The turn of every new year brings with it a barrage of resolutions and a surplus of best-intentioned gym-goers.
The new year also has another health-related tradition, that of the “Dry January” challenges. This is a campaign designed and promoted by Alcohol Change UK to raise awareness of the effects of alcohol.
The event started back in 2004 and the idea is as the name suggests — to go alcohol-free for the full 31 days of January. This can be done in promotion of the charitable organisation or simply as an acknowledgement to your own wellbeing.
The subject of alcohol and health is quite extensive, so I’ll break this up into two parts and will try to cover the majority of the topic within these. First of all is the effects of alcohol on physical activities.
As research by the British Journal of Sports Medicine states —
“Meeting the current physical activity public health recommendations offsets some of the cancer and all-cause mortality risk associated with alcohol drinking.”
Good news! So does that mean that so long as you are exercising that you have ‘earned’ those drinks? Well in some respects, yes. It is less harmful to consume alcohol while maintaining a healthy lifestyle, though that is in comparison to the same amount of alcohol while doing less than the recommended amount of physical activity.
But this does not work proportionately, that the more you exercise — the more you can consume. Since this is all within the recommended amounts of physical activity and allowances of alcohol consumption.
Actually having the mentality of earning those post-workout drinks is rather counter-productive. Since alcohol is a depressant, it reduces or counteracts the mood benefits of exercise. And since it induces appetite, it can encourage us to eat more than would be necessary.
There is also an often overlooked aspect of alcohol consumption given the majority of the focus being on how many units are taken in. This is the number of ‘invisible’ calories within these drinks. It is very easy for calories from alcohol to add up quickly and go unnoticed for anyone hoping to watch their diet, as these are being consumed as a liquid.
In fact of adults who drink, it is estimated that nearly 10% of their calorie intake comes from alcohol. It is also a fact that alcoholic drinks are high in calories and more often than not, the amount of calories within a drink is omitted from the packaging.
Outward appearance doesn’t always indicate a healthy inside since you could be outwardly average, yet still, fall into the MONW category… That is — Metabolically Obese Normal-Weight. This is where you have a BMI less than 25, although show symptoms such as insulin resistance and high blood pressure.
All things calorie considered, it is very important to account for all of these hidden additions sneaking their way into our overall intake. There is a handy unit calculator which also provides an estimate of the number of calories taken in on the Alcohol Change website which can be found here:
A major contributing factor to many cancers is the related levels of alcohol consumed. Alcohol, as many readers will know, is actually defined by the WHO (World Health Organisation) as being carcinogenic to humans.
When alcohol (ethanol) is metabolized through various stages of being broken down by enzymes within the body (particularly within the liver — although this process also occurs within the stomach, pancreas and even the brain itself since it can easily pass the blood/brain barrier) it ends its process as ultimately nothing more than water and carbon dioxide.
Typically — depending on liver size and body mass — a human can only metabolize around one unit of alcohol per hour. So to load the system with more than can be metabolized creates a scenario whereby the body uses ‘less efficient’ processes in an attempt to purge the excess alcohol from the system. This leads to a buildup of less desirable byproducts, which are even more toxic than the original intake of alcohol itself!
Alcohol is also highly diffusible through cell membranes and is metabolized by most tissues, which is why its toxicity affects most organs.
Acetaldehyde is the first product in the metabolic process and is a highly reactive molecule that can damage DNA, proteins and lipids. Acetaldehyde promotes cancer in numerous ways but mainly by interfering with the copying of DNA and inhibiting a process the body uses to repair damaged DNA. Studies have shown that people who are exposed to large amounts of acetaldehyde are at particular risk of developing cancers of the mouth and throat.
When alcohol is metabolized by the enzyme CYP2E1, oxygen-containing molecules are produced. These ‘free radicals’ as they are known, are another contributing factor to cell damage within the body. These free radicals have one or more unpaired electrons, making them highly reactive with other molecules — thus why they are referred to as ROS or Reactive Oxygen Species molecules.
