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Alcohol Damage: Light Drinking Isn't Healthy 


Alcohol damage to the body isn't something that only regular drinkers and alcoholics have to worry about.

People like to think light or moderate drinking won't hurt them, and may even make them healthier. But at the end of the day alcohol is a poison, and ingesting small amounts of poison won't do you any good.

Humanity's drinking habit goes back a long way, but is not as natural as many presume.

Alcohol Damage: A Long History Of Illness

I was baffled, but not incredibly surprised, to run across a raw food restaurant in New York City that goes by the name "Pure Food And Wine". It serves not only an array of raw food dishes touted as the height of healthy cuisine, but also an extensive selection of alcoholic beverages, as if the two went together perfectly.

Over the years I've met many raw foodists and other healthy-eating advocates who maintain that alcohol consumption is natural and health promoting. Their reasoning usually involves the fact that man was brewing alcohol at the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago.

Great civilizations like the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all used diluted-alcohol as the major drink in their culture. Flip through the old and new testament and you'll find that virtually every reference to drinking pertains to alcohol use of some kind.

What most fail to understand, though, is that these cultures had no choice but to drink alcohol or abandon their settlements and return to the life of wandering hunter-gatherer tribes. After our species settled down to agriculture and food surpluses lead to population booms, the ever-growing amount of human waste we produced quickly polluted whatever water sources were in the area.

Based on how many people die of dysentery and other infectious diseases brought about by unclean water today, the toll on developing civilizations must have been staggering. Fermentation, however, our ancestors a solution: the antiseptic power of alcohol and the high acid content of beer and wine kill many pathogens, even when the beverages were diluted with potentially-contaminated water.

Although the Romans developed partial solutions to this problem with their sewage systems and aqueducts, it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that improved sanitation began making clean drinking water available to the average human living in a populated area.

Alcohol Damage: But Don't Animals Get Drunk?

Although some animals consume fermented foods, and there are anecdotal reports of them becoming drunk off fermented fruits, or even dying of alcohol poisoning, these are rare occurrences possibly linked to an animal not being able to obtain sufficient fresh food.

Among frugivorous primates, including our closest genetic relatives, the bonobos and the chimps, none seek out the overripe or fermented fruit which are common in the hot and humid tropical forests they call home. If they eat any fermented fruit at all, it appears to be accidental. A survey of 20 primatologists - who collectively represented thousands of hours of field research - found that none had seen an inebriated fruit-eating primate, but one had spotted a silky safafa - a large lemur that eats leaves and seeds - apparently showing some signs of intoxication after consuming fruit seeds that may have been toxic or attached to overripe fruit pulp (9).

Alcohol Damage: Why We Drink

Alcohol Damage PukeWhy do primates and many other animals avoid fermented fruit if they have easy access to it?

Most likely they, like us, are repulsed by the taste of fermented fruit flesh and juice. One study that asked humans eating mandarin oranges to rate their desirability and flavor found that 90 percent of the variation in flavor scores could be attributed to the amount of ethanol present (essentially, the more fermented the fruit was, the worse they thought it tasted) (10). Fruit bats also eat a lot less food when their fruit is higher in ethanol (alcohol) (9).

A human walking through a grape arbor might reach up and pick some delicious grapes, but if he accidentally grabs a smashed, fermented grape and pops it in his mouth, he'll quickly spit it out because he finds it repulsive.

Yet that same man might not think it odd to sip some wine at dinner because he's conditioned himself to endure the taste, and in some cases, even love it. However, it's clear we begin life with a desire to avoid alcohol. I've yet to see a child who savors his first sip of wine or taste of beer. Give a child fruit juice, though, and they'll be happy to drink it.

Some researchers see a connection here between our evolutionary past of fruit eating and our current alcohol drinking. One recent theory is that because early humans and our prehuman ancestors ate a diet that predominated in fruit - which contains at least a small amount of ethanol (alcohol) when ripe - but we've since switched to a mixed diet that includes little fruit, our urge to drink alcohol may be a vestigial evolutionary cue to go eat fruit (11).

Primatologist Katherine Milton disagrees with this idea because ethanol is only present in fruit in small quantities until it's overripe, and primates avoid overripe fruit. She notes that studies have failed to find any inherent nutritional wisdom in humans, and that our food choices are mostly based off learned preferences which are passed down through our families and societies. She also points out that our desire for alcohol despite other animals' avoidance of it may simply be based on the fact that we appear to be the only species to have developed such a high level of self-awareness. Other animals avoid alcohol because it tastes bad, but they're not trying to escape their own consciousness (9).

Alcohol Damage: Cancer In Every Sip

Today, science has pretty clearly established that alcohol is a carcinogen (cancer causer). Worldwide, alcohol is considered directly responsible for 3.6% of all cancer cases, 3.5% of cancer deaths (1), and is specifically linked to cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx and larynx (2), liver cancer (3), breast cancer (4), and stomach cancer (5).

In Europe, the huge ongoing European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer (EPIC) recently linked 10% of all cancers in men and about 3% of all cancers in women to previous and current alcohol damage, and found that even moderate drinking lead to cancer (6).

According to a statement on the study put out by Cancer Research UK, which helps fund the EPIC Study, "The cancer risk increases with every drink, so even moderate amounts of alcohol — such as a small drink each day — increases the risk of these cancers."

These finding echo recent research that also identified low to moderate drinking as a cause of cancer in British women studied under the The Million Women Study.

