Why Do Researchers Recommend this Common Drink that Can Poison Your Brain?

heavy drinkerResearch has consistently found that people who don't drink actually tend to die sooner than those who do. A new paper suggests that abstainers' mortality rates are actually higher than those of heavy drinkers.

Even after controlling for many possible variables, such as socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, and number of close friends, the researchers found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers.

One reason for this may be that low levels of ethanol in your bloodstream will prevent the formation of formaldehyde from dietary methanol. In fact, ethanol is used as the preferred antidote for accidental methanol poisoning in an emergency for this reason.

Time Magazine reports:

“The authors of the new paper are careful to note that even if drinking is associated with longer life, it can be dangerous: it can impair your memory severely and it can lead to nonlethal falls and other mishaps”.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

This is not the first time we’ve been told that drinking alcohol is actually good for you. What’s surprising however, not to mention potentially troublesome, are the scientific claims that moderate and even heavy drinking is beneficial – in this case, more beneficial for your longevity than abstaining from alcohol entirely!

It’s difficult to reconcile this claim with everything we already know about the devastating health effects of excessive alcohol consumption and the fact that ethyl alcohol is neurotoxic..

However, I will offer one potential explanation for this oxymoron a bit later in this article.

Moderate Drinkers Live Longer than Non-Drinkers, Study Finds

According to the recent study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Research, epidemiological research suggests that moderate to high alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced overall mortality risk compared to non- and light drinkers.

Their study included over 1,800 people, aged 55 to 65 when the study began. Sixty-nine percent of the participants were men. The subjects were followed for 20 years.

Surprisingly, the group with the lowest mortality rate was moderate drinkers, who had one to three alcoholic drinks per day, followed by heavy drinkers, and then light drinkers, while non-drinkers had the highest mortality rate of them all.

The study states:

“Controlling only for age and gender, compared to moderate drinkers, abstainers had a more than 2 times increased mortality risk, heavy drinkers had 70% increased risk, and light drinkers had 23% increased risk.

A model controlling for former problem drinking status, existing health problems, and key sociodemographic and social-behavioral factors, as well as for age and gender, substantially reduced the mortality effect for abstainers compared to moderate drinkers.

However, even after adjusting for all covariates, abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45%, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers.”

Time Magazine writes that “moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health, circulation and sociability.”

But is that enough to explain these findings?

I believe it’s unwise to ignore the big picture when it comes to health, and when it comes to alcohol, I’m just not convinced that the potential benefits outweigh all the risks, particularly when it comes to having multiple drinks per day.

So I hope these latest findings will not be used as justification to further promote a dangerous and health-damaging habit that can easily lead to alcoholism.

The Health Hazards of Alcohol

Before we get into the potential benefits, it’s important to realize that alcohol is a neurotoxin that can poison your brain. It can also disrupt your hormonal balance, which could potentially explain why women do not appear to reap the same health benefits from alcohol consumption as men do.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “moderate” consumption for women is just one drink per day, whereas “moderate” consumption for men is two drinks. Hence, women who consume two to three drinks a day will actually fall into the category of “heavy” drinkers.

Another important consideration is that wine or other alcoholic beverages will increase your insulin levels, which will eventually have a negative impact on your health. As I’ve stated on many previous occasions, insulin resistance is a hallmark of nearly every chronic disease there is.

Heavy drinkers also face increased risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cirrhosis of the liver.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, women who drink two or more drinks a day increase their risk of breast cancer by more than 40 percent!

Other types of cancer linked to excessive alcohol consumption include cancer of the:

  • Mouth, larynx and esophagus
  • Liver
  • Colon
  • Pancreas
  • Lungs

Alcohol consumption also inhibits your body’s natural stress response by reducing a key stress hormone, known as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF is produced by your hypothalamus and helps trigger your body's reaction to stress.

If your stress response is impaired, your immune system will also be inhibited, which can have any number of health implications, from reducing your ability to fight infections to increasing your cancer risk.

