A particularly tragic outcome of alcohol abuse is its effect on the unborn. Alcohol is far worse for the developing fetus than any other abuse drug. When a pregnant woman drinks, her developing child also drinks, and the toxic effect of alcohol is especially devastating at this formative stage of the fetus.
Alcohol causes irreversible damage to its central nervous system. Neurons do not form properly. Cells are killed off. Other cells end up located in the wrong place.
The result, fetal alcohol syndrome [FAS], is the foremost cause of mental retardation in newborns. Difficulties encountered by FAS children include intellectual impairment, language problems, developmental delay, behavioral dysfunction or deficit, slow growth, hyperactivity, and hearing and sight disorders. Many FAS babies are also born with characteristic facial deformities.
In addition, children whose mothers drank even moderate amount of alcohol during pregnancy can suffer from certain disabilities, including behavioral problems and learning deficits. “You don’t have to be an alcoholic to hurt your baby,” remarks Professor Ann Streissguth, of the fetal alcohol and drug unit at the University of Washington, “you just have to be drinking enough and pregnant.”
The report of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research Alcool –Effets sur la santé notes: The absorption of alcohol is deleterious during the whole gestational period, and no minimal dose has ever been established below which there are no risks.” Consequently, the wisest course for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy may be not to drink any alcohol at all.
Scientists suspect that chemicals in red wine [polyphenols] inhibit a chemical that causes blood vessels to constrict.
Furthermore, alcohol in general has been linked to increased levels of so-called good cholesterol. It also reduces substances that can cause blood clots.
Any benefit from alcohol seem to involve drinking small amounts spread throughout the week, rather than the total amount all at once on a night out.
Exceeding two drinks per day is linked to increases in blood pressure, and heavy drinking raises the risk of stroke and can cause swelling of the heart as well as irregular heartbeat. Immoderate drinking causes these and other health risks to outweigh any positive effects of alcohol on the cardiovascular system. Too much of a good thing is precisely that –too much.
In a bid to find a treatment for alcoholism, scientists have striven to understand the role that genes play in its genesis and evolution. Scientists have since discovered several genes that seem to influence one’s reaction to alcohol. However, genetic factors are not the only ones in alcoholism.
Even if some people do have a certain genetic predisposition, dependence is not inevitable. Environmental components are involved. Poor parenting, alcohol abuse in the home or by peers, situations involving conflict, emotional difficulties, depression, aggressiveness, thrill seeking, high resistance to alcohol’s effects, or addition to another substance have all been cited as risk factors. These and other element open the way for dependence.
Alcohol misuse is a multifaceted problem that includes hazardous use, harmful use, and dependence. Hazardous use, is defined by the World Health Organization, is “a pattern of alcohol consumption carrying with it a risk of harmful consequences,” physical, mental, or social. It includes drinking than the limits recommended by the health authorities or imposed by the law.
Harmful use, also called alcohol abuse, involves drinking that is already provoking either physical or mental damage but has not yet led to dependence. Dependence has been described as “the loss of control to abstain from drinking.” An alcohol-dependent person craves alcohol, continues to drink despite various alcohol-induced problems, and suffers from withdrawal in its absence.
No matter what your age, gender, or nationality, you are not free from the risks of hazardous drinking. Just what does alcohol do to the body? What are the health dangers of overdrinking? And what is generally considered a safe level of alcohol consumption?
Ethanol, the chemical compound present in most alcoholic drinks, is a neurotoxin –that is, a substance that can damage or destroy the nervous system. Someone who is drunk is, in fact, suffering from a form of poisoning. In large quantities ethanol causes coma and death.
For instance, among students in Japan, the practice of ikkinomi, or alcohol chugging, causes deaths every year. The body is able to convert ethanol into harmless substances, but this is not accomplished immediately. If alcohol is consumed at a faster rate than the body can handle it, ethanol builds up in the system and begins to interfere noticeably with brain function. In what way?
Speech, vision, coordination, thought, and behavior are all connected with an incredibly complex series of chemical reactions in the brain’s neurons, or key cells. The presence of ethanol modifies those reactions, suppressing or enhancing the role of certain neurotransmitters –chemicals that relay signals from neuron to neuron.
The stream of information in the brain is thus altered, preventing the brain from functioning normally. That is why when a person drinks too much, he or she develops slurred speech, blurred vision, sluggish movement, and weakened behavioral restraints and inhibitions –all common symptoms of intoxication.
With prolonged exposure to alcohol, brain chemistry adapts to counter the poisonous effect of ethanol and to maintain normal nerve function. This leads to tolerance, whereby the same amount of alcohol has less of an effect than it would have had previously.
Dependence occurs when the brain has adapted so much to the presence of alcohol that it cannot operate properly without it. The body craves alcohol to maintain the chemical balance. When a person is deprived of alcohol, his brain chemistry is totally destabilized and withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, trembling, or even seizures, set in.
Besides causing modifications of brain chemistry, alcohol abuse can lead to cell atrophy and destruction, altering the brain’s very structure. While partial recovery is possible with abstinence, some of this damage seems to be irreversible.
Neurons that die are apparently never replaced, further affecting memory and other cognitive functions. Damage to the brain is not just the result of long-term exposure to alcohol. Research seems to indicate that even relatively short periods of alcohol abuse can be harmful.
The liver plays a vital role in metabolizing food, combating infection, regulating blood flow, and removing toxic substances, including alcohol, from the body. Prolonged exposure damages the liver in three stages. During the first stage, the breaking down of ethanol slows the digestion of fats, causing them to build up in the liver. This is called steatohepatitis, or fatty liver.
In time, chronic inflammation of the liver, or hepatitis, set in. While alcohol can cause hepatitis directly, it also appears to lower the body’s resistance to hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses. According to a study in France, the risk of developing cirrhosis is twice as high in patients infected with hepatitis C virus [HCV] who are heavy drinkers as it is in HCV patients who are moderate drinkers.
It is recommended that HCV-positive individuals drink very little alcohol or none at all. If unchecked, inflammation causes cells to burst and die. Compounding this damage, alcohol seems to trigger the natural system of programmed cell death called apoptosis.
The final stage is cirrhosis. The vicious cycle of continuous inflammation and cell destruction causes irreversible scarring. Eventually, the liver becomes lumpy, instead of remaining spongy. Finally, scar tissue prevents blood from flowing normally, leading to liver failure and death.
Alcohol’s effect on the liver has another insidious side effect –the liver is less capable of playing its defensive role in counteracting the effect of cancer-forming agents. In addition to favoring the development of cancer of the liver, alcohol greatly increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, the pharynx, the larynx, and the esophagus.
What is more, alcohol makes the mucous membranes in the mouth more easily penetrated by cancerous substances in tobacco, elevating the risk for smokers. Women who drink daily are at a greater risk of breast cancer. According to one study, the risk for those who drank three or more alcoholic beverages per day was 69 percent higher than that of nondrinkers.
Women who are breast-feeding should be aware that after they drink, alcohol builds up in their breast milk. In fact, the concentration of alcohol in breast milk is often higher than in blood, since there is more water in the milk to absorb the alcohol than there is in blood.