Some pink wines today are So dry that they taste slightly more red than white. (Hitdelight/Shutterstock)

Myth of ‘Moderation’: Is There No Safe Amount of Alcohol?

Mike Dyson, 33, passed away suddenly on Christmas Day after several drinks, before he even had a chance to open his presents.

Dyson went to his neighbor’s house to drink at 1:30 p.m. After drinking about four glasses of whiskey and some hot water, he lay down on a bed. Everyone thought he was sleeping. It wasn’t until around 7 p.m. that his family members and neighbors discovered to their horror that he was not breathing. So they called an ambulance and gave him CPR at the same time.

Unfortunately, he still died at around 8:20 p.m.

The coroner confirmed that he died of central nervous system depression, particularly respiratory depression, caused by acute alcohol intoxication. Toxicological analysis showed that Dyson’s blood alcohol content was very high at the time, four to five times of the legal driving limit, which is equivalent to the state of “extreme drunkenness in a normal person.”

Dyson’s story is just one example of the countless deaths caused by alcohol. The harm caused by alcohol is actually much more common than we think.

Each year, alcohol kills approximately 95,000 people (68,000 men and 27,000 women) in the United States. Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States (the first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and lack of exercise).

From 2006 to 2014, alcohol-related emergency room visits increased by 47 percent. Of all emergency cases, 18.5 percent were alcohol-related. In 2019, there were 10,142 drunk driving deaths in the United States, accounting for 28 percent of all driving deaths.

Alcohol Is a Group 1 Carcinogen and Has a Safe Intake of 0

Did you know that there is no such thing as a “safe intake of alcohol”?

Alcoholic beverages have long been classified as Group I carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

In 2018, top international medical journal The Lancet gave alcohol drinkers a bitter pill to swallow. After a systematic review of alcohol consumption and health effects in 195 countries from 1990 to 2016, this study concluded that the safe intake of alcohol is zero.

According to the study, statistically, one in three people aged 15 years and older worldwide drank alcohol in 2016, including 25 percent of women and 39 percent of men. Alcohol consumption is a major factor in premature death and disability in people aged 15 to 49 years.

The researchers stated that alcohol consumption might have some protective effects on ischaemic heart diseases and diabetes in women in some cases, but emphasized that more research showed that alcohol consumption had no or insignificant protective effects on all-cause mortality or cardiovascular health.

Many people believe that drinking red wine is good for their health. In fact, this is mainly due to the presence of resveratrol in red wine. You can also get resveratrol from purple or dark red grapes, blueberries, cranberries and peanuts without the intake of alcohol. You can also have a glass of rich grape juice instead, and benefit from the resveratrol content without the negative effects of alcohol.

Moreover, alcohol consumption is directly associated with increased risk of cancer and infectious diseases. So when considering the overall health risks of alcohol consumption, the previously mentioned protective effects are negated. Our health is compromised regardless of the amount of alcohol we consume. And our exposure to alcohol will also negatively affect our health at any stage of our life cycle.

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How Much Alcohol Can the Liver Process?

After drinking alcoholic beverages, the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream and further broken down and processed by the liver.

The human liver can process about one drink per hour, where one drink usually means 12 ounces (about 350 ml) of beer, 5 ounces (about 150 ml) of wine, or 1.5 ounces (about 45 ml) of whiskey.

A person may be intoxicated if he or she drinks alcohol faster than his or her liver can process it.

We determine a person’s intoxication level mainly by looking at the blood alcohol concentration in his or her body, with a blood alcohol test. Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) refers to the grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. For instance, a BAC value of 0.1 percent means 0.1 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood.

In the United States, the legal blood alcohol concentration limit is 0.08 percent for drivers aged 21 and older.

If the BAC is between 0.08 percent and 0.4 percent, the person is considered intoxicated. Other symptoms may include clouding of consciousness, nausea, and drowsiness.

A BAC above 0.4 percent is extremely dangerous and can lead to serious complications, coma, and even death.

Alcohol Makes the Brain Atrophy and Increases Its Age by 11.7 Years

The link between alcohol consumption and brain atrophy was established decades ago.

Numerous magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have demonstrated significant differences in the gray and white matter of the brain in chronic alcohol drinkers compared to healthy individuals.

