Studies conducted around the world over the past three decades or so might seem to indicate that moderate drinking may lower the risk of coronary artery disease and ischemic stroke, which are characterized by blocked blood vessels that supply oxygen to the brain. (1) Those same studies, however, also warn that the risk of bodily damage goes up dramatically as people drink beyond moderate limits and even more so if they drink to excess with any regularity.
The amount considered "moderate" is. three standard-sized cans of beer (12 fluid ounces) or 15 ounces of wine, not three snifter-sized glasses of wine filled to the brim. For distilled spirits, moderate means three 1.5-ounce "shots."
Overdrinking can directly damage the heart muscle cells, and breathlessness and fatigue may be early signs. Among the risks associated with overdrinking are hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, liver damage (Editor's note: see Nutrition Health Review #83), shrinkage of the brain, (2) enlargement of the pancreas (Editor's Note: see Nutrition Health Review #85), and forgetfulness.
Study findings are controversial for two reasons:
First, the findings affect both the leading cause of death (heart disease) and the third leading cause (stroke). (3) Together those two killers constitute about 40 percent of all deaths annually.
Would a few drinks save those people? No. Sixty percent of all heartrelated deaths and 25 percent of all deaths in general in the U.S. are attributed to these two conditions alone. These findings are significant.
Second, because alcohol increases the turnover of norepinephrine and dopamine as well as the production of beta-endorphin in the hypothalamus, and because it stimulates increased transmission of the nerve transmission inhibitor GABA, it generally impairs our judgment. (3) Therefore, we do not consider our intake seriously; we erroneously consider it harmless.
If our brain chemistry in good working order, however, we might recognize just how serious a drug alcohol is. For example, binge drinking tends to result in more abdominal fat and is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. (4) People who consume alcohol sporadically but intensely--more than three to four drinks per occasion--have the highest levels of abdominal fat, compared with even those who drink regularly but moderately. In a 2001 survey, approximately 20 percent of respondents aged 12 or older reported that they participated in binge drinking at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey. (5)
People who drink excessively are generally unable to absorb vitamin [B.sub.1] because of damage to the digestive system. Prolonged vitamin [B.sub.1] deficiency is generally marked by impaired memory, confusion, lack of coordination, amnesia, apathy, and disorientation. (6) Excessive drinking also leads directly to fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver, a condition that affects 10 percent of long-term alcohol abusers. Because of the irreversible damage caused, people with cirrhosis usually die within five years. (7)
As for the progression of drinking to overdrinking, a little leads to a lot very easily. Here are a few examples of blood alcohol content and their effects (8):
.03 to .12 percent: People become more self-confident and daring, their attention span shortens, and they might look flushed. Their judgment and fine movements, such as writing, suffer.
.09 to .23 percent: People become sleepy, have trouble understanding or remembering things, and do not react to situations quickly. Their body movements are uncoordinated, their vision becomes blurred, and they may have trouble hearing, tasting, or feeling.
.18 to .30 percent: People are confused and dizzy, and they may stagger. They may become highly emotional, cannot see clearly, and are generally sleepy. They have slurred speech and uncoordinated movements, and they probably do not readily feel pain. …