What a lifetime of drinking will do to you
A good place to start this discussion is with a definition of what alcohol is. The type that goes in your drink is nothing short of a chemical called ethanol. Sound familiar? That’s because it is what’s often mixed with gasoline to power your car.
Has the red flag gone up yet?
Produced by fermenting and distilling grains such as corn and wheat, evidence suggests beverage alcohol came into use about 12,000 years back. Since then it has been in its own very unique way an important part of many cultures around the world.
For anyone who drinks, I don’t have to tell you that alcohol has a powerful effect on the body. Absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestines, depending on whether you have an empty or full stomach (food will slow down the absorption rate), it can hit your brain within minutes – if not faster.
And from there, well, you know what happens. The power of alcohol is on full display. Depending on how much you consume that alcohol can have a moderate or severe affect on your cognitive abilities, affecting your behaviour, your mood, your memory, and much more – usually for the worse.
Wear and tear
But those are the short-term effects of alcohol. In this article I want to focus on how alcohol affects you over the long run. Ever wonder what a lifetime of drinking looks like? For the regular drinker, all that is needed is to look in the mirror. If you drink daily, a great deal of those extra pounds you are staring at and the lines on your skin are caused by years of alcohol consumption. Let’s take a look at what is going on:
1. Weight gain: If you are a regular drinker – as in a few units a day – you will find it next to impossible to maintain a lean body. People often talk about the calories in alcohol, but that is the least of your problems. The real issue is that the body gives priority to metabolizing alcohol, meaning when you drink, the body must burn the alcohol before burning any other calorie you consumed. So think about it: If you are drinking alcohol daily, you are every day giving your body a reason to convert much of the foods you eat into fat.
2. Insulin response: Imbalanced hormone levels can have a tremendous impact on your physical and mental well-being. And unfortunately, your hormonal system does not like alcohol. Not one little bit. There are a number of ways alcohol messes with your hormone levels. One of the big ones is how alcohol drives up blood sugars, which triggers the pancreas to produce the hormone insulin. The regular, over-production of insulin caused by too much drinking opens the doors to very serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
3. Liver disease: It’s really very simple: The more alcohol you drink, the higher your chances are of developing liver disease. That of course is not a good thing. Your liver has over 500 different roles in the body, many of them crucial to survival. The big problem? Fatty liver disease. One of the jobs of the liver is to turn glucose into fat, which it then sends around the body for future storage. But when you drink regularly, your liver is unable to handle the workload, and the liver cells themselves get overloaded with fat. Fatty liver disease is an extremely serious concern, which can in severe cases lead to liver failure and ultimately death.
4. Cognitive function: Some studies have actually shown that light to moderate drinkers actually have superior cognitive function than abstainers. Should we buy it? I am not so sure. But one thing we can say for sure is that whether on a single occasion (that is, a night on the town) or over time, alcohol affects the way the brain works by interfering with its communication pathways. This can have serious negative affects on memory and general clarity of thought. Regular alcohol consumption can also have a severe impact on your mood and general sense of well being, and in many people it causes severe anxiety and even depression.
5. Heart health: Again we have some research telling us that moderate amounts of alcohol may protect us from developing coronary heart disease. And again I am not so sure. If we are referring to resveratrol in wine – the ingredient so often used as the link between drinking and good heart health – well, it’s a weak link at best. So why is drinking bad for the heart? There is a long list of potential issues, and these include alcohol leading to high blood pressure, an irregular heart beat, and cardiomyopathy (the stretching and weakening of the heart muscle).
6. Sexual health: I covered this in a recent article on male libido. Unfortunately, alcohol can have significant effects on male performance – in the short term and in the long term. In the long-term, erectile dysfunction is the main issue, which is due in large part to drinking’s effects on raising levels of the hormone angiotensin (higher levels of which are associated with erectile dysfunction). And do be careful when it comes to mixing alcohol and Viagra. It’s no-no. The mix can be a dangerous one.
Clearly, moderation is key. But I will be honest, the term is often abused. If we look at the government guidelines around the world, many are giving figures for daily drinking. That is, what is considered an acceptable amount to drink every day. It is hard not to take issue with that.
When it comes to what we put inside our body – alcohol, food, pills, nicotine – the best advice I can give you is to listen to your body. You should know best if what you are doing is too much, too little, not good at all, and so on.
With some things (for example, smoking) it is more obvious than others. There can be no case made even for moderate use. It just needs to be avoided. But alcohol does not necessarily fall into this category. And fair to say that for many of us (me included) it fits into our regular routines and we manage it responsibly.
But the bottom line is that it is easy to get into a habit of drinking too regularly, and while it may not have any significant noticeable affect on your daily life, over the years it will. This means that any discussion about moderation must factor in the long-term health risks of drinking, which you will not get around no matter how hard you try.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.