Getting wasted every weekend might not be the best thing for your physical or mental well-being, but moderate alcohol consumption may have some substantial health benefits. It should be noted that alcohol consumption and its benefits vary based on an individual's body makeup and type.
Throughout the over 10,000 years that humans have been drinking fermented beverages, they’ve also been arguing about their merits and demerits. The debate still simmers today, with a lively back-and-forth over whether alcohol is good for you or bad for you.
It’s safe to say that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison. The difference lies mostly in the dose. Moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system, and probably protects against type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Heavy drinking is a major cause of preventable death in most countries. Heavy drinking can damage the liver and heart, harm an unborn child, increase the chances of developing breast and some other cancers, contribute to depression and violence, and interfere with relationships.
Alcohol’s two-faced nature shouldn’t come as a surprise. The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, a simple molecule called ethanol, affects the body in many different ways. It directly influences the stomach, brain, heart, gallbladder, and liver. It affects levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and insulin in the blood, as well as inflammation and coagulation. It also alters mood, concentration, and coordination.
What’s Moderate Alcohol Intake?
Loose use of the terms “moderate” and “a drink” has fueled some of the ongoing debate about alcohol’s impact on health.
In some studies, the term “moderate drinking” refers to less than one drink per day, while in others it means three or four drinks per day. Exactly what constitutes “a drink” is also fairly fluid. In fact, even among alcohol researchers, there’s no universally accepted standard drink definition.
The definition of moderate drinking is something of a balancing act. Moderate drinking sits at the point at which the health benefits of alcohol clearly outweigh the risks.
The latest consensus places this point at no more than one to two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women. This is the definition used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and is widely used in the United States.
What you drink (beer or wine) doesn’t seem to be nearly as important as how you drink. Having seven drinks on a Saturday night and then not drinking the rest of the week isn’t at all the equivalent of having one drink a day. The weekly total may be the same, but the health implications aren’t.
The Dark Side of Alcohol
If all drinkers limited themselves to a single drink a day, we probably wouldn’t need as many cardiologists, liver specialists, mental health professionals, and substance abuse counselors. But not everyone who likes to drink alcohol stops at just one. While most people drink in moderation, some don’t.
Alcohol's Effects on the Body
Drinking too much on a single occasion or over time can take a serious toll on your health. Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:
Brain: Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behaviour, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
Heart: Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:
Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
High blood pressure
Liver: Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:
Steatosis, or fatty liver
Pancreas: Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
Cancer: Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the:
Immune System: Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
Short-term effects of alcohol
Depending on how much is taken and the physical condition of the individual, alcohol can cause:
Distorted vision and hearing
Decreased perception and coordination
Anemia (loss of red blood cells)
Blackouts (memory lapses, where the drinker cannot remember events that occurred while under the influence)
Long-term effects of alcohol
Binge drinking and continued alcohol use in large amounts are associated with many health problems, including:
Unintentional injuries such as car crash, falls, burns, drowning
Intentional injuries such as firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence
Increased on-the-job injuries and loss of productivity
Increased family problems, broken relationships
High blood pressure, stroke, and other heart-related diseases
Permanent damage to the brain
Vitamin B1 deficiency, which can lead to a disorder characterized by amnesia, apathy and disorientation
Gastritis (inflammation of stomach walls)
Cancer of the mouth and throat
Alcohol is a drug.
It is classed as a depressant, meaning that it slows down vital functions—resulting in slurred speech, unsteady movement, disturbed perceptions and an inability to react quickly.
As for how it affects the mind, it is best understood as a drug that reduces a person’s ability to think rationally and distorts his or her judgment.
Although classified as a depressant, the amount of alcohol consumed determines the type of effect. Most people drink for the stimulant effect, such as a beer or glass of wine taken to “loosen up.” But if a person consumes more than the body can handle, they then experience alcohol’s depressant effect. They start to feel “stupid” or lose coordination and control.
Alcohol overdose causes even more severe depressant effects (inability to feel pain, toxicity where the body vomits the poison, and finally unconsciousness or, worse, coma or death from severe toxic overdose). These reactions depend on how much is consumed and how quickly.