With a background incidence of 118 cancers diagnosed per 1000 women, researchers found that consuming 1 drink per day increased this risk by an extra 15 cancers per 1000 women, and 2 drinks a day increased it to an extra 30 cancers per 1000 women (7).

"From a standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer. There is no level of alcohol that can be considered safe (8)."
-Editorialists Michael Lauer, MD, and Paul Sorlie, PhD,
on the Million Women Study

Alcohol Damage: Putting On The Pounds

You've probably seen more than your fair share of beer bellies hanging over waistlines, one of the most overt signs alcohol damage.

Generally, drinking is presumed to cause weight gain because alcohol slows the body’s ability to burn fat for energy while acting as an appetite stimulant.

Drinking more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men is associated with extra fat around the waist (12).

Alcohol Damage: In Vino Veritas

Alcohol Damage BottlesDespite all of the above, you still hear plenty of people praising alcohol consumption, particularly wine.

The general line is that a drink a day will prevent heart attacks.

The truth is that no study has actually shown a causal link between light drinking and increased heart health, but merely that the two often go together, or are correlated. Researchers point out that the average moderate drinker tends to be more educated, eats better, exercises more, is more affluent, and generally has a bundle of factors that predispose him or her to better heart health than abstainers and heavy drinkers. No study has ever isolated drinking to see its effect outside of these other elements. Another problem is that the alcohol industry is now financing a number of studies designed to show off the benefits of alcohol (13).

Alcohol Damage: The Wrong Perspective

Alcohol is not actually heart healthy. Something that is heart healthy would have to demonstrate the ability to prevent or reverse the build up of the fatty plaque deposits in our arteries that lead to heart attacks and strokes, as a low fat vegan diet has been shown to do (14).

Alcohol simply has anti-clotting effects, which is a trait shared my many drugs, such as aspirin. Research has shown that moderate drinking is enough to thin the blood and thereby reduces heart attacks in populations that have clogged arteries brought about by the disease-promoting standard American diet.

But thinning out the blood, whether you do it with alcohol, aspirin or some other drug, is only necessary for the unhealthy. It's just another example of people trying to side step a symptom rather than addressing the underlying cause: diet and lifestyle.

Wine does contain beneficial compounds such as flavonoids and resveratrol, but these are found in the skin of fresh grapes as well as in berries and other plant foods. You don't need to drink wine to get them in your diet.

But simply put, using alcohol in an attempt to treat your heart disease is risky.

"To talk about alcohol as though it were some new prophylactic drug is ridiculous and dangerous. In a clinical trial it would fall at the first fence: it's addictive, it impairs neurological function, it increases the risk of violent death, suicide, hypertension, haemorrhagic stroke, cirrhosis, and many cancers and causes huge social problems (15)."
-Dr. Peter Anderson of the World Health Organization

Following Up:

If you want to avoid alcohol damage, get on a delicious and satisfying low-fat raw vegan diet that will protect you from heart attacks.

Find out what foods you should avoid and which you should embrace for optimal health here.

Learn how to escape the diseases that kill most people.

Alcohol Damage: Sources

1) Boffetta P, Hashibe M, La Vecchia C, Zatonski W, Rehm J (August 2006). "The burden of cancer attributable to alcohol drinking". International Journal of Cancer 119 (4): 884–7. doi:10.1002/ijc.21903. PMID 16557583.
2) World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research (2007). Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Cancer Research. ISBN 978-0-9722522-2-5. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
3) Voigt MD (February 2005). "Alcohol in hepatocellular cancer". Clinics in Liver Disease 9 (1): 151–69. doi:10.1016/j.cld.2004.10.003. PMID 15763234.
4) Dumitrescu RG, Shields PG. The etiology of alcohol-induced breast cancer. Alcohol. 2005; 35(3):213-225.
Benedetti A, Parent ME, Siemiatycki J (2009). "Lifetime consumption of alcoholic beverages and risk of 13 types of cancer in men: results from a case-control study in Montreal". Cancer Detect. Prev. 32 (5-6): 352–62. doi:10.1016/j.canep.2009.03.001. PMID 19588541.
6) Madlen Schütze, et al. "Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study." BMJ 2011;342:doi:10.1136/bmj.d1584 (Published 7 April 2011)
7) Allen N et al. Moderate Alcohol Intake and Cancer Incidence in Women. J Natl Cancer Inst 2009;101:296–305
8) Alcohol, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Treat With Caution. J Natl Cancer Inst 2009;101:282–283
9) Milton, Katherine.
10) Ahmad, M and I. Kahn. 1987. Effect of waxing and cellophane lining on chemical quality indices of citrus fruit. Plant Food Human Nutrition 37:47-57
11) Dudley, Robert. Ethanol, Fruit Ripening, and the Historical Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivory, Integrative and Comparative Biology, Aug 2004.
12) Dallongeville J, Marecaux N, Ducmetiere P, et al. Influence of alcohol consumption and various beverages on waist girth and waist-to-hip ratio on a sample of French men and women. J Obes. Relat. Metab. Disord. 1998;22(12):1178-1183.
13) Caryn Rabin, Roni. Alcohol’s Good for You? Some Scientists Doubt It. The New York Times. June 15, 2009
14) Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, McLanahan SM, Kirkeeide RL, Brand RJ, Gould KLCan lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet. 1990 Jul 21;336(8708):129-33.
15) Abdulla, S. "Is alcohol really good for you?". J R Soc Med 90 (12): 651. PMC 1296731. PMID 9496287. December 1997

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