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In vino veritas

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Alcohol has a reputation that is enhanced by a somewhat superficial understanding of what it actually does. You may know the legal limit of blood-alcohol content, that alcohol dehydrates and is a depressant, and that alcoholism is a serious and destructive illness. But let’s take a look at some of the things you may not know about alcohol.

o Toxicity. The body regards alcohol as a poison and wants to eliminate it from the system. To this end, it produces the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which turns alcohol into a non-intoxicating acetaldehyde, which is considered the cause of hangovers, along with dehydration. This is cleared away with the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase. This means that it’s a balancing act between
how much you can drink and how fast your enzymes can do their jobs.

o Young women are affected more. Indeed, young men may have up to 80 per cent greater alcohol dehydrogenase activity than women, although this decreases with age in both genders-and at a much greater rate in men than in women.

o What does a full stomach do? Food doesn’t ‘soak up’ alcohol. Food acidity in the stomach has to reach a certain level to trigger the opening of the valve leading to the small intestine, which can take an hour or two, thereby giving the alcohol enzymes time to detoxify the alcohol.

o Inherited tendencies. Flushing of the face and throat occurs because the alde-hyde dehydrogenase of those so affected differs by just one amino acid from the standard version. Approximately 40 per cent of Asians have this altered ‘clean-up’ enzyme.

o What about aspirin? Aspirin reduces your body’s alcohol dehydrogenase substantially while increasing blood-alcohol levels (JAMA, 1990; 264: 2406-8). This could raise your blood-alcohol level to above legal limits, and increase your chances of having a bigger and better hangover.

o Pacing yourself. If you think you’re okay at one drink per hour, think again. Blood-alcohol levels move through plateaus, and will also respond differently to drinks with more than 20- to 25-per-cent alcohol by volume (such as port wine). It may be useful to consult a blood-alcohol calculator (found on the Internet) before you go out drinking.

o What’s alcoholic amnesia? Although it’s speculated that the neuroreceptor N-methyl-d-aspartic acid may have something to do with memory function, it is firmly established that alcohol interferes with this receptor. It tops out at the serious 0.2-per-cent blood-alcohol level, which is when full-blown blackouts happen (Anesth Analg, 2004; 98: 408-13).

o Nightcaps. Many believe that alcohol gives them a good night’s sleep. Yes, it can help you fall sleep, but once you’re asleep, alcohol interacts with chemicals in the brain, causing fitful sleep and wreaking havoc with your essential REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. If you’ve also had caffeine (to sober up), it takes about 5 hours to break down half the dose you’ve had, so you’ll be dealing with it all night long.
u Longevity. Every three months or so, a study comes along suggesting that a glass
of wine, or some other alcoholic drink, will lengthen your life, provided you don’t overdo it. And here are the astonishing facts of the matter (Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 2010; 34: 1961-71): after “controlling only for age and gender, compared to moderate drinkers, abstainers had a more than two times increased mortality risk, heavy drinkers had 70-per-cent increased risk, and light drinkers had 23-per-cent increased risk”.

How is this possible? How does ingesting a psychoactive toxin known to increase your risks of cancer, dementia and liver disease actually increase your lifespan? The more popular theories focus on the antioxidant compounds and the polyphenol resveratrol found in wines, and on the studies showing that alcohol is associated with increasing levels of the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.

However, the link between living longer and alcohol may not be direct, but may instead be related to the long-term benefits of reducing stress (thereby eliminating
the vicious biochemical toxins that it produces), as well as the fact that alcohol facilitates ‘getting together’ and serves as a ‘social lubricant’.

But what does all this have to do with longevity? Epidemiologists and sociologists have recently begun to study the long-term effects of loneliness-and it turns out to be dangerous. We are social primates and, when we’re cut off from a social network, we’re more likely to die from almost anything-but, more especially, from heart disease (J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 2008; 63: S375-84).

Harald Gaier

VOL. 21 NO. 10

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