The liver is the organ worst affected by chronic alcoholism. During the process of breakdown of alcohol, the liver releases toxic by-products which damage liver cells leading to inflammation and a variety of problems such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Not only does alcoholic liver disease affect liver function itself, it also damages the brain. When the damaged liver cells no longer function, excessive amounts of toxic substances such as ammonia and manganese travel to the brain and damage the brain cells causing a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy.
Pancreatitis is another common ailment in chronic alcoholics as alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances which results in inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas affecting proper digestion.
The vitamins of the B group are required for the utilisation of alcohol by the tissues and chronic alcoholism decreases the absorption of B complex vitamins. Deficiency of vitamin B-1 or Thiamine is fairly common among chronic alcoholics due to overall poor nutrition, alcohol inhibiting a person’s ability to fully absorb the nutrients from food; difficulty of the cells to uptake thiamine and the reduced ability of the body cells to utilise thiamine in cellular functions. Some individuals with chronic thiamine deficiency end up developing a serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). This disease has two distinct syndromes: a shorter serious condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and a prolonged and incapacitating condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis. Another manifestation of thiamine deficiency is a heart disease that causes increased blood flow, heart failure, sodium and water retention in the blood.
Chronic alcoholism also affects the absorption of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is critical for enzymatic functions and if these are impeded, the levels of homocysteine increase making a person vulnerable to the development of cardiovascular problems such as stroke, heart attack and megaloblastic anaemia.
Heavy drinking increases the risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, oesophagus, throat, liver and breast. Cigarette smoking along with drinking increases the cancer risk even more.
Chronic alcoholism also weakens the immune system making the body a much easier target for disease. Alcohol suppresses both the innate as well as the adaptive immune systems and reduces the ability of the white blood cells to effectively engulf and swallow harmful bacteria, disrupts the production of cytokines, suppresses the development of T-cells and may impair the ability of NK cells to attack tumour cells making one more vulnerable to develop bacterial and viral disease and less capable of destroying cancerous cells.
To conclude, alcohol is an intoxicating and habit forming beverage and there can never be a standard recommendation with regards to its consumption.
(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 19 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)