There are different kinds of alcohol. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol), the only alcohol used in beverages, is produced by the fermentation of grains and fruits. Fermenting is a chemical process whereby yeast acts upon certain ingredients in the food, creating alcohol.
What is binge drinking?
Binge drinking is the practice of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a single session, usually defined as five or more drinks at one time for a man, or four or more drinks at one time for a woman.
ALCOHOL: A SHORT HISTORY
Fermented grain, fruit juice and honey have been used to make alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) for thousands of years.
Fermented beverages existed in early Egyptian civilization, and there is evidence of an early alcoholic drink in China around 7000 B.C. In India, an alcoholic beverage called sura, distilled from rice, was in use between 3000 and 2000 B.C.
The Babylonians worshiped a wine goddess as early as 2700 B.C. In Greece, one of the first alcoholic beverages to gain popularity was mead, a fermented drink made from honey and water. Greek literature is full of warnings against excessive drinking.
Several Native American civilizations developed alcoholic beverages in pre-Columbian times. A variety of fermented beverages from the Andes region of South America were created from corn, grapes or apples, called “chicha.”
In the sixteenth century, alcohol (called “spirits”) was used largely for medicinal purposes. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the British parliament passed a law encouraging the use of grain for distilling spirits. Cheap spirits flooded the market and reached a peak in the mid-eighteenth century. In Britain, gin consumption reached 18 million gallons and alcoholism became widespread.
The nineteenth century brought a change in attitudes and the temperance movement began promoting the moderate use of alcohol—which ultimately became a push for total prohibition.
In 1920 the US passed a law prohibiting the manufacture, sale, import and export of intoxicating liquors. The illegal alcohol trade boomed and by 1933, the prohibition of alcohol was cancelled.
Today, an estimated 15 million Americans suffer from alcoholism and 40% of all car accident deaths in the US involve alcohol.
Understanding how alcohol affects the body
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream via small blood vessels in the walls of the stomach and small intestine. Within minutes of drinking alcohol, it travels from the stomach to the brain, where it quickly produces its effects, slowing the action of nerve cells.
Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach. Most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.
Alcohol is also carried by the bloodstream to the liver, which eliminates the alcohol from the blood through a process called “metabolizing,” where it is converted to a nontoxic substance. The liver can only metabolize a certain amount at a time, leaving the excess circulating throughout the body. Thus the intensity of the effect on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.
When the amount of alcohol in the blood exceeds a certain level, the respiratory (breathing) system slows down markedly, and can cause a coma or death, because oxygen no longer reaches the brain.
YOUNG PEOPLE VERSUS ADULTS. WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
A young person’s body cannot cope with alcohol the same way an adult’s can.
Drinking is more harmful to teens than adults because their brains are still developing throughout adolescence and well into young adulthood. Drinking during this critical growth period can lead to lifelong damage in brain function, particularly as it relates to memory, motor skills (ability to move) and coordination.
According to research, young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.
For some teens, like Samantha, drinking seems to be a solution to problems they don’t want to face.
WHAT IS ALCOHOLISM OR ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE?
Alcohol dependence (alcoholism) consists of four symptoms:
Craving: a strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
Loss of control: the inability to limit one’s drinking on any given occasion.
Physical dependence: withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.
Serious dependence can lead to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms including convulsions, starting eight to twelve hours after the last drink. The delirium tremens (D.T.’s) begins three to four days later where the person becomes extremely agitated, shakes, hallucinates and loses touch with reality.
Tolerance: the need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to get high.
An increasingly heavy drinker often says he could stop whenever he chooses—he just never “chooses” to do so. Alcoholism is not a destination, but a progression, a long road of deterioration in which life continuously worsens.
THE YOUNGEST VICTIMS
When consumed by pregnant mothers, alcohol enters the bloodstream, passes through the placenta and enters the fetus (unborn child).
Alcohol can damage a fetus at any stage of pregnancy, but is most serious in the first few months. There is a risk of alcohol-related birth defects including growth deficiencies, facial abnormalities, and damage to the brain and nervous system.
To learn about the SURPRISING HEALTHY BENEFITS OF ALCOHOL, click here
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