A while ago, I had received some reader questions about alcohol and its good/bad effects on health. So today we summarize the topic from medical point of view. Without much prefacing, let’s get on to the list!
1. The Warmth You Feel on Drinking is Misleading.
Drinking alcohol causes cutaneous vasodilation (temporary enlargement for blood capillaries running through the skin), which causes more warm blood from inner organs to flow into them. This may create an instant sense of warmth due to the rush of warm blood, but the heat loss is actually increased in cold surroundings for the same reasons if you continue to drink without being sufficiently clothed. Moreover, at high doses, alcohol depresses the temperature regulating centre in the brain. So, no more than 2 pegs if you’re really after warmth only. Chilly, but true.
2. Alcohol and the Liver.
Alcohol is ill-reputed as a liver-damager, but studies show that neither a one-time alcohol intoxication nor long-time consumption of upto moderate doses of alcohol cause any significant liver damage, PROVIDED you maintain adequate nutrition alongside. However, alcohol does significantly mobilize peripheral fat and increases fat synthesis in liver in a dose-dependent manner.
Chronic alcoholism (long-time intake of large quantities of alcohol), however, essentially leads to oxidative stress to the liver and causes liver fibrosis, in which healthy liver cells die and are replaced with dysfunctional fiber.
3. Blood thinning effects of alcohol.
It is widely regarded that alcohol ‘thins’ the blood in low doses, and is good for heart patients. Ever wondered what exactly does this mean?
Studies only indicate that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption may be linked to the observed 15-35% lesser incidence of coronary artery disease in the observed sample populations of drinkers. It causes increase in HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol), and decreases LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) oxidation. This too, comes with the if-buts that the risk reduction is greatest (35%) only in people already at high risk, and that this protection is lost if >3 drinks are consumed daily.
Add to this, the fact that moderate consumption of alcohol also causes mild rise in Blood Pressure. So even the blood thinning effect may not be very much worth going for, if you have hypertension already. Also, epidemiological studies have confirmed that chronic alcoholism contributes to hypertension and can lead to cardiomyopathy.
4. Alcohol and Pain Alleviation.
A number of people see alcohol as a way to suppress or mitigate chronic pain. It is true that alcohol raises the pain threshold (level after which a pain starts feeling troublesome) and also alters the reaction to pain, BUT once the influence of alcohol has receded, it precipitates confusion if there is persistent severe pain. So, drinking a few pegs to alleviate a healing wound pain on a chilly day is ok; but drinking to suppress a chronic muscular/arthitic pain or headache is pure self-harming.
5. Alcohol for waking up a collapsed person.
Brandy and whiskey have long been used as respiratory stimulants in collapse. While it may be an option as an immediate remedy before help arrives, it works only through a transient reflex stimulation by irritating the throat, not through actual nervous stimulation. Instead, alcohol directly causes depression of the respiratory centre in the brain on consumption. So you could be further antagonizing the person’s life by actually making them drink the whiskey.
6. Alcohol and Digestion.
Alcohol is known to improve gastric acid secretions at an optimum concentration of 10+/-5 percent. That also explains why most liquid digestives in Ayurveda are alcoholic in base. However, above that concentration, you are harming your stomach instead. Alcoholism is in fact, an important cause of chronic gastritis, as alcohol directly irritates the stomach mucosa.
Bottomline – while beer, wine or a weaker drink can be good for digestion in moderate amounts, anything stronger than that has large chances of ruining it. That also explains the common knowledge why meat and alcohol are taken in pair in food – the heavy-to-digest proteins in meat compensate for the extra acid secreted due to alcohol, and vice versa.
7. Alcohol as an Aphrodisiac.
This is one myth probably invented by some alcoholic based upon their delusions under its influence. Alcohol ONLY causes aggressive sexual behaviour. The real performance in bed, is actually often impaired due to depression of vital brain centres. Chronic alcoholism has been seen to produce impotence, testicular atrophy (shrinking/’dying out’ of the cells in testes), gynaecomastia (development of female-like enlarged breasts in males) and infertility.
8. Alcohol and the Kidneys.
After all the negativity(?) in this article, here’s one positive note fans may be wishing for. Alcohol causes you to pee more, but that is only due to its hormonal inhibitory effects and the lots of water the drinks contain. It does not cause any significant impairment of kidney function.
9. Alcohol and Anaesthesia.
Why am I even mentioning this in an article for non-medicos? ‘Coz the other day, I read a random Ayurveda fanboy on social media telling people that alcohol was used an anaesthetic agent in Ayurveda and other traditional medicines. Well technically, yes it was, but under what circumstances, needs to be examined to understand the essence better. Alcohol based anaesthesia was the last resort in end-of-the-tether situations in most traditional or old-time western medicine, when no other anaesthetic agents were available, and that mostly didn’t work out very well either.
In Ayurveda particularly, a shloka (verse) from Sushrut Samhita is often cited as the source of this claim. However, it would be pertinent to note that the two chapters about anaesthesia succeeding this shloka are missing from all the original manuscripts available today, and could have contained anything under the sun, including indications/contraindications, specific combinations, other more potent anaesthetics (since it would be outlandish to assume that an abdominal surgery could be done under only an alcohol induced anaesthesia) or what not.
10. The Big One: How not to get Drunk.
Drinking alcohol and getting drunk are two different things. There are three simple remedies for avoiding the latter while doing the former: one while you drink, one before you start drinking, and one after drinking.
While drinking – The metabolism of alcohol follows zero order kinetics. “Follows What?” Simply put, no matter how much you drink, the alcohol entered in your bloodstream is eliminated at a constant rate of about 8-12ml/hour. That means an average person can tolerate about 200 ml of beer or 60 ml of whiskey hourly without getting drunk. The only trick is to space out the drinks across time. But that isn’t always possible, is it? One shot leads to another, and another and another while the clock loses its relevance. It happens, so the next remedy.
Before you start – How would it be if we destroy the alcohol in your stomach itself, even before it gets absorbed in the blood? Yes, this can be done by simply eating two small teaspoonfuls of Brewer’s Yeast less than 20 minutes before you start drinking. Yeast degrades some part of the alcohol in your stomach itself, giving you a headstart in the race for not getting drunk.
After drinking – We have a simple time-tested homemade Ayurvedic recipe that not only prevents you from getting drunk, but also relieves hangover symptoms if drunk later, and repairs some major deleterious effects caused by alcohol on the body. The original idea was to include it in this very post, but article length considerations directed otherwise.
Watch out for it in the next post on this very blog. Meanwhile, you can also follow us through email or WordPress to get notified as soon as the next post is out.
So that was some important things you need to know before enjoying another tempting peg/shot/whatever of whichever alcoholic drink you prefer. To end with, here’s a small chart of the alcohol percentages of some popular drinks, for your reference. Pin it, download it, print it, share it, do whatever you like; just remember what you just read. And, if you still get drunk and fall ill due to it, always consult a qualified and registered medical practitioner.
Stay Healthy, Stay Happy!
About the Author –
Dr. Harshad Rajandekar is a practising physician based out of Nasik, India. He can be reached here for feedback or consultation.