Alcohol toxicity: More than meets the eye

Alcohol toxicity: More than meets the eye

Every weekend is a cause for celebration, if young adults are to be trusted, and it most often starts with alcohol.

From our youngest age we are surrounded by commercials for alcohol cleverly disguised as socialization tools and „assets“ in clubbing, dating, barbecuing with friends, chatting on a regular afternoon, cheering for your favorite sports band and more. It is astounding how liberal and subliminal the commercials for alcohol are, given how harmful it is to our body.

Socially and legally accepted poisonong

According to a WHO report, 5.3% of all deaths that occurred worldwide in 2016 were due to harmful alcohol use. It is the main culprit behind the advancing nature of many chronic diseases, it drastically increases their severity and also makes their treatments less effective. Alcohol not only affects the person physiologically, but has many adverse psychological and social effects too. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence as a disorder called alcohol use disorder, or AUD, with mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications. Additional reason for concern is the trend of binge drinking that flourished in the last decade, where a person drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, drastically affecting the whole body.

Legal ramifications for drinking alcohol are nonexistant in most european countries, outside of driving and operating vehicles, and even that varies from strictly no drinking to up to blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 g/dL, or 0.05% being allowed. This constitutes as Moderate drinking, as per the American National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, a branch of National Institute of Health) classification.

Alcohol and your body

„There is no level of safe alcohol consumption“. This quote, taken from NIAAA, should always be at the back of one's mind when talking about alcohol consumption. Indeed, alcohol is a poison to the human body. Besides the visible effects, it also harbors even more harmful ones, visible only after a prolonged period of time. Alcohol affects everybody differently, due to a large number of factors and levels of proteins each individual secretes.

Figure 1: the effects of alcohol on various organs

46% of all liver diseases in 2022 in USA are due to alcohol consumption. Moreover, 50% of all cirrhosis deaths are attributed to alcohol. Around 81% of them come from the population of adults aged 25 to 34. Over 5% of all cancer cases are attribured to alcohol as well.

The liver metabolizes ethanol into acetaldehyde, and later it decomposes into carbon dioxide, water and a sizable amount of energy. This is why alcohol also contains a lot of calories. However, acetaldehyde is a toxic compound that is difficult to metabolize and acts rapidly once in the body: it strains the redox capacity of the liver, which gives rise to peroxidation. Simply put, in trying to metabolize even small amounts of alcohol, which the liver sees as poison, it produces acetaldehyde an the process attracts free radicals, immune cells, inflammatory molecules and activates stress proteins, leading to fat deposition in the liver and altered metabolism at cellular level, making the cells more prone to injury and degradation. The liver becomes more fibrous and fatty, meaning it can metabolize poisons less efficiently.

The metabolization of alcohol doesn't only affect the liver. Cardio myopathies, ischemia and elevated blood pressure are a common occurrence even after acute drinking. The effects are also seen on the lungs, muscles, bones, in the pancreas and the brain.

Alcohol and your brain

Alcohol affects the brain most profoundly. It destroys brain cells, suppresses nerve activity and the production of neural transmitters like dopamine and serotonine. Its effects are motor incoordination, sedation, nausea, amnesia, speech and cognition impairment and ultimately unconsciousness. Alcohol depresses the CNS and exerts a deeply profound impact on the neurons, which alters the biological and behavioural well-being. Many disorders are attributed to or are aggravated by even mild alcohol intake. Reversely, alcohol abuse might be an effect of several neural disorders. Alcohol consumption can cause unprovoked seizures in epileptic patients, and researchers have identified plausible biological pathways that may underlie this relationship. One of the unfortunate outcomes of such combination is sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP).

Alcohol and your friends and family

Alcohol unfortunately doesn't affect only the ones who drink it. Approximately 10.5% (7.5 million) of U.S. children ages 17 and younger live with a parent who has alcohol use disorder. This problem persists throughout their entire life, even after the death of their parents, as they themselves have a statistically higher chance of becoming alcohol abusers or suffer from some form of personality disorders. Other harms include deaths and hospitalizations (e.g., attributed to traffic injuries because of driving under the influence), child abuse or neglect cases involving a caregiver’s drinking, and domestic and other assaults. Some lesser, but also significant harms include negative effects on coworkers, household members, other relatives and friends, strangers, and on the community as a whole. A sistematic survey in Australia showed more than 350 deaths attributed to drinking by others, and more than 10 million Australians (or 70 percent of all adults) being negatively affected by a stranger’s drinking every year!

Drinkers also experience a range of social harms because of their own drinking, including family disruption, problems at the workplace (including unemployment), criminal convictions, and financial problems, to name a few.

Figure 2: The number of children living with a parent with AUD

Advancement of alcohol-related research

Alcohol and its effects have been known to mankind since the earliest days of civilization, and yet the full effect of alcohol on the human body is unknown. The cause and effect of alcohol and several mental illnesses is finally being investigated, and several research groups are trying to determine the exact biological pathways of all alcohol derivates and how to stop them. Currently the focus are the liver and the brain, two main victims of alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, it seems that the trend of alcoholism is increasing worldwide every year, and becoming more of a social problem than that of an individual. There is a clear path to solving this issue: simply not drinking. And as with all mental disorders, the first step in solving it is awareness.




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June 19, 2024

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