By Dr. Mercola
Alcohol acts as a depressant to your central nervous system, which means when you drink it your brain cells communicate at a slower rate than normal. The limbic system of your brain, which controls emotions such as anxiety and fear, is also affected.
As the function of your limbic system decreases, your inhibitions may disappear and you may become more outgoing and social.
The functioning of your prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with reasoning and judgment, also slows when you drink alcohol, leading to more impulsive behavior and (combined) sometimes-poor judgment.
At lower doses your body can still function under the influence of alcohol, but as the dose increases, so too do its effects. As you drink more, your behavior and judgment will become increasingly uninhibited, and your cerebellum, which plays a role in muscle activity, will also be impacted.
This is why, as you become more inebriated, you may lose your balance, feel dizzy and definitely shouldn't attempt to drive.
At high doses, the neurons in your brain that control your heart rate and breathing may slow down their communication to the point that your breathing stops completely, leading to death.1
Alcohol Leads to Different Effects in Different People
The same alcoholic beverage, whether it be a glass of wine or mixed cocktail, affects each person differently. Your body weight, ratio of muscle and fat, health status and even your genetic makeup will affect how much alcohol enters your bloodstream.
Whether or not you're eating will also affect this, as food in your stomach tends to reduce alcohol absorption. Interestingly, even your mood can affect how you feel when drinking alcohol, as it tends to make a bad mood worse.
Your mindset also plays a role, with research showing that even drinking "fake" alcohol can make people feel tipsy.2
Alcohol is also the most commonly used addictive substance in the U.S. It's estimated that 1 in 12 Americans suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence while several million engage in risky binge drinking patterns.3
Record Number of Americans Are Drinking Themselves to Death
Alcohol-related deaths reached a 35-year high in 2014, when more than 30,700 Americans died from such causes as alcohol poisonings and cirrhosis. This amounted to about 9.6 deaths from alcohol-induced causes per 100,000 people in 2014 — a 37 percent increase since 2002. 4
These numbers do not include deaths from alcohol-related homicides, drunk driving or other accidents. If those figures were included, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest alcohol-related deaths would be closer to 90,000. As reported by The Washington Post:5
"In recent years, public health experts have focused extensively on overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers, which have risen rapidly since the early 2000s.
But in 2014, more people died from alcohol-induced causes (30,722) than from overdoses of prescription painkillers and heroin combined (28,647), according to the CDC."
This isn't to say that prescription painkiller and heroin addiction isn't also an epidemic of major concern. A joint report by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed lethal heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2013.6
Between 2000 and 2010, heroin-related deaths rose at an average rate of 6 percent per year in the U.S. Then, from 2010 to 2013, the average annual increase suddenly jumped to 37 percent.
According to CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, opioid painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet increase your susceptibility to heroin addiction, and the report found that the vast majority — 75 percent — of heroin users started out on prescription painkillers.
Further, those who abuse prescription opiates have a 40 times greater risk of abusing heroin, and the widespread misuse of prescription painkillers is thought to be at the heart of rising heroin addiction and related deaths.
However, getting back to alcohol, the rise in alcohol-related deaths may be related to the steady rise in per capita alcohol consumption in the U.S. Nearly 57 percent of Americans drank at least monthly in 2014 (up from 55 percent in 2002).
A recent study published in Scientific Reports that compared the risks of recreational drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana found alcohol to be the deadliest of all on an individual level, and noted that "on a population scale, only alcohol would fall into the 'high risk' category."7
Hospital Visits for Alcohol Poisoning Double in Six Years
In England, hospital visits for alcohol poisoning have doubled since 1999, while emergency room admissions due to alcohol-related liver disease and other causes rose more than 50 percent in the last nine years, according to data from the Nuffield Trust.8
Rates of alcohol poisoning were highest among female teens aged 15 to 19, while emergency visits due to liver disease were highest among men aged 45 to 64. The figures are thought to be underestimated as they don't include admissions due to alcohol-related falls or fights.
Alcohol poisoning impairs your body and eventually can shut down the areas of your brain that control basic life-support functions like breathing, heart rate, and temperature control. Women are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning, in part because they have lower body water percentage in the body.
