Title: Alcohol: How Drinking Affects Health and Nutrition
Author: Christina Dye
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: February 2011
Catalog Number: 120

..This One’s For You

You’re an “average”

Maybe you like to chill out with a cocktail after a hard day
at work. And maybe you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a
beer or two during the game of the week.

You don’t depend on drinking to relax or to get through the day,
and alcohol’s never seemed to cause, or contribute to, any problems
for you — at least not any real problems.

Basically, you can take it or leave it, and either way, drinking
isn’t that big a deal.

Congratulations! This pamphlet is for you, the “average”
not-necessarily-problem drinker, who’s curious about the health
effects of moderate drinking.

Of course, alcoholism is definitely a long-term risk associated
with drinking. And there are plenty of “average” people
who started out drinking moderately and ended up staying at the
party too long.

In fact, according to a recent estimate by the U.S. Department
of Health & Human Services, 17.6 million Americans are problem
drinkers. Any one of them should be able to tell you that
problem drinking can be a real problem, indeed.

But it’s not the only problem tied to drinking, not by a long

That’s because alcohol is a complicated chemical that produces
a complex range of health effects (and problems), and you don’t
have to drink too much to have them happen in your life.

In fact, maybe no more than you already drink.

..Law of Averages

So how much alcohol
is too much?

Well, that depends on who you are and how you define “too

Statistically, Americans drank an average of 2.31 gallons of
ethyl alcohol per person in 2007. That’s equal to about 50 gallons
of beer, 20 gallons of wine, or five gallons of liquor each.
That’s a lot no matter who’s counting — and who’s pouring.

Still, whether or not a particular slice of all that consumption
is regarded as too much can depend on a lot of factors, including
social setting (dinner with your boss or bowling with the
individual habits (are you used to drinking a
little, a lot, or at all?),
and even time of day (a 7
o’clock martini attracts different types of notice, depending
on whether it’s 7 o’clock in the morning or evening).

One thing about drinking that doesn’t change according to person
or circumstance is the rate at which alcohol is metabolized,
or broken down in the body. That happens at a pretty consistent
rate of about one-third ounce per hour.

That means that, no matter how much or how often you drink, if
you drink more than that for longer than that you’re going to
feel the toxic effects of alcohol.

And that means that no matter how much hot coffee you pour into
yourself (or cold showers you pour onto yourself), nothing will
alter that rate.

Another constant is the relative equivalency of alcohol content
in different types of drinks.

In other words, a 12-ounce bottle of beer contains about the
same amount of alcohol as a shot of 86-proof whiskey or a highball
or a six-ounce glass of wine. That’s why you can always drink
too much, whether you’re drinking draft beer or shots of tequila
or piña coladas with little umbrellas on the side.

And while most people seem to think that distilled liquors, like
bourbon or gin or vodka, pose the most risk, health-wise, all
types of alcohol produce similar wear and tear on the body if
you drink enough.

What kinds of wear and tear? Check the box below for a look at
some of the more common forms.

..Health & Hangovers

Probably the
best-known sign that all’s not well after a bout with a bottle
is the hangover — that miserable feeling that sets in the morning
after the night before.

Hangovers, like
the ingredients that go into them, differ from drinker to drinker.

Still, regardless of how (and in whom) hangovers happen, morning-after
miseries represent the body’s reaction to the short-term toxic
effects of alcohol. And those effects begin to occur at low levels
of drinking, even before a drinker feels what alcohol is famous
for — it’s intoxicating effects.

Get the idea?

Even at moderate levels, alcohol is a poison, and at higher levels
it’s something of a liquid time bomb.

Still (and to balance out the picture) that doesn’t automatically
mean that it’s “better” or healthier not to drink at

In fact, recent studies have shown that moderate drinkers have
lower levels of heart disease than do tea-totalers, and statistics
show that moderate drinkers tend to live longer and spend less
time in hospitals than both abstainers and heavy drinkers.

Still, heavy drinking can lead to all sorts of health problems,
and those problems have added up to what’s been estimated in
the U. S. as at least a $100 billion annual bill for otherwise-unnecessary
health care expenses.

