We know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us. It gives us hangovers, makes us feel tired and does little for our appearance – and that is just the morning afterwards. [Report by Philippa Roxby, Health reporter, BBC News] Long term, it increases the risk of developing a long list of health conditions including breast cancer, oral cancers, heart disease, strokes and cirrhosis of the liver. Research shows that a high alcohol intake can also damage our mental health, impair memory skills and reduce fertility.The direct link between alcohol and the liver is well understood – but what about the impact of alcohol on other organs?Numerous heart studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption helps protect against heart disease by raising good cholesterol and stopping the formation of blood clots in the arteries.
- Digestive problems
- Spotty, bloated face
- Disrupted sleep
- Short-term memory failure
- Reduced fertility
For bowel cancer, previous studies show that increasing alcohol intake by 100g per week increases the cancer risk by 19%.A recent report in BioMed Central’s Immunology journal found that alcohol impairs the body’s ability to fight off viral infections.And studies on fertility suggest that even light drinking can make women less likely to conceive while heavy drinking in men can lower sperm quality and quantity.Why alcohol has this negative effect on all elements of our health could be down to acetaldehyde – the product alcohol is broken down into in the body.Acetaldehyde is toxic and has been shown to damage DNA.Dr KJ Patel, from the Medical Research Council’s laboratory of molecular biology in Cambridge, recently completed a study into the toxic effects of alcohol on mice.His research implies that a single binge-drinking dose of alcohol during pregnancy may be sufficient to cause permanent damage to a baby’s genome.Foetal alcohol syndrome, he says, “can give rise to children who are seriously damaged, born with head and facial abnormalities and mental disabilities”.
‘Clear dose relationship’
Alcohol is a well-established cancer causing agent, he says.
“You cannot get a cancer cell occurring unless DNA is altered. When you drink, the acetaldehyde is corrupting the DNA of life and puts you on the road to cancer.
“One of most common genetic defects in man is our inability to counteract the toxicity of alcohol.”
Dr Nick Sheron, who runs the liver unit at Southampton General Hospital, says the mechanisms by which alcohol does damage are not quite so clear cut.
- Cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, oesophagus, larynx, breast, liver, colon, rectum
- Liver cirrhosis
- Essential hypertension
- Chronic pancreatitis
- “The toxicity of alcohol is complex, but we do know there is a clear dose relationship.”
With alcoholic liver disease, the greater the alcohol intake per week the greater the liver damage and that increases exponentially for someone drinking six to eight bottles or more of wine in that period, for example.Over the past 20 to 30 years, Dr Sheron says, deaths from liver disease have increased by 500%, with 85% of those due to alcohol. Only in the last few years has that rise slowed down.”Alcohol has a bigger impact than smoking on our health because alcohol kills at a younger age. The average age of death for someone with alcoholic liver disease is their 40s.”‘More harmful than heroin or crack’
Alcohol is undoubtedly a public health issue too.Earlier this year, NHS figures showed that alcohol-related hospital admissions has reached record levels in 2010. Over a million people were admitted in 2009-10, compared with 945,500 in 2008-09 and 510,800 in 2002-03. Nearly two in three of those cases were men.At the same time the charity Alcohol Concern predicted the number of admissions would reach 1.5m a year by 2015 and cost the NHS £3.7bn a year.Last year, a study in The Lancet concluded that alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack when the overall dangers to the individual and society are considered.The study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs also ranked alcohol as three times more harmful than cocaine or tobacco because it is so widely used.
So how much alcohol is too much? What can we safely drink?
Did you know? There are 16g of alcohol in a 175ml glass of red or white wine.
The government guidelines on drinking are being reviewed at present. They currently say that a women should not drink more than two to three units of alcohol per day and a man three to four units a day.But Paul Wallace, a GP and chief medical adviser of Drinkaware, says people are just not aware of the alcohol content of a large glass of wine.”Most of us don’t realise what we’re drinking and you can very easily slip beyond acceptable limits.”Katherine Brown, head of research at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, says the current guidelines and how they are communicated may be giving the public misleading information.”We need to be very careful when suggesting there is a ‘safe’ level of drinking for the population. Rather, we need to explain that there are risks associated with alcohol consumption, and that the less you drink the lower your risk is of developing health problems.”We hope the government use this as an opportunity to help change perceptions about regular drinking being a normal, risk-free practice.”Dr Wallace wants the government to do a better job on the message it sends out by explaining the alcohol guidelines in units per week, rather than per day – no more than 21 units for men, 14 units for women per week.Dr Sheron agrees: “There is no such thing as a safe level, but the government has got to draw a line somewhere. It’s a balance.”People like having a drink, but they have to accept there’s a risk-benefit ratio.”
Bible on Alcohol:
The many biblical references to alcoholic beverages are both positive and negative, real and symbolic, descriptive and didactic. Both archaeological evidence and written records indicate the significant cultivation of grapes in ancient Israel and the popularity of wine-drinking. The production capacity apparent from archaeological remains and the frequent biblical references to wine suggest that it was the principal alcoholic beverage of the ancient Israelites.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary says, “The sin of drunkenness … must have been not uncommon in the olden times, for it is mentioned either metaphorically or literally more than seventy times in the Bible,”though some suggest it was a “vice of the wealthy rather than of the poor.”Biblical interpreters generally agree that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures condemn ordinary drunkenness as a serious spiritual and moral failing in passages such as these (all from the New International Version):
Proverbs 23:20f: “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”
Isaiah 5:11f: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands.”
Galatians 5:19–21: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: … drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Ephesians 5:18: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”
The Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini:The consequences of the drunkenness of Noah and Lot “were intended to serve as examples of the dangers and repulsiveness of intemperance.” The title character in the Book of Judith uses the drunkenness of the Assyrian general Holofernes to behead him in a heroic victory for the Jewish people and an embarrassing defeat for the general, who had schemed to seduce Judith.
On the whole, biblical literature displays an ambivalence toward intoxicating drinks, considering them both a blessing from God that brings joy and merriment and potentially dangerous beverages that can be sinfully abused.The relationships between Judaism and alcohol and Christianity and alcohol have generally maintained this same tension, though Christianity saw a number of its adherents, particularly around the time of Prohibition, rejecting alcohol as inherently evil.