The months of November to January are full of festivities, parties and weddings. A major part of these celebrations includes food and alcoholic beverages. The effects of alcoholic beverages vary from person to person and are influenced by many factors. While drinking alcohol in moderation is itself not necessarily a problem, drinking too much has various consequences on one’s health.
The word alcohol is derived from the Arabic word al-kohl which means subtle. Alcohol is a colourless, volatile liquid with a characteristic taste and odour that is prepared by the fermentation of fruit juices, malt, molasses, rice, etc. The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages is a simple compound called ethanol, which affects the body in many different ways. It directly influences the stomach, brain, heart, gallbladder and liver. It affects levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and insulin in the blood, as well as inflammation and coagulation. It also alters mood, concentration and coordination.
There are three main classes of alcoholic beverages – wines, malted beverages (beer) and distilled liquors (whisky, brandy, rum and gin) that contain different strengths of alcohol, which is expressed in terms of percentage of volume or weight. It is therefore important to know how much alcohol each beverage contains.
When it comes to alcoholic beverages, there is no universally accepted definition of a standard drink. In the United States one standard drink is any drink that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol and is equivalent to any one of the following:
• 12 ounces or 350 millilitres of regular beer (about 5 per cent alcohol)
• 5 ounces or 148 millilitres of wine (about 12 per cent alcohol)
• 1.5-ounces or 44 millilitres or a shot of 80-proof (40 per cent alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor – whisky, rum, vodka or gin.
Alcohol is pure carbohydrate and yields 7 kcal of energy per gram. It does not require digestion and is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the blood stream right from the first sip. Alcohol is rapidly absorbed on an empty stomach while the presence of food particularly fatty food delays stomach emptying and allows greater absorption. The liver contains enzymes that can metabolise only small amounts of alcohol at a time, leaving the excess to circulate throughout the body. The intensity of the effect of alcohol on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.
Alcohol’s immediate effects can appear within about 10 minutes of drinking. As one drinks, there is an increase in the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level. The higher the BAC, the more impaired one becomes by the effects of alcohol.
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system depressant that interferes with the brain’s communication pathways affecting the functioning of the brain resulting in mood and behaviour changes making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
While research studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, particularly red wine, may protect healthy adults from developing coronary heart disease, heavy drinking over an extended period can damage the heart, causing problems like cardiomyopathy or enlargement of the heart muscles; irregular heart beat or arrhythmias, high blood pressure and strokes.
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, it also damages the brain. When the damaged liver cells no longer function, excessive amounts of toxic substances like ammonia and manganese travel to the brain, damage brain cells, and cause a 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.
To be continued. . .
(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 20 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)