Our favourite poison

After recently writing a few posts seemingly promoting alcohol, I thought it apt to bring some balance with a brief description of what this particular alcohol, ethanol, does to the body and more worryingly, the mind with any benefits it may have.

We’re not that special in drinking alcohol for pleasure, it’s been about for a while. Eating fermented fruits was probably the beginning.  Then actually saving lives when water wasn’t drinkable or available: beers, gins, Mead, and wines.

You always remember having too much of your tipple when you have a crippling hangover. Most of this is just dehydration; you’ll remember going to the toilet a lot the night before – alcohol stops a hormone being produced in a little gland called the pituitary gland in the brain (vasopressin or antidiuretic hormone) which would normally tell the kidneys to keep some water.

The reason you’re still drunk for quite a while after you stop drinking, and why that hangover keeps hurting is because the stuff that breaks down virtually everything you eat and drink, transforming it into something useful, the magical enzymes, can only work so fast! If you did any biology in school or even chemistry, these biological catalysts speed up chemical reactions, and they’re quick, but when you’ve overwhelmed the poor guys with half a dozen Jaegerbombs half way through the night, it’ll take a while. Everyone’s different of course, which is why everyone is different with how much they can process alcohol; if you read my last post, you’ll know about DNA. Well, this is one factor in how much of these enzymes are produced, and at least half a dozen other factors controlling how much of this little ethanol molecule gets into your bloodstream.

It doesn’t take long for the little bugger to get to work – if you’ve got an empty stomach it’ll pass through the stomach lining meaning it’ll work its way to the brain quicker. This is where most of the ethanol’s effects take place. It’ll work its way across the brain, like I’ve described before, as it inhibits normal functions like behavior, inhibiting risks like social anxiety!

We seem to like to drink, linked to the good feeling we get from it at a basic chemical level – a little chemical in the brain called dopamine. It’s released by nerve cells so it’s called a neurotransmitter and it reinforces behaviors that cause it to be released. It’s also a part of addiction including to narcotics, explaining why people can so easily become addicted to alcohol. There’s that warming feeling we seem to get with alcohol: it makes the blood vessels in the skin come to the surface, so you’ll be nice and cozy on the outside. The problem is, this is the body’s mechanism for cooling down; hypothermia is an unfortunately common occurrence having had a lot of alcohol.

This infographic details nicely the effects of alcohol: physical, psychological and almost econographical.

There are the commonly publicized advantages of drinking some forms of alcohol. A generic benefit of moderate alcohol intake is a reduced risk of dying from heart disease, but I’m pretty sure not smoking and getting regular exercise would be a better way to achieve this. Red wine is often quoted as being healthy, which with high levels of polyphenols is sort of true, but again in moderation. These wonderful class of molecules are found in highest concentrations in red wine compared to other alcoholic drinks. This comprehensive article describes why a glass of red wine with your dinner should be encouraged!

Historically gin was a ‘healthy’ drink, much like beers were, being safer than drinking water in a lot of places, not to mention the tonic’s antimalarial properties undoubtedly saving many people. The defining ingredient of gin, the juniper berry, has loads of health benefits, like antioxidant and antimicrobial, which may help reduce effects of aging (e.g. wrinkles) and infections, respectively. However, I’m not sure there are necessarily any studies to show whether the concentrations required to have an effect would be completely outweighed by the drawbacks of alcohol consumption! Just have a regular portion of blueberries – they’re a sure-fire way to get your fix of health benefits. If you are choosing to have alcohol, gin is certainly a good drink to have if, like me, you’re diabetic: it’s low in both calories and sugar. Read all about gin here.

I don’t think I’d be outlandish to suggest to drink alcohol in moderation – as part of a healthy diet, seeking medical advice if on medication etcetera, etcetera. Get some good advice here. So enjoy a little alcohol, and perhaps if you’re drinking red wine or gin, you’ll live a bit longer. Like anything in excess, alcohol isn’t healthy, so be responsible!