Alcohol - The Anti Nutrient Factor

You are what you drink. What would you like to be?

Alcohol is one of the most powerful psychoactive substances known to man. The active substance present in alcohol is ethanol and this is manufactured by fermenting grains, fruits and sugar-containing substances.  Alcohol consumption in low volume produces a sense of wellbeing, reduces anxiety and promotes sociability. It is for this state of "euphoria" alcohol is embraced by an ever-increasing number of users. In higher volumes however it is a depressant and it causes drunkenness, stupor and may lead to unconsciousness and can be fatal. The long-term use can lead to physical dependence and alcoholism and this can bring much harm to the person, his family and society.

The consumption of alcohol is legal in many parts of the world and there are strict laws that control the use and sale of alcohol. This however has failed to overcome the 'scourge' which alcohol has become to consume the wellbeing of many people. In some countries, the use/sale of alcohol is banned completely for religious or social reasons. The term "dry" is used to indicate an area where it is illegal to use alcohol and Imphal area falls into this category. But the reality we face in the community is quite different as we all know that every 'leikai' has places where alcohol can be purchased any time of the day without too much of a problem.

The less well known issue to be discussed below is how harmful alcohol can be to nutrition. One gram of alcohol gives 7 calories but these calories in alcohol are called “empty calories” because they do not serve the purpose like the nutrients of the food that we eat. Alcohol consumption causes damage to the gastro intestinal tract and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from the food that we eat. About 20% of alcohol is digested in the stomach and the remaining 80% is absorbed from the small intestines and reaches the bloodstream. Metabolism of alcohol takes place in the liver, 90% of it is oxidized into aldehyde and acetic acid and this are the toxic substances that is harmful to the body. The remaining alcohol leaves the body in the form of urine, sweat and breathing.  Alcohol limits the supply of essential nutrients into the body by interfering with the digestion, storage, excretion and transport of nutrients. It inhibits the secretion of enzymes and causes a number of nutritional deficiencies.

Effect of alcohol on carbohydrates: Excessive consumption of alcohol leads to malabsorption of monosaccharide like glucose and disaccharides like lactose, maltose and this may lead to milk intolerance and fluctuation in blood glucose level.

Effect of alcohol on fat: Our ability to utilise body fat is reduced. Consumption of alcohol leads to increased blood lipid (hyperlipidemia) and this excessive fat causes fat infiltration of the liver and this can lead to cirrhosis. This hyperlipidemia is related to major cardiovascular diseases.

Effect of alcohol on proteins: Proteins are essential nutrients for cell growth and functions and alcohol use can impair this. Research has shown a reduction in muscle protein synthesis with alcohol intake.

Effect of alcohol on vitamins: Vitamins help in regulating a number of physiological functions but alcohol abuse will affect the ingestion, absorption and utilisation of this vital substance. Excessive consumption of alcohol leads to a deficiency of B complex and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and this may lead to many illness. This includes delayed clotting (vitamin K deficiency), poor eyesight (vitamin A deficiency), neurological problems to mention a few.

Effect of alcohol on minerals: Minerals like Calcium, Magnesium, Zinc and Iron are important in maintaining the proper function of many organs and participate as co-factors for enzyme activity. Alcohol abuse interferes with the important function of these minerals on cellular function and can result in undesirable symptoms like vomiting, gastrointestinal bleeding, including skin and bone health.

The consumption of alcohol damages many vital organs in the body and the liver is the most common organ affected. If uncorrected causes death due to cirrhosis and end stage liver failure. As stated above, fat deposition starts in the liver and this causes inflammation of the cells (alcoholic hepatitis) and progresses into cirrhosis when the liver cells are lost and replaced by scarred tissue. The common symptoms of liver failure are progressive jaundice, ascites (fluid in the abdomen) itching and ill health with vomiting and disturbed bowel function. The common complication of jaundice is kidney failure with decreased urine output and electrolyte imbalance making the situation far more serious.

A decline in brain function known as hepatic encephalopathy can occur due to failure of removal of toxins by the liver and kidneys. Cardiovascular problems such as hypertension, stroke, arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), ischaemic heart disease and cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart muscles) are very common in individuals with chronic alcohol abuse. A rare complication of Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency called Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome may be observed in this situation with diminished brain function, abnormal movement and peripheral sensation.

Maternal drinking is an important issue which should be strictly avoided as this not only affects the mother but also hinders the growth and development of the foetus. A condition called Foetal Alcohol syndrome is well known in this setting with birth defects and poor development of brain function. The requirement of improved quality and quantity of nutrition during pregnancy should be made clear to all concerned with the welfare of the child.

Alcoholism and misuse of alcohol can affect all aspects of our life. Long term alcohol use can cause serious damage to health, affecting virtually every organ in the body, including the brain. Problem drinking can also ruin your emotional stability, relationship with family and friends, career and finance. If your drinking is causing a problem in your life, then you have a drinking problem. This is an established fact that there is no end to problems created by alcoholism, it would be wrong to continue in this status quo and we must try to bring change.

Community leaders and responsible persons in the state should enforce and tighten the legal issues. Promoting awareness and counselling will also help in understanding the wider issues related to alcohol.  Our body sees alcohol as a toxin and not as a nutrient, so we are unable to store alcohol calories in the same way as food calories. Therefore, alcohol contains empty calories without nutritional value to the body.


First Published:Oct. 3, 2020, 7:54 a.m.

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