Alcohol: the bad news followed by the surprisingly good news

(Last Updated On: June 23, 2019)
The demon drink poses a devil of a conundrum. Good doc says alcohol is medicine, and a shot of brandy or whisky will calm nerves, alleviate shock and provide a tonic when under the weather. Self-medication seems a responsible approach. Bad doc says alcohol is poison and causes disease and even death. Temperance is the truth and the way.


Perhaps we should be allowed to kid ourselves from time to time in this stressful, painful world. Or perhaps not: the effects on human health of alcohol consumption have been well documented, and it seems it is both friend and foe, a blessing and a curse.

Lord knows we’ve been drinking for long enough. And I’m not just talking city centres on Saturday nights: it would appear that humans, all around the globe, have been brewing, fermenting and imbibing for as long as history has been recorded, and beyond.

No doubt we have also been cautioning one another on the perils of drink for just as long. It’s bad for your health, you lose your inhibitions (a good thing, for some), your coordination is impaired, you talk voluminously and even authoritatively on subjects you know virtually nothing and ring round ex-lovers in the middle of the night.

As bad as it gets

The known effects of excessive alcohol consumption are quite terrifying. Alcohol causes nearly 10 per cent of ill-health and premature deaths in Europe. Excessive drinking can lead to cirrhosis of the liver (an irreversible condition which can result in liver failure, cancer and death) stomach ulcer, raised blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, pancreatitis, diabetes and reduced fertility. In pregnancy, drinking can cause low birthweight, premature birth and foetal alcohol syndrome, the biggest cause of non-genetic mental handicap in the developed world.

That alcohol is a causal factor in a number of cancers is already established. These cancers relate to the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast.

Furthermore, binge drinking is linked to depression, and not just because you wake up with a vague memory of having made a total fool of yourself or offended others.

Despite the temporary high you might experience when intoxicated, in the long term alcohol depresses the nervous system, affecting mood, which is already on a downer as a consequence of the physical symptoms of a hangover. Alcoholism can cause a dementia-type illness called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, as a result of alcohol-induced vitamin B1 deficiency.

Hair of the dog

The symptoms of a hangover are believed to be the effect of ethanol’s main metabolic product acetaldehyde, together with dehydration, which causes shrinkage of brain cells. For those of you with no idea, a hangover is a cluster of symptoms which include headache, fatigue, thirst, sensitivity to light and/or noise, poor concentration, depression, nausea, elevated body temperature, sweating, tremor, dry mouth, poor coordination and overall feeling of malaise.

I am occasionally asked to recommend a hangover cure. I can’t, partly because I am not given to peddling magic bullets but also because there aren’t any. In 2005 the British Medical Journal published a review of all the serious studies (fifteen in total) into common remedies said to prevent or treat a hangover, both natural and pharmaceutical. Sadly no compelling evidence to support any of the claims made for hangover remedies was found.

Five years later, another review of the evidence came to similar conclusions, stating pessimistically that ‘Future studies should elucidate the pathology of alcohol hangover. Until then, it is unlikely that an effective hangover cure will be developed.’ (Verster & Penning 2010).

A little of what you fancy …

A unit contains around 8g of alcohol, which is the amount found in a half pint of beer (3.5 per cent strength), a 175ml glass of wine, or a pub measure of spirit or fortified wine such as sherry. It is recommended that men and women consume no more than 14 units a week, and have at least two alcohol-free days each week.

It may seem hard to believe, at this point, but the strange paradox with regard to alcohol is that there is a wealth of evidence that indicates that in low to moderate amounts it actually promotes good health. Such evidence is not given as a licence to drink intemperately; however the truth is that many health claims are made for moderate alcohol consumption, and these claims are not unsubstantiated.

There is convincing research suggesting that consumption of one to two drinks daily is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. This level of intake improves insulin sensitivity and blood fat (triglyceride) levels, and may protect against heart disease and stroke. It’s not just the heart that benefits – plenty of studies have found that, compared to nondrinkers and very heavy drinkers, light to moderate drinkers also have reduced risk of  dementia and death.

A systematic review and meta-analyses examined the evidence for a link between the incidence of cognitive decline or dementia in the elderly, and alcohol consumption. A total of 23 studies were identified.

The authors state that there is some evidence to suggest that limited alcohol in early adult life may be protective in later life against dementia. The evidence is strongest for wine consumption.

