Reducing Alcohol Consumption

The following information is from Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Dr. Elson Haas

ALCOHOL IS A STRESS ON THE BODY

As with caffeine, occasional moderate use of alcohol is often pleasurable and no cause for concern except for people with allergic reactions to alcohol or disease of the liver, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, brain, or nervous system. Habitual alcohol overconsumption, however, can lead to addiction, emotional problems, and a number of specific degenerative processes including obesity, gastritis and ulcers, hepatitis, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, hypoglycaemia and diabetes, gout, nerve and brain dysfunction, cancer, nutritional deficiencies, immune suppression, accidental injury and death.

Alcohol does have some positive physiological effects. It stimulates appetite and relieves stress, although not as much as exercise. It acts as a vasodilator, improving blood flow. It may also effect a slight increase in HDL “good” cholesterol levels; however, it also raises total blood fats. Small to moderate (1-2 drinks daily) may also lessen the progression of atherosclerosis and heart disease. Some studies have shown a lower number of heart attacks in moderate drinkers over nondrinkers of the same age, possibly due to increased HDL cholesterol levels, and reduced atherosclerosis. Higher amounts, however, increase blood pressure and heart disease risk. Certainly, regular physical activity and nurturing personal relationship are better health supporters and stress reducers than alcohol.

RISKS OF ALCOHOL

The risks of alcohol are directly related to the amount consumed and the time period over which it used, although individual reactions may vary. High risk use involves more than 5 drinks daily; moderate risk use, 3 to 5 drinks daily; and low risk, 1 to 2 drinks daily. Social drinking of a few drinks a week offers minimal risk.

Those with diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease, and pregnant or nursing mothers or those planning pregnancy should not drink alcohol at all. People with blood sugar problems, liver disorders (especially hepatitis), ulcers and gastritis, viral diseases, yeast problems, mental confusion, fatigue, or hypersensitive reactions to alcoholic beverages should also avoid it.

Symptoms from drinking: dizziness, delayed reflexes, slowed mental reactions, memory loss, poor judgment, emotional outbursts, aggressive behaviour, lack of coordination, and loss of consciousness.

Symptoms of hangover: mouth dryness, thirst, headache, throbbing temples, nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, fatigue, and dizziness. Alcohol dehydrates the cells, removes fluid from the blood, swells the cranial arteries, and irritates the gastrointestinal tract. Hangovers are more common with stronger, distilled alcohol drinks but can still occur with red and white wines, champagne, and beer.

Symptoms of withdrawal: alcohol craving, nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal upset, abdominal cramps, anorexia, fatigue, headache, anxiety, irritability, dizziness, fevers, chills, depression, insomnia, tremors, weakness, hallucinations, and seizures.

Since alcohol converts to fat, obesity (especially abdominal obesity, the most dangerous area) also often occurs with high alcohol use.

95% of alcohol consumed must be metabolized in the liver, taking precedence over other functions (by the way, the liver has over 500 functions!). Fat metabolism slows and fat builds up in the liver. Chronic use can swell, scar and shrink the liver until only a small percentage is functional. Complications also include ascites (fluid build up in the abdomen), hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and bleeding disorders. More serious liver disease such as hepatitis or cirrhosis, the the liver becomes inflamed or enlarged, are also the result of chronic alcohol use. Usually more than half the liver must be destroyed before its work is significantly impaired (but it can regenerate if drinking is stopped).

Gastrointestinal disorders include gastritis, abdominal pain, eating difficulties, gastric ulcers, duodenal ulcers, deficiency of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, esophagitis (irritation of the esophagus), varicose veins, pancreatitis, gallstones, and gallbladder disease.

Nervous system disorders including polyneuritis (nerve inflammation), premature senility, and encephalopathy (chronic degenerative brain syndrome) can also result from chronic alcohol use.

Alcohol intake and abuse is damaging to the heart and blood vessels and leads to cardiovascular diseases and dysfunctions. These include a decrease in heart function, heart muscle action, and electrical conductivity, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia and an enlarged heart.