Alcohol also clearly needs to be avoided during pregnancy.

Beyond Resveratrol – Explaining the Health Benefits of Alcohol

One of the most widely accepted health benefits of alcohol comes from resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, which acts as a:

  • Cancer-preventing agent
  • Blood thinner
  • Vaso-expanding agent
  • Blood pressure lowering compound
  • Anti-aging chemical

But resveratrol cannot explain the health benefits ascribed to the moderate consumption of other types of alcohol (ethanol).

Interestingly, research into ethanol’s impact on dietary methanol may offer clues that could potentially rival the late breaking science into fructose and its devastating impact on health.

One possible explanation for why mortality rates are higher for non-drinkers may be that low levels of ethanol (alcohol) in your bloodstream helps prevent the formation of formaldehyde from dietary methanol. (In fact, ethanol is used as the preferred antidote for accidental methanol poisoning in an emergency for this reason.)

What is dietary methanol and how could this possibly have ANY significance?

New Concern in Your Food: Wood Alcohol (Methanol)

Fresh fruits and vegetables contain small amounts of naturally-occurring methanol, and the artificial sweetener aspartame converts into methanol in your body.

Normally this is not a problem as the methanol is typically bound to pectin, and since your body has no enzyme to metabolize that bond it is simply excreted in your stool and none of the methanol is absorbed into your body.

However, the problem occurs when you can or bottle fruit- or vegetable juice, as the methanol tends to then dissociate from the pectin into free methanol, which you do absorb.

The methanol you absorb readily passes the blood brain barrier where it can be  converted to form formaldehyde, which is a potent toxin that actually causes most of the damage.

Why Ethanol May Protect You From Methanol

An exciting paper that delves into this topic is food scientist Woody Monte’s “Methanol: A chemical Trojan horse as the root of the inscrutable U,” published in the March, 2010 issue of Medical Hypotheses.

In it, he explains that:

Very low levels of ethanol in your bloodstream would substantively prevent all formaldehyde production from dietary methanol anywhere in the body.

Protection from formaldehyde production may account for the yet unexplained dose region of apparent improvement in the U-shaped curve of alcohol consumption.

Epidemiologic studies show moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with a reduced risk of myocardial infarction, dementia, lupus, and other diseases of civilization. 

Low doses of ethanol appear to provide a preventative measure against the causes of diseases of civilization.

Recent studies of individuals who consumed at least one alcoholic drink per day show subjects had an additional 86 percent reduction in risk of myocardial infarction if they were genetically endowed with a genotype of ADH I that was 2.5 times slower to metabolize ethanol than the control. 

These findings were ‘‘consistent with the hypothesis that a slower rate of clearance of alcohol enhances the beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption on the risk of cardiovascular disease.””

It is important to understand that the primary treatment for methanol poisoning in the emergency room is to give them ethanol, for the reasons described above.

The ethanol will preferentially be broken down before the methanol.  The methanol then remains unmetabolized, and in its base form it is relatively nontoxic. It’s becomes a problem when your body breaks it down to formaldehyde.

So while your body is breaking down the ethanol it has enough time to breathe out the methanol unchanged in your lungs and excrete it unchanged in your urine.

A Little Alcohol Might Be Good, But More is Definitely Dangerous

As I mentioned earlier, if this theory is correct, it could rival the scientific findings on fructose in terms of importance, and could explain not only the health benefits of low-to moderate alcohol consumption, but also how aspartame affects some people more negatively than others.

It may still be too early to draw definitive conclusions, but the arguments are compelling and I’ll be following this line of research with great interest in the years to come.

In his paper, Dr. Monte continues to connect the dots and shows how greater alcohol consumption ceases to be beneficial at a certain point, and instead starts to take its toll on your health:

“A compelling explanation of the dose region of adverse effects of the U-shaped curve with high ethanol consumption, which shows increased risk of these same diseases, could be the mechanism by which humans habituate to high consumption of ethanol.