Once you enter the high consumption zone, however, the benefits are reversed and risk is increased. Strangely, drink nothing at all and your risk appears to rise, suggesting that small amounts of alcohol play a protective role.

It is generally assumed that wine is ‘healthier’ than beer, but of the many studies into the relationship between alcohol and health, moderate consumption of any alcoholic beverage is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the antioxidant content of beer is equivalent to that of wine. It is the antioxidants in wine and beer which are believed to confer these positive effects.

What exactly is this noxious/healthful substance to which so many are so partial? Alcohol, or ethanol, is produced by fermenting sugar with yeast. The more yeast, and the longer the fermentation period, the more alcohol is produced. Wine and cider are made from fruit; beer and spirits are made from cereal grains such as barley and rye. Brandy on the other hand is made from grapes. If sugar is added to a spirit it becomes a liqueur.

Beer is a refreshingly straightforward alcoholic beverage, made simply from water, malt (usually barley malt), sugar, hops and yeast, with the odd bit of variety, such as the addition of spices. The main ingredient is water. Hops are the cone-shaped flowers from the Humulus lupulus plant, a climbing vine and member of the hemp family. The sugar in beer is metabolised by yeast into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. Mashing, mixing, heating, filtering and cooling, followed by fermenting, are the processes which bring you beer.

Before nineteenth century public health measures were introduced to clean up drinking water, people drank alcohol – beer, mainly – rather than bacteria-infested water. The alcohol killed off pathogens, so was in fact safer than water.

The choice of gods

Beer is thought to be our oldest alcoholic drink, with records of beer-making dating back to around 9,500 BC, when cultivation of grains began. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese were among the first to discover the joys of beer drinking.

Evidence for wine-making (fermentation vats and other paraphernalia found in caves in Armenia) dates back to just over 6,000 years ago. More recent archaeological evidence has accumulated from all over the world – we know that the ancient Greeks were true wine lovers more than 6,500 years ago.

Noah in the book of Genesis was the first ever farmer, apparently, and what was the first thing he went and planted after all the flood rain had subsided? A vineyard of course, possibly to help him recover from the stress and trauma of the previous forty days and forty nights. The Bible recounts that he got so drunk he took all his clothes off and fell asleep, and thousands of years later this behaviour is still emulated by so many of the descendants he begat.

The ancient Egyptians were fond of the grape too and we all know that the Romans incorporated wine into their orgiastic feasts. There have been suggestions that among the many things the Romans did for us, one was to bring us wine.


Authentic Roman orgy

The Romans in my view take far too much credit for our achievements and I find it hard to believe that our Palaeolithic forebears hadn’t already worked out for themselves that letting mature fruit ferment in order to produce alcohol resulted in a  tasty, mood-altering beverage that made a welcome change from river water.

If you look at labels of bottled beer in the supermarket you’ll find that many list the ingredients. There isn’t anything to hide – they are all perfectly respectable ingredients. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for wine.

Wine is laced with ingredients such as sulphur dioxide, added to protect the wine from fungal attack. By law, a statement about the wine’s sulphur dioxide content must be given, on the label, if it exceeds 10mg/litre. The reason for this is that sulphites are associated with asthma.

Other, unlisted ingredients in an average bottle of wine might include charcoal, gelatin, isinglass (fish bladder extract), clay, tannins, tartaric acid, and potassium ferrocyanide, among others. Don’t be fooled into thinking that organic wines are much purer – they are simply wines made from organically grown grapes. The other ingredients are the same, although organic wine does usually contain less sulphur. Better still, a limited amount of sulphur-free wine is available in shops.

Red wine is thought to be healthier than white and there is plenty of evidence to support this. Red wine’s redeeming feature is its high levels of antioxidant polyphenols, especially resveratrol. A glass of red wine contains about 200mg of polyphenols and white wine only around 40mg.

It is thanks to these polyphenols that moderate wine drinkers enjoy lower risk of coronary heart disease and cancer. Resveratrol inhibits inflammation, prevents platelet aggregation (blood clotting), dilates arteries and may inhibit atherosclerosis. Once in the gut, polyphenols are metabolised by gut bacteria, acting as promising candidates in the prevention of colon cancer.

It looks as though, in low to moderate amounts, the demon drink may have an angelic side. We pray that is true. In the meantime let us hope that some kind scientists take it upon themselves to investigate this matter further.

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Copyright © 2019 Maria Cross All rights reserved.



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