Bring Up Alcohol—What We Can Expect From Drinking

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This week will mark the beginning of summer season, along with the general opening of beaches and pools. And I’m probably not the first one to associate pool and beach with parties and alcohol, am I right? For some reason, alcohol becomes the drink of choice, and it does not matter if it is beer, wine, coolers, cocktails or distilled spirits. Everyone has their pick; as for me, I will pick cocktails any day. The taste of alcohol under a decent splash of grapefruit juice can be particularly well camouflaged, but beware that this ruse can trick more than just your taste buds. Nonetheless, before we can explain what I mean by that, we have some grounds to cover. 

Alcohol, most commonly, emerges from the fermentation of sugars by yeasts. The source of sugars varies between spirits which grant each of them their stereotypical flavour. As a result, the type of sugar used may also differ, and it could be sucrose, fructose or glucose. For example, we produce ale via the fermentation of malt with hops and thus mainly consist of glucose. Ale, although similar, is different from beer. We make beer through the brewing and fermentation of malted cereal grains and then it is flavoured with hops. As for bourbon, we create it out of a mash composed mainly of corn. We then distill the mixture and age it in oak barrels for at least two years. Corn contains a large amount of fructose. Lastly, we produce rum from the sucrose provided by sugarcane products (typically molasses or sugarcane juice). There are plenty of other drinking alcohols, but their description will stop here. If you are interested in learning more, you need only to mention it in the comment box.

The fermentation of sugars can produce ethanol and other types of alcohol, such as methanol and isopropyl alcohol. Do not be alarmed by these technical terms since you have all come across these types of alcohol before. Ethanol, in our daily life, is called drinking alcohol. We can find methanol in antifreeze products and gasoline. As for isopropyl alcohol, you may already be aware that it most commonly runs under the name of rubbing alcohol. Each of us has probably at least one bottle at home; I know I do. 

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All these alcohols share mostly the same properties. They are potent antiseptics and disinfectants. Hence, their incorporation in many medical products aimed at eliminating microbes and fungi. Hand sanitizer gels and disinfecting pads are excellent examples of this. Hand sanitizer gels are mainly composed of ethanol or rubbing alcohol (60–70%), while the rest is mostly water. Also, all these alcohols have some well-sought psychoactive properties. They are drugs that cause an inhibition of the activity in the central nervous system. This depressant effect can produce sedation, decreased anxiety, muscle relaxation, pain relief, physical euphoria, appetite enhancement, and this list is far from exhaustive. 

Although this list seems quite attractive, let’s not be fooled; all good things come at a cost. The cost of overindulging here is the infamous hangover. We can all remember our last hangover; it is not a pleasant affair. There is a cascade of side effects such as fatigue, weakness, thirst, headache, and muscle ache. These are all related to the dehydrating effects of alcohol, further enhanced by increased sweating and more frequent urination (pee). However, if your consumption was even greater, you probably remember other things happening like nausea, stomach aches and maybe vertigo. These were all warnings; if you do not know this yet, well! News flash, ethanol is toxic. When our liver breaks down alcohol, it creates toxic metabolites. In a moderate amount, the liver can manage the breakdown of these metabolites even further, reducing their overall toxicity until their removal. 

Yet, in excessive amounts, the liver is overworked. Thus, it can no longer provide for the total amount of work it is given. It becomes forced to prioritize the breaking down of alcohol, thus letting metabolites roam free. Only when we stop our alcohol consumption—and finish processing all the consumed alcohol—can the liver be available again to break down metabolites. And while metabolites reign free, our body wants to eliminate them, so we pee and sweat.

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Nonetheless, drinking alcohol is far from the only one that we designate as toxic. Methanol and isopropyl alcohol are unquestionably more toxic and can lead to some serious, potentially lethal, health problems. Since methanol can also produce desirable effects like anesthesia, people who cannot afford ethanol products will be prone to buy methane-containing products for their high. Thus, to prevent people from drinking methanol, the EU has banned in May 2018, the use of methanol in windshield washing and defrosting products. 

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Although the risk for fatality is a sufficient enough reason to restrict methanol’s availability, there still exist more reasons to support similar efforts. Methanol use comes with an additional lot of danger, particularly to the central and peripheral nervous systems. Some side effects related to its excessive or routinely consumption can appear from damages to the optic nerve. These injuries can lead to irreversible blindness. It can also be damaging to some critical regions of the brain responsible for movement. These damages can cause parkinsonism. Beware that parkinsonism is not Parkinson’s disease, yet some of their symptoms are the same. More damage to the brain may also lead to the development of encephalopathy. Encephalopathies display a series of cognitive symptoms like memory loss, confusion and personality change. Lastly, damages that extend to the peripheral nervous system may cause muscle weakness, numbness and pain.

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Let’s add that, although the toxicity of ethanol is much lower than that of methanol, we should overlook the long-term adverse effects that its overconsumption has on health. The excess and constant stress created by the high demand for the metabolism of alcohol competes with the metabolism of fats and can lead to irreparable liver damage. The liver, in each case, is often forced to store fat in the liver cells, which can cause tissue death. The dead hepatic cells become replaced by scar tissue, which leads to cirrhosis. Excess drinking may also cause damage to the brain, which may lead to amnesia or memory loss. Overindulging is also strongly correlated with the appearance of cancer. One of the metabolites created from the alcohol breakdown is acetaldehyde, which is a well-established carcinogen. Yet, if you thought that it could not get worse, think again. Alcohol usage is strongly proscribed for pregnant women, as its ingestion leads to the formation of certain birth defects. Indeed, consuming alcohol while having unprotected sex will dramatically increase the risk for the baby to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome. 

Lastly, although ethanol must be taken in moderation—to avoid, at least, hangovers or, worst, severe health issues—, it can be a valuable tool to treat some conditions. In addition to its typical use in hand sanitizer gels and antiseptic wipes, ethanol can also be an antidote for methanol poisoning. One of the enzymes responsible for breaking down alcohols, alcohol dehydrogenase, has a stronger affinity to ethanol than methanol. This affinity to ethanol means that this enzyme will prefer metabolizing the ethanol leaving methanol intact in the presence of both products. Methanol is mostly entirely eliminated intact, which efficiently reduces toxicity.

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.

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