That doesn’t even include all the aspirin and all the antacids
to ease all the millions of hangovers. That only includes the
“hidden” health problems linked to use of the drug.

And there are a lot of those. (See “Body Talk” box,
below, for examples.)

..An Ounce of Prevention

there’s not a lot you can do to keep your body in perfect biochemical
condition if you choose to drink.

That’s because alcohol is a complex drug, the only one we know
of that’s both fat- and water-soluble, and one which affects
all the organs and tissues of the body.

In fact, recent research has linked alcohol with a higher rate
of tumors of the breast, liver, and mouth, along with an added
susceptibility to high blood pressure.

And experts increasingly warn against drinking during pregnancy,
since even one or two drinks per week have been linked with a
higher risk of stillbirth and miscarriage.

The old adage has never seemed truer. Because an ounce of prevention
really is worth a pound (or is it a gallon?) of cure.

Still, if you do drink (and you plan to keep on drinking) and
you want to stay as healthy as possible, drink moderately.

Also, become aware of your diet and the way that foods (and drinking)
affect your mood. Follow up by making a commitment to reduce
your intake of junk food, fats, and excess sugar. And follow
through by setting up (and sticking to) an exercise program.

That’s the best way we know to have your cocktail and drink it,
too — hopefully, to a ripe old age.

..Parting Shots

Probably the
best way to minimize the risk of problems is to simply be responsible
about drinking — by being aware that alcohol is a powerful drug
and then treating it like one.

That means taking care if you’re going to be taking a drink —
whether taking care takes the form of taking a cab when you’re
out on the town or simply taking it easy when a friend tries
to insist on another round when you’ve had enough.

It also could mean passing on drinking altogether for some of
us, particularly pregnant women and those taking prescribed medications
— which can produce deadly interactions when taken with alcohol.

It can mean a lot of things, because there are a lot of things
we can do to take the danger out of drinking. But they all start
with each of us. And they all end with being responsible.

Here’s looking
at you, kid.

..Sidebar | Body Talk

There’s a lot
going on whenever alcohol’s going through the body, so we’ll
limit ourselves here to main systems only:

  • Liver. Since alcohol is so toxic, clearing
    it out of the system is a priority. And when the liver gets busy
    getting rid of alcohol, it gets behind in other functions, like
    maintaining stable blood-glucose levels to the brain. It takes
    a pounding in the process, too. Cirrhosis is a common result
    of long-term drinking, and one of the main killers of older drinkers.
  • Stomach. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining,
    and vomiting is a particularly visible result. Heavy drinking
    can lead to stomach problems and ulcers.
  • Central Nervous
    Alcohol depresses
    almost every brain function, from balance to breathing. And even
    though effects lessen as booze leaves the body, regular drinking
    raises tolerance, so that heavier drinkers can drink more without
    getting drunk. They do, that is, until liver damage reverses
    the process, which speeds up damage to the brain and the rest
    of the body.

..Sidebar | You Are What You Drink

One of the biggest
hidden problems in drinking involves the tendency of booze to
drain the body’s stores of critical vitamins and nutrients.

And while some of the secondary problems arising from a vitamin
deficiency can be reversed with daily doses of supplements, others
can’t be turned around as easily, particularly when they’re undetected
or untreated.

Let’s consider some of the most common:

  • B Vitamins. Alcohol depletes supplies of B-complex
    vitamins, which are essential to basic body processes. Vitamin
    B deficiencies can harm the heart, liver, and other organs, and
    cause muscle and nervous tissue damage, anemia, even beriberi
    (a disease involving nerve degeneration, muscle weakness, and
    heart problems).
  • Vitamin A. Carotene (vitamin A) deficiency reduces
    the body’s resistance to disease and impairs vision, particularly
    the ability of the eyes to adjust to darkness.
  • Vitamin C. Alcohol also blocks
    absorption of vitamin C, and can lead to anemia, reduced resistance
    to disease, and overstimulation of the adrenal gland.

And alcohol’s
interference with essential nutrients carries a double whammy:
Not only does it drain vitamins already in the body, it also
slows absorption and retention of new nutrients. One-a-day, anyone?

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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