Free radicals effectively steal electrons from other molecules resulting in more free radicals which storm about the body looking for any available electrons, thus producing more imbalance, more free radicals, and ultimately a chain-reaction of cell damage. ROS can damage proteins and DNA within the body.
This process over time and as a direct result of alcohol consumption causes numerous cancers. Most commonly — 7 types of cancer:
Anyone with any experience of drinking alcohol will know the initial effects it produces. Alcohol can likewise be a catalyst for both the expression of or avoidance of feelings.
The psychology surrounding the reasons people drink in some circumstances can be broken down into 4 categories:
- To enhance positive mood.
- To reduce the pain of negative emotions.
- To obtain social rewards (e.g. to make a party more enjoyable).
- To avoid social rejection.
Physically, alcohol has been related to various diseases of the brain. Alcohol use disorders were significantly associated with dementia in various case-studies, one research article titled ‘Contribution of alcohol use disorders to the burden of dementia in France 2008–13: a nationwide retrospective cohort study’ stated-
“Alcohol use disorders were a major risk factor for onset of all types of dementia, and especially early-onset dementia. Thus, screening for heavy drinking should be part of regular medical care, with intervention or treatment being offered when necessary. Additionally, other alcohol policies should be considered to reduce heavy drinking in the general population.”
As I mentioned above on the topic of cancer, ethanol and its metabolised product — acetaldehyde, are both easily able to cross the blood/brain barrier to have a direct neurotoxic effect on the brain. These are then able to lead to permanent structural and functional brain damage, which, has a direct relationship to dementia.
Sex and Reproduction
There is a common misconception of alcohol being an aphrodisiac, but the reality is that more than moderate consumption actually has the opposite effect.
Alcohol is a depressant, and as much as that means it lowers the inhibitions which help many feel confident in the bedroom — making it appear to have the effect of an aphrodisiac psychologically, that does not make it so physically.
A depressive effect on the central nervous system will inevitably lessen the benefit for both sexes due to decreased sensitivity and ability to climax.
A more pronounced consequence, however, arises from the way alcohol affects the cardiovascular system. Alcohol causes the blood vessels to dilate, meaning the way blood flows in and out of the penis is less regulated. This makes it more difficult to achieve and maintain an erection.
This may be the short-term effect of high alcohol consumption, but long-term heavy drinking has more serious sexual complications for men. Blood vessels in the penis are relatively narrow and erectile dysfunction may be the first sign of more serious physical complications, such as heart disease.
While there is research to suggest that moderate use of alcohol can be good for the heart, therefore good for performance in the bedroom, sex and alcohol are more of a balancing act — where alcohol in moderation is key.
Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a significant risk when pregnant women choose to drink. This is the name given to an array of issues resulting from alcohol passing the placental barrier to the developing foetus.
The American Academy of Pediatrics comments on the Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as to whether there is a safe amount or a safer time to drink during pregnancy:
“There is no safe amount of alcohol when a woman is pregnant. Research evidence is that even drinking small amounts of alcohol while pregnant can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, or sudden infant death syndrome.”
“There is no point during pregnancy when drinking alcohol is considered safe. Adverse effects can happen at the earliest stages of pregnancy, even before a woman realizes she’s pregnant. Because different aspects of the child are developing at all stages of pregnancy, alcohol’s effects on a developing baby can result from alcohol use at any point during pregnancy. Alcohol is a known neurotoxin, so since the brain develops throughout pregnancy, the developing brain and nervous system are always at risk.”
Although this is only one aspect of alcohol on reproduction, it is quite clear that there needs to be far more awareness made around the potential consequences, since no amount is a safe amount in pregnancy.
In the second part of this article, I will go into 5 more aspects of the effects of alcohol, and why Dry January or more consideration to the topic may be of benefit to you.
By Medicalchain’s Tim Robinson