The Toxic Effects of Alcohol

We all know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us and habitual over-consumption of it can lead to alcoholism, liver failure, and self-destructive behaviors.  But what about moderate use of alcohol? Exactly how much alcohol can one safely consume without detrimental effects on the body and mind? Does alcohol affect women and men differently? Are some alcoholic drinks more toxic than others?  Are there unintended consequences related to alcohol consumption?  This article will cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of alcohol consumption.

Excessive consumption of alcohol on a regular basis damages the liver and the brain.  Regular consumption of alcohol can lead to Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency because it inhibits the absorption of Vitamin B1.[1] Vitamin B1 is important because it is necessary for all the tissues in the body.  It is also critical for certain enzymes in the brain that enable the synthesis of neurotransmitters.  Persistent alcohol abuse will damage the brain.  One form of damage is known as “wet brain” a/k/a Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome which can morph into encephalopathy or psychosis.[2]  Symptoms can include loss of mental activity resulting in coma and/or death, confusion, loss of acuity, loss of muscle coordination, muscle weakness, loss of memory, and vision problems.  When psychosis sets in, people can experience visual and auditory hallucinations, the inability to create new memories, and severe memory loss.  Wet brain is not curable, thus it is important to refrain from alcohol abuse and monitor your vitamin B1 levels.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy alcohol use as more than four drinks for men and more than 3 drinks for women a day.  The NIAAA defines binge drinking as patterns of drinking alcohol that elevate blood alcohol concentration to 0.08%. For men, that translates to five or more drinks within 2 hours; and for women, four or more drinks within the same time period.   

Even moderate levels of alcohol do not come without some risk.  There are conflicting studies on that.  Some studies indicate moderate use of alcohol is good, while others say the exact opposite. The truth may be somewhere in the middle.  Enjoying an occasional glass of wine with a nutritious meal is probably not a bad thing for most people.  However, people who have certain types of cancers and liver disease should refrain from any alcohol consumption altogether.  

The NIAAA defines moderate alcohol consumption as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. 

Moderate use of alcohol has shown benefits such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, promoting high-density lipoprotein (HDL a/k/a “good cholesterol”), increased sensitivity to insulin, and help guard against small blood clots.  However, too much of a good thing can easily turn into a bad thing.  The keyword is moderation.  

Men and women respond to alcohol differently.  Women will experience the effects of alcohol faster than men because they are smaller and the alcohol level in their blood is more concentrated when compared to the same amount of alcohol consumed by men.  Also, alcohol gets stored in fat cells. Since women have a higher percentage of body fat than men, they retain more alcohol than men.  This causes women to experience longer effects of alcohol than men. Since women are more sensitive to alcohol than men, it is important to limit alcohol consumption to moderate use only.  

Research has shown that because women metabolize alcohol differently than men, they are more susceptible to organ damage and brain damage.  In addition, alcohol consumption has been linked to breast cancer. 

Aside from the alcohol, there are other ingredients mixed in your drink that are detrimental to your health.  A lot of alcoholic drinks are loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients, flavorings, and colors.  Even some wines have added sugar after fermentation to alter the taste.  Not all wines are created equal.  Dry red and white wines contain less residual sugar than semi or off-dry wines. Dry wines have 0.1 to 0.3% sugar per litter versus 1 to 3 percent sugar found in semi or off-dry wines. Champagne has more residual sugar than both of these types of wines. Residual sugars in champagnes are anywhere from 0.6 to 2 % per liter.  Fortified wines like a Port or Marsala can have as much as 15% residual sugar per liter.  Late harvest wines have a sugar content of at least 20% and higher.  This translates to 200 or more grams of sugar per liter.  With all that sugar, it is easy to see how you can pack on the pounds.    

However, there is more to alcoholic drinks and wine than just sugar.  Sulfites and as many as 60 different additives can be added to wines.  Since some people are allergic to sulfites, the addition of sulfites to the wines must be listed as an ingredient on the label.  However, the other 60 additives do not legally have to be disclosed.   So who knows what you are drinking?

Regular consumption of alcohol, even moderate consumption, will cause you to gain weight.  When you drink alcohol with food, your body will burn the calories from alcohol first and the calories from food tend to be stored as fat. Any alcohol that gets converted to fat tends to settle in the midsection. Hence the beer belly.  Post-menopausal women can easily store fat in the midsection and easily lose that hourglass figure.  Having visceral fat around your waist is particularly dangerous because it leads to metabolic syndrome and a whole host of other problems.   

As if packing fat around your waistline is not bad enough, alcohol also ages your skin by causing loss of collagen and elasticity, premature wrinkles, blotchy skin, dehydration, and impairment of the regeneration of new skin cells. 

There are many unintended consequences related to the overconsumption of alcohol.  Cognitive decline, weight gain, and premature aging negatively impact your health.  Overconsumption of alcohol can also spell financial ruin, destroy relationships, and increases the chance of engaging in risky sexual behavior and violence.  DUI’s are expensive to defend and losing your license can prove to be a major inconvenience.  

When it comes to alcohol, moderation is the best policy.  If you find it too difficult to control the amount of alcohol you consume, that’s a good sign that you should refrain from drinking altogether.  The problems you will cause for yourself is just not worth it.  And of course, there are some groups of people that should never drink:

Pregnant and lactating women

People under 21 years of age — especially since their brain is still developing and can be greatly impacted by a vitamin B1 deficiency  

People that are taking medications that have contradictions with alcohol

Recovered alcoholics

Drink responsibly and always bear I mind that alcohol can be a double-edged sword.  

Dina Arvanitakis
Dina is a certified functional medicine nutrition coach and author that is passionate about health and wellness. As a health advocate, she coaches clients on how to implement anti-aging techniques and weight-loss strategies and solutions so they can become their own powerful success stories. She believes that everyone can enjoy a healthy vibrant life once they are empowered with knowledge and the right tools to make effective changes in their lives. A healthy you is a FABULOUS you!