Carbohydrate metabolism is affected by alcohol and can lead to hypoglycaemia and diabetes. Alcohol is a simple sugar that is rapidly absorbed and has a tendency to weaken glucose tolerance with chronic use. Impaired glucose metabolism can cause mood swings, depression, emotional outbursts or anxiety. Furthermore, increased calories from alcohol can lead to weight gain and increased body fat resulting in obesity as alcohol converts to fat unless it is balanced by exercise and a good diet.

Nutritional deficiencies from alcohol use potentially include impaired absorption of nutrients (particularly B vitamins and minerals; liver impairment from reduced absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; loss of nutrients like potassium and magnesium from alcohol’s diuretic effect; reduced liver stores of alcohol-metabolizing vitamins B1 and B3; anemia due to deficiency of folic acid, vitamin B12, and iron; increased risk of osteoporosis from low vitamin D and poor calcium absorption; lack of appetite, causing deficiencies in vitamin B2, B6, A and C, essential fatty acids, methionine, or really any nutrient that comes from a good and wholesome diet.

Alcohol increases the levels of the liver enzyme that breaks down testosterone. In teenage boys, the reduction of testosterone may delay sexual maturity. Alcohol’s depressant effect on the nervous system can reduce sexual performance or cause impotence despite reduced inhibitions and increased desire.

Alcohol has been implicated in malignancies of the mouth, esophagus, pancreas and breasts.

Other health problems include a red swollen nose, dilated blood vessels, gout, yeast vaginitis, PMS, and a suppressed immune system.

NUTRITIONAL SUPPORT FOR DRINKERS

A generally balanced and nutritious diet will help minimize some of the potential problems from alcohol, although even the best diet and supplement program will not fully protect us from ethanol’s toxic effects.

When the liver is metabolizing alcohol, it is helpful to avoid fried foods, rancid or hydrogenated fats, and other drugs, all of which are hard on the liver. Alpha lipoic acid may help protect the liver against some of the toxicity, as can milk thistle herb.

Alcohol users need more nutrients need more nutrients than most people to protect them from malnutrition. Obviously basic multivitamin and antioxidant formulas are important. Part, or possibly most, of the toxic effects of alcohol may be caused by the production of free radicals. Higher than DRI levels of vitamins A, C, and E, mixed carotenes, and the minerals selenium, zinc, manganese, and magnesium are suggested. Commonly deficient nutrients also need extra support. Thiamin, riboflavin and niacin help circulation and blood cleaning and can reduce the effects of hangovers. Leafy greens and whole grains, both rich in folic acid, should be added to the diet in double the amounts. Water and other nonalcoholic liquids are needed to counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol. Glutathione helps prevent fat buildup in the liver through its enzymatic activities, so the tripeptide glutathione (or L-cysteine, which forms glutathione in the body) may be supplemented along with basic L-amino acids. Additional L-glutamine will enhance brain cell function.

Social Drinking

Social drinkers still need protection against alcohols toxicity. A good diet is essential plus vitamins B1, B2, and B3, folic acid, and B12. These, along with zinc, magnesium, and vitamin C should be taken with some food before drinking. In general drinking should be limited to 2 drinks per day.

A number of things can prevent drunkenness and hangover. Our alcohol blood level is affected by how much and how fast we drink and absorb. Drink slowly. If we drink fast on an empty stomach, absorption is immediate. Ideally it’s best to have some food in the stomach, or to limit consumption to one drink before eating. Food also prevents us from getting sick. Low salt complex carbohydrates like bread, crackers or vegetable sticks, because carbohydrates delay alcohol absorption. Fat and protein snacks such as milk or cheese will also decrease alcohol absorption, thus reducing drunkenness and hangovers. Olive oil can coat the stomach before  drinking; a few capsules of evening primrose oil will have a similar effect. Women seem to be more readily affected by alcohol than men, even when body weight is equal.

Once alcohol is ingested, it just takes time to clear it from the blood. With heavy drinking, extra coffee and exercise do not really help; however with mild intoxication, they can increase alertness. Definitely avoid other psychoactive drugs when drinking alcohol, including tranquilizers, narcotics, sedatives, anti-histamines, and marijuana, all of which may increase alcohol’s effects.

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