More than the bottle: Debunking suspected health implications of liquor intake

Flipping through the pages of history, drinking alcohol has always been a practice of human society. Present in ancient societies all around the world, the oldest alcoholic drink comes from a Chinese village in the Henan province in 7,000 to 6,500 BC. From wine in ancient Rome to the Pulque in Pre-Columbian America, societies have developed their own alcoholic beverage for social and cultural gatherings like celebrations and meetings. As such, for varying purposes, the consumption of alcoholic beverages contributes to its widespread use and popularity. 

Today, as society grows more conscious about vices and their health implications, alcohol has often come under the spotlight for debate on whether the risks of consuming alcohol outweigh its purported benefits.

As drank by many

Alcohol comes in different types—like tequila, beer, soju, and wine—each having their own respective production processes. Beer comes from malt and seed cones, vodka from potatoes, and wine from fruits with high sugar content. Despite the varieties, the sole chemical compound responsible for giving life to an otherwise bland mixture of water and various ingredients is ethanol or ethyl alcohol, which is formed from fermentation, the anaerobic breakdown of glucose sugar.

With liquor greatly intertwined with culture, anyone can find it on just about any occasion. Liquor intake, however, is seen as a vice associated with accidents, crimes, and health problems. A global status report published by the World Health Organization in 2018 linked alcoholic intoxication—defined, as per the law, as a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent—to impaired alertness, aggression, and violence. 

In an interview with The LaSallian, Biology Department Assistant Prof. Lecturer Dr. Eligio Maghirang cites that alcohol intoxication can affect the cerebral cortex, the portion of the brain that controls language and thinking, possibly leading to poor judgment and unregulated actions. However, the relationship between intoxication and BAC levels, as well as the corresponding effects, would not necessarily be fixed for everyone, and is better thought of as a range that is influenced by other factors like genetics and body weight. Rather, the symptoms exhibited by the individual follow a continuum that progressively worsens at higher BAC levels, but some may already reel from altered behavior and cognitive functioning even at lower concentrations.

Deep inside the alcohol

While ethanol is the essential component of any alcoholic drink, according to Chemistry Department Associate Professor Dr. Nancy Lazaro-Llanos, other components collectively called congeners can add characteristic flavors, with some contributing to getting hangovers—which involve symptoms like confusion, headaches, and vomiting.

When an individual drinks alcohol, about 10 percent of the ethanol is excreted through sweat, saliva, or urine, whereas 90 percent is processed by the body’s metabolic activities. Ethanol enters the bloodstream and eventually can get circulated to organs like the liver and the brain. When it reaches the brain, ethanol decreases the activity of the central nervous system by slowing the intercellular communication processes, or the transmission of signals and information, between neurons. Meanwhile, when the chemical reaches the liver, it is broken down into products which, in combination with other drugs, can become toxic to the body.

When drinking frequently and in great volume, an individual tends to develop metabolic tolerance, or the ability to handle greater ethanol intake without being intoxicated. Lazaro-Llanos clarifies this, stating, “Metabolic tolerance only means that you can process ethanol faster, but the undesirable products of ethanol breakdown are still there.” The brain eventually raises the threshold for “normal” alcohol intake; if left unchecked or unmonitored, an individual may develop dependence on and addiction to alcohol.

High risks

Ethanol has its uses as a disinfectant to kill certain microorganisms like bacteria and viruses on surfaces; it, or alternatively isopropyl alcohol, is the major component of commercial hand sanitizers and rubbing alcohol. 

On the other hand, Maghirang says that consuming ethanol and alcoholic beverages is mainly for the “social” aspect of drinking, rather than from a medical or health-oriented perspective. One should remember to regulate or limit alcoholic consumption, such as during social gatherings or special occasions, so that excessive or “risky” levels of intake—drinking too much, too often—can be avoided.

Maghirang puts it this way: “Alcohol [may have] this [perceived benefit], but when you have another agent with a more potent effect [and] with less risk, you would go for that [alternative].” In this sense, evaluating the medical risks versus the social benefits of alcohol consumption remains important, in consideration of each individual’s specific context, such as medical history and current state of health. For instance, it is still better to abstain from drinking for people with pre-existing medical conditions or who may be taking other medications which can have adverse interactions with alcohol, possibly leading to severe health consequences.

Despite moderate liquor intake being reportedly linked to reduced low-density lipoproteins—the cholesterol that hinders blood flow by accumulating within the walls of one’s arteries—Lazaro-Llanos emphasizes that there are healthier food options that also minimize health risks, reduce cell damage, and lower blood pressure. “There are plenty of risk-free food products that increase HDL (high-density lipoproteins or ‘good cholesterol’) or [that] can be a rich source of antioxidants. Knowing some of the benefits one can get from drinking alcoholic beverages is really for the satisfaction of the consumer that at least one is getting something good out of it,” she comments.

Additionally, alcoholic beverages do not usually contain essential nutrients like proteins, vitamins, and nutrients—only providing “empty” calories that could eventually accumulate as body fat, Lazaro-Llanos notes. Excessive drinking within a short period of time may also lead to detrimental effects on the body, such as a decrease in breathing rate and heart rate, along with heightened risk for developing heart problems and organ damage in the long run.

“The more you drink alcohol, the more you are at risk to health problems,” Maghirang stresses, explaining that the cumulative consumption of alcohol raises the possibility for developing liver cirrhosis, or inflammation and degeneration of liver tissue, and potentially liver cancer.

It should be stressed that liberal alcohol intake could negatively affect one’s well-being and health. As a recreational drink that alters behavior and sensation, liquor—regardless of one’s capacity to consume—must be taken in moderation. 

ERRATUM: May 20, 2020, 4:40 pm

In the previous version of this article, congeners were incorrectly stated to reduce hangovers instead of causing them; 90 percent, rather than 10 percent, of ethanol was wrongly attributed to being excreted; the term “alcohol poisoning” was mistakenly used when ethanol is not poison; and Dr. Lazaro-Llanos was misquoted for her closing statement. The article has since been revised to reflect these corrections. The publication apologizes for the oversight.

ERRATUM: May 23, 10:00 am

The previous version of the article took out of context Dr. Maghirang’s comments concerning misconceptions, risks, and benefits of alcohol consumption, as well as misinterpreted an analogy given on disinfectants and pain relievers. The article has since been revised for clarity.

Lance Fernando

By Lance Fernando

Ryan Lim

By Ryan Lim

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