Alcohol - The Cons and Pros

By: Amy Pongrass, Nutritionist

Australian drinking guidelines have recently been revised, with the daily limit reduced from four drinks a day for men to two, the same for women. When the government jumps on the wagon and advises a reduction in alcohol we need to understand exactly how a drink (or three) can impact upon your health.

Alcohol and toxins

The feeling of being intoxicated is as the name suggests - your body is responding to toxins. Just like any other drug, when alcohol first enters the body it races into the bloodstream where it remains until the liver is able to metabolise it. The average person takes about one hour to metabolise a standard drink however most people drink alcohol faster than it takes the liver to clear it. When this happens, the excess travels to other parts of the body such as the brain, dimming the senses and making us drunk. When alcohol is broken down it is converted into acetaldehyde and acetate. Acetaldehyde causes free radical damage and the "hungover" effect.

Alcohol, fat metabolism and weight loss

Acetate is responsible for preventing fat being burned as energy. In its presence the body prioritises the metabolism of acetate before burning fat, carbohydrate or protein; all in an attempt to remove toxins from the system. A study by the University of California examined eight men who consumed two alcohol drinks each within 30 minutes. For several hours after their drinks, their ability to use body fat as energy dropped a staggering 73 per cent. Not only does alcohol prevent fat burning, it is also known to enhance the appetite. Studies show people consume more during a meal with alcohol than without. Per gram, alcohol contains 29 kilojoules, compared to 16 kilojoules per gram of carbohydrate and 17 kilojoules per gram of protein.

Alcohol also causes a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, which breaks down muscle tissue and reduces the body's ability to burn kilojoules. At the same time, alcohol increases the breakdown of testosterone, with both hormonal effects occurring for up to 24 hours. Bad news for alcoholic men, who often have larger waists and less muscle tone than those who abstain.

Alcohol and blood sugar

Drinking alcohol can lead to low blood sugar, especially if taken on an empty stomach. When the body has low blood sugar, the liver works to counteract it by converting stored carbohydrate to glucose and sending it into the blood. However, when alcohol enters the system, the body wants to clear it from the body quickly and the liver won't release any more glucose again until it has removed the toxin, i.e. alcohol from the body. Diabetics who use insulin are at an increased risk, as their medication is already working to lower blood glucose and when a drink is taken the liver stops dispensing glucose and blood sugar levels drop further.

Alcohol and the mind

Aside from fat storage and toxic side effects other short term consequences of alcohol include:

  • depressed central nervous system
  • impaired judgement, memory and sensory perception
  • disrupted sleeping patterns

    Alcohol and nutrients

    Alcohol can damage the lining of the digestive tract leading to poor absorption of nutrients. The body's need for B group vitamins and vitamins A, C, zinc and magnesium increases with regular drinking, raising the risk of malnutrition.

    Misuse of alcohol

    In the long term, alcohol can cause serious health problems. Over time, cell walls harden to retain stability and reduce toxic damage. After a while, however, cell walls start to break down and begin to lose their ability to keep toxins out and essential nutrients in. Many cells begin functioning poorly or stop functioning altogether which is when organ damage occurs.

    Long term effects include:
  • stomach irritation
  • pancreatic disorder
  • kidney/liver/heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • brain cell damage and death

    Are there any benefits?

    Wine aficionados will tell you that alcohol has proven health benefits, which is true - red wine has high levels of antioxidants in the form of resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in the skin and seeds of grapes that has possible cancer-preventive activity.

    A study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2003 in which a group of scientists followed more than 2,300 drinkers and nondrinkers found that those who averaged a single drink per day had the lowest levels of abdominal fat. Those who drank occasionally but had four or more drinks in one sitting had the greatest levels. Other studies show that moderate drinkers have better health levels than their tee totaling counterparts, with lower blood pressure, increased longevity and spend less time in hospitals.

    Even at moderate levels, however, alcohol is still a poison and not only affects the body's organs negatively but depletes the body of vital nutrients essential to health. If you are going to drink, do so in moderation and counteract the adverse effects by maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise.


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