The induction of the P450 hepatic microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system results in a considerably higher clearance rate of ethanol from the bloodstream for an extended period of time, thus accounting for more consumption leading to statistically less time of protection.

Small amounts of supplemental alcohol not sufficient to induce P450 might be expected to prolong the residence time and avoid gaps in the protection afforded by ethanol in preventing methanol-placed formaldehyde. “

P450 is a class, or family, of liver enzymes whose main functions include catalyzing the metabolism of drugs and the oxidation of organic substances.

In simplistic terms, higher alcohol consumption sends this system into high gear, and starts clearing ethanol from your system.

Again, a simplified explanation for how you become a habitual drinker (which also tends to lead to drinking increasing amounts of alcohol) is that the more you drink, the more efficient this ethanol-clearing system becomes, and you begin to be able to drink more before you notice the effects of the alcohol.

What this all means is that in order for the alcohol to provide you with the health benefit of preventing formaldehyde formation, it must be low enough to not activate the P450 system.

Hence you get a U-shaped curve, where low- to moderate alcohol consumption gives you increasing amounts of health benefits, until you reach the “threshold,” at which point the more you drink, the more harm it causes.

It’s important to realize that formaldehyde is a class 1 carcinogen and a mutagen, and in the form of methanol, it can easily be transported throughout your entire body and brain.

Wherever you have a lot of ADH1 (the enzyme metabolizes methanol to formaldehyde), such as in your brain, methanol can be particularly troublesome.

But as long as there’s just enough ethanol in your system to keep the methanol moving along, without ever being metabolized to formaldehyde, no damage is caused.

It’s worth noting here also that the average person typically has some naturally-occurring ethanol in their system, as it is also created through the fermentation process in your gut.

However, the addition of small amounts of ethanol in the form of alcohol may be able to more fully prevent formaldehyde from forming, which could explain why low- to moderate alcohol consumption appears to be even more healthful than total abstinence…

How Can You Get the Same Benefits Without Drinking Alcohol?

It is not my recommendation to start drinking alcohol or to use this information as a justification to continue drinking alcohol. I am not convinced it is physiologically beneficial for you in the long run.

The purpose of running this article was to merely inform you of a recent appreciation of methanol toxicity, and how ethanol can interact with it. If this theory is true then the primary benefit of using ethanol would be to prevent methanol from converting to formaldehyde.

So what is the main source of methanol in your diet?

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables have it but it’s harmless if you eat them fresh, as the methanol is then bound to pectin and cannot dissociate and cause you harm.

They key is to avoid ALL canned (or bottled) fruit or vegetable juices as they will have free methanol.  Another large source of free methanol would be aspartame which is 11 percent methanol by weight.

So if this theory is correct, you would likely receive very little benefit from consuming ethanol if you just avoid canned fruits and vegetables and asparatame…

Do You Drink Too Much?

It’s dangerous to place too much weight on recommendations that include imbibing alcohol on a regular basis. And even if you do take that recommendations to heart, it’s important to remember that health benefits have ONLY been found in people who drink small amounts of alcohol on a daily basis, NOT a week’s worth of alcohol over the weekend... 

This fact also further strengthens the theory that the benefit is derived from having low amounts of ethanol circulating almost continuously, or at least regularly, through your system, keeping formaldehyde from forming and doing any damage.

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse is a major problem in most countries, so I certainly hope you will not use this information as an excuse to hit the bottle every day.

Most alcohol misuse and abuse stems from deep emotional challenges. Addressing these issues at a deep level is imperative to avoid the negative health consequences--both physical and mental--that inevitably result from excessive drinking.

The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be helpful if this is an issue for you. This psychological acupressure technique is routinely used in my clinic and it works better than any other traditional or alternative method I am currently aware of.

However, if you try the technique yourself and find that you are not improving, consider consulting a trained EFT therapist to facilitate the process. You can find a list of qualified EFT practitioners near you at this link. For more information, feel free to review Pat Carrington’s site TappingCentral.