drink at all.
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.