Health & Wellness

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The effects of alcohol on the human body

Alcohol is often considered an essential element of adult social functions, but adults who overindulge in alcohol are likely doing themselves a significant disservice. Alcoholic beverages can negatively impact a person's physical and cognitive abilities. But when it is consumed in moderation, alcohol can have some positive effects as well. Understanding what alcohol really does to the body and brain may help some people make more informed choices.

The Good

The idea that alcohol can have both good and bad effects on the body may seem like a mixed message, but that does not mean it isn't true. The effect of alcohol on a person's body often depends on the frequency and quantity of alcohol that individual consumes. Moderate alcohol consumption, such as one or two drinks per day, can have a positive impact on a person's health. The Mayo Clinic says moderate alcohol consumption may provide the following benefits:

* Possibly reduce risk of diabetes

* Possibly reduce risk of ischemic strokes

* Lower risk of gallstones

* Reduce the risk of dying of a heart attack

* Reduce risk of developing heart disease.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, alcohol has the ability to raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. Anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidants in some beverages, such as wine, can reduce blood problems that lead to clogged arteries.

Alcohol in moderation may also help fight fat. A 2010 study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who had one or two drinks per day were less likely to gain weight than those who didn't drink at all. Researchers believe there is a link between people who drink frequently and how their bodies adapt and metabolize alcohol differently from those who limit their drinking to nights out on the town or otherwise only drink rarely.

Alcohol increases levels of a hormone that improves insulin sensitivity and makes it easier for the body to process glucose and use it as energy, potentially benefitting those with type 2 diabetes.

Although alcohol may be associated with poor judgement, moderate drinking may stave off cognitive impairment. Alcohol may improve blood flow to the brain and make brain cells more tolerant to stress, preparing them for major stresses that can induce dementia down the road.

The Bad

When moderate drinking turns into compulsive or binge drinking, the positive benefits of alcohol consumption no longer apply. Drinking too much can take a serious toll on the body.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol can interfere with the brain's communication pathways. While it does not destroy brain cells, it certainly inhibits them, impairing an individual's ability to think clearly. Alcohol also can disrupt mood and behavior, causing individuals who drink to excess to engage in behaviors that are out of character. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions, which can lead to irresponsible behavior.

Moderate drinking may help the heart, but excessive alcohol consumption can damage the heart, potentially causing cardiomyopathy, or stretching and drooping of the heart muscle. Excessive consumption of alcohol can also lead to an irregular heart beat and high blood pressure, and over time, excessive drinking may induce stroke.

Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. The National Institutes of Health notes that men and women who regularly overconsume alcohol are more likely to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not overconsume alcohol.

Alcohol also can damage the liver and pancreas. Heavy drinking can cause fatty liver; inflammation, known as alcoholic hepatitis; fibrosis; and cirrhosis. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can inflame blood vessels in the pancreas and prevent proper digestion.

The Very Bad

The body often treats alcohol as a poison and attempts to fight back against this perceived poison. It produces an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, or AD, which reaches the alcohol when it passes through the stomach lining and liver. Its goal is to sober you up by taking a hydrogen atom off the ethanol molecules in the alcoholic drink, rendering it into a nonintoxicating substance. Some think AD plays a role in hangovers. Aspirin can reduce the effectiveness of the body's AD enzymes, making hangovers worse.

People who overconsume alcohol may be inadvertently poisoning their bodies with alcohol.  Receptors in the stomach, intestines and the brain recognize when the body has been infiltrated by a suspecting invader or poison. In an effort to protect itself, the body may try to expel the offending substance to safeguard itself from damage. This is why many people vomit after they consume an excessive amount of alcohol.

Drinking too much alcohol may be linked to a greater risk of developing certain cancers. Researchers have linked overconsumption of alcohol to cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast.

Reckless behavior spurred on by lowered inhibitions that result in poor decisions is another potentially dangerous, and sometimes deadly, side effect of overconsumption of alcohol. For example, men and women who drink excessive amounts of alcohol often feel capable of driving even when their blood alcohol concentration limit is exceeding the legal limit. Driving while intoxicated can lead to injury and even death, and oftentimes innocent motorists are injured or even killed simply because they were sharing the road with inebriated drivers. Even at the legal blood alcohol concentration limit of .08 percent, muscle coordination is lost, reaction time and hearing is impaired and judgment and self-control are hindered. As an individual's BAC increases, these symptoms are only exacerbated.

Drinking alcohol has various effects on the body depending on the amount and frequency that a person drinks. Learning the facts may motivate men and women to consume alcohol more responsibly.   

Gadsden Times