a companion piece to How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain
For all those years that I guzzled alcoholically, and even before that when I was a kid, I wholeheartedly believed that alcohol was good for you. My dad, a tense professor by day and, before alcoholism overshadowed his life, happy winemaker by evening, taught us kids that booze made life sweet: “It’s good for what ails ya!”
After all, what did old-time doctors dose out to patients? Whiskey! What did St. Bernards carry in those little casks to people stranded in the snow? Brandy! So, liquor must be almost medicine, right?
Actually… uh, no. The opposite is true. That shit is poison — literally.
In many parts of the world, alcohol abuse now ranks as the #1 cause of death among people aged 15 to 49.* Did you just absorb that, my friend? Would you please check out my reference below – World Health Org, 2014. Sure, there’s a lot of bullshit circulating the internet, but doesn’t WHO sound kind of credible? Here’s one of many graphs expanding on that fact:
In recent news, we’ve all heard of studies — most of them funded by the alcohol industry — claiming alcohol is the bee’s knees for some aspect of health. Rarely is it the actual alcohol — the ethanol in these drinks — behind these supposed benefits. In red wine, it’s the grape skins’ resveratrol, in beer it’s B vitamins from grains, etc. True, ethanol dilates blood vessels, which may seem to alleviate symptoms of cold and flu, but even researchers behind such studies admit ethanol “would not have an effect on the virus itself.”**
All of these pro-booze studies stress the condition of small doses, usually about 1-6 drinks per week — a mere thimbleful for heavy drinkers. In such small quantities, alcohol can’t poison you because your liver nabs it by the short ones and boots it the hell outta your bloodstream. But suck up enough booze and the stuff overwhelms your liver, wreaking havoc throughout your entire body.
Ethanol is one of the few nutrients that is profoundly toxic, …caus[ing] both whole-body and tissue-specific changes in protein metabolism. Chronic ethanol misuse increases nitrogen excretion with concomitant loss of lean tissue mass. …A variety of diseases and tissue abnormalities… are entirely due to ethanol-induced changes in… tissue proteins; for example, cirrhosis, cardiomyopathy, and osteoporosis. Ethanol induces changes in protein metabolism in probably all organ or tissue systems.†
Let’s look at them there tissue systems one by one, why don’t we?
During these disease stages, some of the blood entering the liver through the portal vein cannot penetrate [it] and is diverted directly into the general circulation… not detoxified, [so] blood levels of toxic substances increase. …Thus, liver dysfunction can… contribute to brain damage.Ω
You know how, when a rainstorm overwhelms a sewage system, raw sewage spills straight into a bay or river or whatever? Same thing here: that shit-filled blood goes everywhere in your body and brain.
All a hangover means is, your body and brain have been poisoned. Hey, no big! But feeling like a sack of dogshit all day doesn’t mean you’ve actually damaged your body, does it?
Alcohol Fucks Up Your Muscles and Bones
It does. Both skeletal and cardiac muscles are screwed up by alcohol — even from a single binge.
…[T]he most reliable data examining the effects of alcohol on protein metabolism is derived from animal studies, where… the dosing regimen can be strictly controlled. These studies indicate that, both chronically and acutely [i.e. binge], alcohol causes reductions in skeletal muscle protein synthesis, as well as of skin, bone, and the small intestine.†
Most full-blown alcoholics treat their bodies like shit in general – doing other drugs, smoking, eating crap – so to isolate alcohol, scientists have to dose it to poor little animals and record how their little muscles, bones, and guts all go to hell.
Speaking of your small intestine, can you guess what alcohol does to it? Yup – fucks it up royally. First, alcohol decreases the good bacteria (flora) in the gut and increases harmful bacteria. Worse, the walls of the intestines, which normally allow only nutrients pass through, get all permeable and schlop those bad bacteria straight into your bloodstream.
Alcohol can induce intestinal inflammation through a cascade of mechanisms that subsequently lead to inflammation and organ dysfunction throughout the body, in particular in the liver and brain. One mechanism is by increasing bacterial loads and the permeability of the intestinal wall (see figure) allowing bacteria to leak through, leading to local and systemic effects.‡
Paneth cells normally police the gut for bacteria, but alcohol suppresses them, “which can allow additional intestinal bacteria overgrowth and allow their byproducts (i.e., endotoxins) entrance through the intestinal barrier. The bacteria, via endotoxins, trigger an inflammatory response by the intestine’s immune system, causing a release of proinflammatory cytokines”‡ that travel to the liver and fuck it up, too.
How alcohol screws up your pancreas & lungs could drag on for several paragraphs, but I’ll just note that about 45% of pancreatitis cases result from alcohol abuse, which increases chances of pancreatic cancer. (If you think I’m making this shit up, just read the damn article.¤) As for lungs, in the late 1700s, the first US Surgeon General warned that alcohol use was linked to pneumonia. The dude was right. Studies today confirm that “alcohol use disorder (AUD) render[s] people more susceptible to a wide variety of lung infections, including bacterial pneumonias and tuberculosis, and increased morbidity and mortality.”§
Endocrine and Cardiovascular Systems
I guess by this point it won’t exactly shock your pants off to learn that drinking buggers your entire endocrine/hormonal system. Interactions among your hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal, thymus, thyroid, and adrenal glands, and even your gonads, area all screwed up.
Alcohol intoxication induces hormonal disturbances that can disrupt the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis and… result in… cardiovascular diseases, reproductive deficits, immune dysfunction, certain cancers, bone disease, and psychological and behavioral disorders.∋
Heartwise, some studies claim a drink or two a day wards off certain types of heart disease. “But any positive aspects of drinking must be weighed against serious physiological effects, including mitochondrial dysfunction and changes in circulation, inflammatory response, oxidative stress, and programmed cell death, as well as anatomical damage to the CV system, especially the heart itself.”◊
Are we gonna make a stink about a little cell death and heart damage? I guess so. Sad tuba says, wah-wah!
Wouldn’t it be fun to talk about CANCER a bit? Let’s do! In women, even one drink a day elevates risk of breast cancer.º In men, one per day does the same for prostate cancer.⊗ And for everybody who swallows the stuff, drinking has been shown to increase cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, colon, and rectum.Δ
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Pretty much everything that stuff touches, from lips and pooper, takes a giant step or two toward cancer. Why? Because “…alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical, acetaldehyde, [which] can damage your DNA and stop cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer.”ß
The bottom line is, booze tears through the body like a Warner Brothers Tasmanian Devil. Sure, some people survive it; my aunt drank scotch every night and lived to 93 — though not very happily. But her liver’s kickass performance doesn’t change what alcohol is and does.
Cultures worldwide frame alcohol, not as a toxic drug, but as a harmless aid to relaxation and conviviality. Look again at the left side of that WHO graph above — all those people dying in their teens, 20s, and 30s. For each death, how many survivors’ lives are crippled? The world’s leading cause of death, illness, injury, and family tragedy is something people choose to consume — until it turns and consumes them.
That, dear readers, is fucked up.