In a cross-sectional view of the brain, the central part is white matter and the outer layer is gray matter. They have different functions. The gray matter is where the nerve cells are concentrated, while the white matter mainly acts as a relay and connects nerve cells.

The gray matter in the brain of alcohol-dependent people generally decreases in volume, and the degree of change is related to the amount of alcohol consumed over time and the duration of alcohol dependence. In alcohol drinkers, the white matter of the brain also atrophies and its microstructure also alters.

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The degree to which alcohol shrinks the brain increases with age, reaching a maximum in old age.

However, the reduction in brain volume is not necessarily irreversible, and many early studies have shown that brain volume appears to partially recover after abstinence from alcohol. In people who were previously heavy drinkers (155 drinks per month), reducing their alcohol consumption to an average of 20 drinks per month is sufficient to increase brain volume.

Alcohol also causes the brain to age. Alcohol-dependent individuals have older brains compared to their peers. One study found that the difference between the age and biological age of the brain in alcohol-dependent individuals was up to 11.7 years, as determined by their gray matter volume. Another study on brain age found that only daily drinkers had a difference between actual and predicted brain age, while those who drink infrequently or abstained from alcohol had no difference.

A study published in the British Medical Journal also mentioned that people who consumed alcoholic beverages on a weekly basis had a faster rate of cognitive decline compared to those who did not drink. Even those who drank little alcohol (1 to 7 drinks per week) showed a decline in cognition.

Which Parts of the Brain Are Affected by Alcohol?

When alcohol enters the brain, it affects the following parts of the brain:

Cerebral cortex: This processes sensory information. Alcohol makes the cerebral cortex slower, decreases judgment, and weakens sensory functions.

Hippocampus: This is the part of the brain that creates memory. One or two glasses of alcohol can cause temporary “amnesia.” If alcohol damages someone’s hippocampus, the person’s memory will be impaired.

Frontal lobe: Alcohol’s damage to this part of the brain can cause a person to lose self-control, act without thinking, and even commit violence. Chronic drinking can permanently damage the frontal lobe.

Central nervous system: When you want to dictate what your body does, it is the central nervous system that transmits the instructions. This is why people think, speak, and act slower after drinking alcohol.

Cerebellum: It coordinates the body. When you are drunk, your hands will shake, and you will walk crookedly.

Hypothalamus: After drinking, blood pressure rises, body temperature drops, heartbeat slows down, and urinary urgency cannot be controlled because the hypothalamus is affected.

Medulla: It controls the body’s “automatic” functions, such as heartbeat and body temperature. Therefore, if you drink a lot of alcohol, you will lose consciousness and may even die.

 

Alcohol Reaches the Liver and Becomes Carcinogenic, Increasing the Risk of Many Cancers

Only 10 percent of the alcohol we consume is excreted through sweat and breathing, while the remaining 90 percent is broken down and metabolized by the liver.

When alcohol enters the liver, it is broken down by an enzyme into acetaldehyde, then by another enzyme into acetic acid, and later into water and carbon dioxide.

Acetaldehyde is a toxic and carcinogenic substance, while acetic acid is slightly less toxic. An improper ratio of alcohol-breaking enzymes in the body can lead to a buildup of these toxins in the body.

Acetaldehyde also continues to damage cell membranes, causing DNA damage and preventing DNA synthesis and repair, which can lead to cancer. Both ethanol and acetaldehyde disrupt DNA methylation, allowing oncogenes and other abnormal genes to be activated, resulting in the formation of cancer cells. Ethanol can also induce inflammation and oxidative stress, leading to further DNA damage.

Of all new cancer cases worldwide in 2020, more than 740,000 were attributed to alcohol consumption, of which about 100,000 were caused by light and moderate alcohol consumption.

Esophageal, liver, and breast cancers are the three cancers with the largest numbers. The remaining ones are colon, oral cavity, rectum, pharynx, and larynx cancers, in descending order.

A systematic review of over 100 papers by several Australian researchers concluded that excessive alcohol consumption can be associated with damage to all parts of the gastrointestinal tract. The reason alcohol causes breast cancer is now thought to be that it increases the level of sex hormones in the body.

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