The average female has only 52 percent while the average male has 61 percent. Women also have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme designed to break down alcohol in the body, than men.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that men are completely safe from the dangers of alcohol poisoning, especially if binge drinking is involved. Below are some of the most common telltale signs of alcohol poisoning:
✓ Loss of coordination
✓ Cold, clammy hands and bluish skin due to hypothermia
✓ Vomiting repeatedly and/or uncontrollably
✓ Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths)
✓ Confusion, unconsciousness, stupor (conscious but unresponsive), and sometimes coma
Binge Drinking Plus Chronic Alcohol Use Is Especially Damaging to Your Liver
Drinking enough to bring your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g percent or above is considered binge drinking. Generally, this occurs when women consume four or more, or men consume five or more, alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period.
When binge drinking is combined with chronic alcohol use, it leads to liver damage that is more extensive than previously thought, according to research published in the journal Biomolecules.9 When mice were exposed to either chronic alcohol use or binge drinking, it led to moderate liver damage. However, when mice were exposed to both of these circumstances, the highest level of liver damage occurred.
This wasn't entirely surprising, but the extent of liver damage was: mice exposed to both chronic and binge alcohol had 13 times higher fatty deposits in their liver compared to the control group. Study author Shivendra Shukla, Ph.D., from the University of Missouri School of Medicine, told Medical News Today:10
"Drinking alcohol excessively can create an inflammatory response to the liver and other organ systems in the body. If those organs work at a lower level of function, then a whole host of physiological processes can be affected. It is important for us to understand the extent of damage caused by alcohol abuse, which also can lead to other health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer."
If you have a habit of binge drinking, simple text-message reminders may help you cut back. Young adults in a study on this received a series of text messages asking about weekend plans for drinking and expressing concern if excessive levels were mentioned.
The texts also suggested setting goals to limit or reduce alcohol consumption. Those who received the text interventions had a 12 percent reduced incidence of binge drinking.11 Even if you don't have a formal text message intervention available, you can try a similar program with a group of friends.
Can Fatty Liver Be Reversed?
Alcohol consumption is a leading cause of fatty liver, but non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) may also occur in people who are overweight or obese, have high cholesterol or high triglycerides, and who consume little or no alcohol. In either case, fatty liver can often be reversed by making lifestyle changes. If alcohol is the cause, you will need to abstain from alcohol while making further positive changes.
If you have NAFLD, the first step for treatment should be to limit your fructose consumption to under 15 grams per day (including from fruits.) Fructose is, in many ways, very similar to alcohol in the damage that it can do to your body — and your liver. Eating right and exercising can often prevent this condition and may even reverse it in its early stages. This is in part because it encourages weight loss.
In one study with patients who had advanced fatty liver disease, and who followed a diet and exercise program for one year, significant benefits were reported. Ninety percent of those who lost 10 percent or more of their body weight had a resolution in the condition while 45 percent had regression of fibrosis (scarring).12,13
Chronic Alcohol Consumption Disturbs Your Gut Microbes
Researchers are increasingly starting to recognize gut microbiota as one of your unappreciated "organs." It may be even more apt to view your body as a "super organism" composed of symbiotic microorganisms. Either way, there's no denying the powerful influence these microorganisms have on both your physical and mental health.
The bacteria in your gut may be considered among the most important however, due to their wide-ranging and cascading health effects. It's well known that altering the balance of bacteria in your digestive tract can weaken your immune system, for example.
And once your immune system is compromised, your body becomes far more vulnerable to all sorts of foreign invaders, inflammation and disease.
Even the National Institutes of Health cites research showing that "variations in the composition of microbial communities may contribute to chronic health conditions, including diabetes, asthma, obesity, and digestive disorders."14 Poor diet, stress, exposure to antibiotics, and chronic alcohol use all have the potential to disrupt your gut microbes.
For instance, research published in the American Journal of Physiology: Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology showed that chronic alcohol consumption results in alterations of the gut microbiome in a subgroup of alcoholics, which may result in an inflammatory state.15 So when considering the decision to drink alcohol, especially chronically, you need to consider not only your liver health but also the risk to your microbiome.
Is Moderate Alcohol Consumption Healthy?
The latest Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) scientific report, which forms the basis for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, suggests "moderate consumption of alcohol [is a component] of a beneficial dietary pattern in most studies."16
Whether or not moderate alcohol consumption can be safe and even healthy is controversial, with studies showing a mixed bag of results. For instance, research shows people who have one to two drinks a day may have a significantly reduced risk of death from heart disease and "all causes" compared to those who never drink alcohol.17
On the other hand, alcohol consumption may be associated with an increased risk of cancer, even at moderate levels of intake. The New York Times reported:18
"Synthesizing all this, there seems to be a sizable amount of evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and death. It also seems to be associated with increased rates, perhaps to a lesser extent, of some cancers, especially breast cancer, as well as some other diseases or conditions.
The gains from improved cardiovascular disease deaths seem to outweigh all of the losses in other diseases combined."
When it comes to alcohol, I generally define "moderate" alcohol intake (which is allowed in the beginner phase of my nutrition plan) as a 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer or 1 ounce of hard liquor, with a meal, per day. As you progress further in the nutrition plan, I do recommend eliminating all forms of alcohol.
If You're a Chronic Drinker, Try Exercise
Among 60 long-time drinkers, those who were the most physically active had less damaged white matter in their brains compared to those who were less active.19 The white matter is considered the "wiring" of your brain's communication system, and is known to decline in quality with age and heavy alcohol consumption.
In addition to helping protect your brain, if you know you're prone to alcohol abuse or have a family history of alcohol addiction, exercising regularly can greatly reduce your risk of becoming dependent. The cravings for alcohol can become all-consuming, and eventually an alcoholic does not feel "normal" until they've had a drink.
The alcohol abuse inevitably throws off your circadian rhythm — the normal times you eat, sleep and wake up — as well, leading to a downward spiral of health and emotional effects. When you drink, it chemically alters your brain to release dopamine, a chemical your brain associates with rewarding behaviors.
When you exercise, however, this same reward chemical is released, which means you can get the same "buzz" from working out that you can get from a six-pack of beer, with far better outcomes for your health.
For those already addicted, exercise is beneficial too, and may actually help to lessen cravings. Research has found, in fact, that hamsters that ran the most consumed less alcohol, while less active hamsters had greater cravings for and consumption of alcohol.20 By replacing drinking with exercise, you may find that the rewarding feeling you get from exercise provides you with a suitable alternative to the rewarding feeling you previously got from alcohol.
If You're Planning a Few Drinks, This Protocol May Help Lessen the Damage to Your Body
While I don't recommend drinking alcohol, if you know you'll be having a few drinks, take this natural protocol beforehand to help "pre-tox" your body:
1. N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)
NAC is a form of the amino acid cysteine. It is known to help increase glutathione and reduce the acetaldehyde toxicity21 that causes many hangover symptoms. Try taking NAC (at least 200 milligrams) 30 minutes before you drink to help lessen the alcohol's toxic effects.
If you're wondering just how powerful NAC can be, consider that, like alcohol, one way that Tylenol causes damage to your liver is by depleting glutathione. If you keep your glutathione levels up, the damage from the acetaminophen may be largely preventable. This is why anyone who overdoses on Tylenol receives large doses of NAC in the emergency room — to increase glutathione.
2. B Vitamins
NAC is thought to work even better when combined with thiamine, or vitamin B1.22 Vitamin B6 may also help to lessen hangover symptoms. Since alcohol depletes B vitamin in your body, and the B vitamins are required to help eliminate it from your body, a B-vitamin supplement taken beforehand, as well as the next day, may help.
3. Milk Thistle
Milk thistle contains silymarin and silybin, antioxidants that are known to help protect your liver from toxins, including the effects of alcohol. Not only has silymarin been found to increase glutathione, but it also may help to regenerate liver cells.23
A milk thistle supplement may be most useful when taken regularly, especially if you know you'll be having cocktails on more than one occasion.
4. Vitamin C
Alcohol may deplete your body of vitamin C, which is important for reducing alcohol-induced oxidative stress in your liver. Interestingly, one animal study showed vitamin C was even more protective to the liver than silymarin (milk thistle) after exposure to alcohol.24
Making sure you're getting enough vitamin C, either via supplements or food, is another trick to use prior to indulging in alcoholic beverages. Vitamin C is actually such a powerful detoxifier that if you take large doses prior to receiving dental anesthesia, the anesthesia will be significantly weakened and may not work!
Magnesium is another nutrient depleted by alcohol, and it's one that many are already deficient in. Plus, magnesium has anti-inflammatory properties that may help to reduce some hangover symptoms. If you don't eat a lot of magnesium-rich foods, taking a magnesium supplement before an evening involving drinking may be helpful.